An Unlikely Survival
Although I no longer fly airplanes my passion for it still runs hot in my blood. I spent a little over 2,000 hours of my life piloting small airplanes and they are among the most precious hours of my life. During those hours I had many occasions to learn the truth of the above quote. This story is an account of one of those times. In this instance, unlike the hapless pilot above, I was “forgiven” and spared from being responsible for injuring or killing myself and five other people who entrusted their life to me.
In the waning days of the 1970’s I was a newly-minted Private Pilot obsessed with finding ways to pay for my newly-found passion. Since I also had a lovely wife and four kids who depended upon me I had very little “extra” money to spend on something as “foolish” as renting an airplane just to go “play with” puffy cumulus clouds. Our youngest son, eleven years old at the time, loved flying as much as I and I soon saw that he had a natural aptitude to be a pilot. (He has been a pilot for American Airlines for many years now.) He almost always flew with me and had become my unofficial but capable co-pilot.
Soon after getting my pilot’s license I joined a flying club that owned two airplanes. One was an aging Cessna 172 which I typically flew. The other was a sleek, powerful Cessna 206 that was capable of carrying six passengers and their luggage. It was classified as a “High Performance” airplane and was a beauty. Her instrument panel was loaded with electronic “toys” not found in the 172. I longed to fly it but since it cost twice as much as the 172, I could seldom afford it.
My colleagues knew I was a pilot. (Being a new pilot giddily in love with flying it was difficult to be around me more than fifteen minutes and NOT know I was a pilot.) It was not surprising when one day two of my colleagues asked me if I could fly them to Blacksburg VA to attend a one-day seminar. Blacksburg was some 450 miles away making it an impossible one day trip by car or commercial air service. I immediately thought of the 206 I longed to fly. For that plane it would be all in a day’s work. With that spurring me on I put on my most confident face and told my colleagues, “Sure, no problem. We can leave early in the morning and be home for a late dinner.” The university would pay them mileage expense as if they were driving and they would turn it over to me. I had just been handed a gift of several hours of flying time in that big, powerful, handsome Cessna 206. I began to plan my flight. Since the 206 could carry six passengers I saw no reason why I couldn’t take my wife and our two youngest sons along for the ride. The youngest to act as my “co-pilot” and learn more about the art of flying; my wife and other son just for the fun of it.
Only a few months earlier my instructor had said to me as he handed me my Private Pilot’s License, “Here’s your ticket to go learn how to fly an airplane.” In the few succeeding months that “ticket” had been barely used. My confidence far exceeded my abilities. In loading the airplane I placed the two male professors in the far back seat, my wife and older son in the middle two and my “Co-Pilot” son next to me. As we began rolling down the runway I could tell I was piloting a heavy airplane but I got it into the air with no problem and set our course for Virginia.
It was a glorious, cool morning for sight-seeing as the flat terrain of northwestern Ohio gave way to the more rugged West Virginia Appalachians. The air was smooth, the sky a clear blue. What little radio communication was necessary was being well-handled by my son. Life was good. But small airplanes are rather cramped and do become uncomfortable for passengers after a couple of hours so I planned a “rest stop” about midway through the trip. As we approached the airport I had picked for our rest stop I noticed the plane wasn’t acting the way it was “supposed to.” When a pilot reduces power to the engine the nose ordinarily begins to point downward. When the plane was over the end of the runway I did what I’d been taught to do – I pulled the throttle all the way back, reducing the engine to idle power. When I did that the nose of the plane immediately and aggressively pointed upward. My mind raced, “This is crazy. Cut the power and the nose points down,” I had been taught. Now with the engine idling I was having to force it down by pushing forward on the control wheel. I pushed with all my strength. The nose was NOT coming down. Nothing in my training had prepared for anything like this. I had become an unofficial, unwilling test pilot.
My “co-pilot” and I were wearing radio headsets. We could talk to one another without our passengers hearing us. I said rather urgently to him, “Help me push the wheel forward. We have to get that nose down.” With our combined effort we pushed the control wheel all the way forward (which is exactly opposite of how it’s done in a normal landing). We literally forced the wheels onto the runway and taxied to the parking area. My passengers were unaware of how strange a landing that was and I didn’t say anything about it. Frankly I had NO IDEA what had just gone wrong – why that nose didn’t want to point downward. It contradicted everything I knew about an airplane’s behavior. In my lack of experience I concluded it was some sort of anomaly, totally ignoring a maxim that keeps pilots alive: “If something FEELS wrong, something probably IS wrong.” After a brief rest stop I had the fuel tanks topped off and we took off again without incident for the second, shorter leg of the trip. I made a perfectly natural landing at our destination. The airplane did exactly what it was supposed to do. That reinforced my belief that what had happened earlier was due to some anomaly.
