Monday, August 21, 2006

My Closest Call

People often ask me whether I ever came close to crashing. If they're not pilots, I usually laugh and say I've had a pretty boring career. Aviation gets enough of a bum rap without my sensationalized stories. That said, every pilot that's been around for very long has scared themselves a time or two. The fact that they've been around very long means they've learned from their mistakes.

The closest I came to making an agricultural real estate purchase was just after I got my private pilot's license, when I was 17. It was the summer between my junior and senior years of high school, and I was working at a lumber yard in Milaca, MN. I was good friends with several coworkers who were my age, and they had been begging me to take them flying. We finally made plans for an after-work excursion to Grand Casino Hinkley for a buffet dinner. It would be a quick 30 minute flight in a Cessna 172.

At this point I had my PPL for perhaps 5 months. During my training, I had flown the C172 a few times, but didn't get officially checked out until shortly before this flight. I had never flown a 172 anywhere near max gross weight, which this flight was right at. Additionally, Milaca had a fairly short grass strip with tall evergreen trees on all sides. I worked the performance calculations and concluded that there was more than enough space to take off. I also ran through the soft field procedures, reminding myself to get the nosewheel off the ground as soon as possible and lift off at a slow speed to accelerate in ground effect.

After picking up my companions in Milaca, I taxied to the very end of Runway 34, did a rolling runup, and was mindful to not stop as I turned around and advanced full throttle. The airplane was quite sluggish - it was 400 lbs heavier than I'd ever flown it - but the nose came up quick due to the aft CG. I was quite aware of the tall trees on the end of the field, so I breathed a sigh of relief when the airplane lifted off and began climbing.

My first indication that anything was wrong was the stall horn going off. My eyes flew to the airspeed indicator, and my heart jumped into my throat when I realized it was registering below 50 knots. Simultaneously, my peripheral vision began picking up trees to our left side...very, very close. There was little time for fear, only to react. I very gingerly lowered the nose and put the airplane in a shallow coordinated turn to the right. For the first time, I caught sight of just how close the trees were to my wingtip. It was close. Slowly I drifted back to the center of the runway as the airplane accelerated a few feet above the grass. By the time I reached Vx, I had just enough runway left to climb over the treetops at the end.

This whole time seemed to pass fairly slowly and I was almost detachedly observing what was happening. I was living by seconds and inches and minute control movements. It wasn't until the danger was past that the adrenaline swept over me. I realized what just about happened and what an idiotic mistake I'd made to cause it, and I felt physically ill. Chills swept over me and I started shaking. This was at about 500' above the ground. "I just about killed us!" I mumbled to my passengers, who up to this point hadn't even realized anything was wrong. It took a while to compose myself to the point that I felt comfortable continuing the flight.

My mistake, of course, had been that I lifted off at a slow speed proper for a soft field takeoff, but failed to accelerate prior to further climb. The slow speed plus my heavy weight meant I was at a much higher angle of attack than I was used to, and I didn't compensate for the additional P-factor with enough right rudder. I found myself near a stall in uncoordinated flight perilously close to the tops of 80' trees. The fact that I did everything perfect in the recovery was small comfort.

That flight haunted me for a while. The particular moment that I saw the trees next to my wingtip replayed often in my mind. Earlier advice from my flight instructor stuck with me, though. He had said, "Every pilot, no matter how good they are, makes mistakes. What separates the good ones is that they learn from every mistake, every flight." As I've gained experience, I've come to realize how true those words are. I'm continually finding ways to make new mistakes (not as bad as this story, mind's still safe to fly my airline!). But analyzing those mistakes and coming up with ways to avoid repeating them has made me a much safer pilot.


Jason said...

I had a related incident myself shortly after getting my private license.

I was helping a friend pick up his airplane from a nearby turf strip. I flew us in with a C-172 and dropped him off. I knew the strip was a short one so I use soft and short field technique to depart. I came closer than I'd like to admit to brushing the trees on the departure end - enough so that I was actually unsure I'd clear them at one point.

I've never forgotten that take-off and now have a healthly respect for setting personal minimums with some buffer in them.

Anonymous said...

Thanks for the story. We all have had "close calls." All you can do is learn from them and move on. I always will remember the day that I turned off the fuel on a Cherokee 140 inflight and thought that I was experiencing an engine failure. Lucky for me, just a couple of days before, my instructor had told me that when things go wrong, go back to what you had just done and make sure that you did not make a mistake. Also, I learned that there is a reason that as a professional pilot, we look and even point at an item ona checklist as we do it.

Thanks Sam.... Andrew ASA FO

Anonymous said...

I learned to fly in rural Michigan where in the winter a fully loaded Cessna 172 could climb like it was being chased by something much larger than it.

Then I moved to Texas and started instructing down here. I've had the living crap scared out of me a few times when I've put the power up only to see 25" of manifold pressure on takeoff, then I got even more scared when I deparred in my Seminole and was only climbing at 200' per minute.

Hard lessons learned are the best remembered.