The professors went to their meeting while my wife, kids and I strolled around, had lunch and enjoyed the Appalachian scenery while the airport fuel jockeys refilled the fuel tanks. The professors returned in the late afternoon. Everyone got back into their assigned seats looking forward to a pleasant trip home. It was late summer and the temperature was considerably hotter than it had been that morning in northwestern Ohio. Blacksburg’s airport is in the Appalachians at a higher altitude than my home airport in Ohio. The 206 didn’t have A/C, as soon as all six of us got in and closed the door the cabin became uncomfortably hot. We were anxious to get up into the sky where it would be cooler.
As the plane began rolling down the runway for takeoff I noticed it was sluggish, more reluctant to leave the runway than it had been. Much further down the runway than usual its wheels came off the runway and began climbing as slowly as a punch-drunk fighter rising from the canvas. This was not good. An ominous Appalachian mountain was about four miles dead ahead and at this rate we wouldn’t be able to fly over it.
When I urged the plane to climb a little faster by pressing backward on the control wheel I heard an obnoxious buzz in my headset. Obnoxious and . . . frightening. It was the stall warning “horn” saying “Don’t do that!” (All planes have some sort of device to warn the pilot that he is about to stall and fall out of ther sky.) My son could also hear it in his headset and understood what it meant. We exchanged meaningful looks. There was nothing he nor anyone could do to help me this time. For the next couple of minutes I walked a tightrope. Pull back too hard and the stall warning buzzed; not pull back hard enough and the plane headed straight and level toward the mountainside in front of us. Little by little, using my hands as delicately as a brain surgeon, I gingerly persuaded the plane to turn away from that tree-covered mountainside and continued a long, slow climb. The higher we got the better the plane climbed. After many minutes passed we were happily cruising thousands of feet above the tree and rock-covered Appalachian Mountains. On the way home I thought back on what had happened during that long, slow climb. Like the strange landing on the way down I couldn’t figure out why the plane climbed so lethargically.
“Incapacity,” . . . “Carelessness” . . . “Neglect” . . . I had been guilty of all three. “Incapacity?” As is true of many beginners in any endeavor my passion far outweighed my abilities. I honestly did not have enough experience to fly that airplane with a full load of passengers. “Carelessness.” My lust to fly that particular airplane inspired me to load the plane the way I wanted to rather than checking passenger weights and loading it properly. I had ignored the need to balance the load in the airplane. It was terribly tail heavy. The misplaced weight of two grown men in the backseat was counterbalanced by the weight of two full fuel tanks in the wings. As we burned fuel that counterbalancing force became weaker and the plane became increasingly tail heavy. When developing full power the engine was strong enough to keep the tail from sagging downward but when I reduced power to land it no longer held the tail up. The nose pitched upward and would have stalled in a matter of seconds had I been unable to push the yoke forward enough.
But why did the plane, which had taken off so well in the morning so stubbornly resist taking off in the afternoon? Because of “Density Altitude,” a phenomenon I had studied and been tested over. Hot air is thinner than cold air. And almost everyone knows that the air is thinner in high altitude than on the plains. When we left Ohio in the early morning the air was cool and the airport only a few hundred feet above “sea level.” Although it was overloaded the 206 had enough power to get off the ground in the “thicker” air. Late that afternoon the air was hot and the Blacksburg airport at a higher altitude. The 206 couldn’t get enough wind beneath its wings to carry the same load it did in the morning because the air was thinner. Once it rose a few yards above the runway another pilot’s gremlin called “Ground Effect” took over. For some reason an overloaded airplane will rise off the runway and climb a few yards into the sky but then either refuse to climb any higher or climb very slowly. My incapacity, neglect, and carelessness had allowed me to put the 206 into “Ground Effect.”
We had an uneventful flight home. None of my passengers realized what a perilous experience they had survived. I don’t know exactly when I figured out what the problems were on that flight. Those were not the last mistakes I made as a pilot. I lived on after that day to fly hundreds of hours and in the process “learn how to fly an airplane.” I was greatly blessed throughout all those hours and most blessedly, was spared the horror of being responsible for injuring or killing people due to my carelessness, incapacity, and neglect. For that I do not credit “luck,” “fate” or some sort of “karma.” I credit and give thanks to God.
About the author
Oh my goodness!!! I was definitely on the edge of my seat the entire way through this story. It is very well done, and certainly worth sharing. Just remind me never to sit in the back of an airplane and to never ride in a small one! I rode in a helicopter once in my life, and you could not pay me to do it again. Great story!
Thank you for taking time to read my story, Sue, and I'm grateful that you enjoyed it. I know this comment, though true, doesn't satisfy folks who fear flying but statistically you are much less likely to be hurt or killed in an airplane than in a car. The "fault" in my near tragedy was not with the airplane or process of flying, it was in what I did. The lesson I suppose, is: "Never ignore what you know to be the right thing to do." Guess that holds true in ALL situations in life. :-)