When Legal Isn't Safe

Know your limitations and the airplane's before you fly

April 1, 2002

Would you take off on a clear day in a Cessna 172, when you haven't flown anything smaller than a Citation X in more than two years? (Hey, they're both Cessnas, right?) Would you take off in low visibility into hard IFR, with an instrument competency check that is five months old and no other instrument time to your credit in the past year?

There are times in life when we are faced with difficult decisions. The go/no-go, should-I/shouldn't-I decision in flying is often one of these. Over the years we develop our own standards for making these decisions, but quite often, at the end of the day, we come back to the simple concept — "well, it's legal." However, there are many times when legal simply isn't good enough — when legal isn't necessarily safe.

How do you make the jump from legal to safe? Let's take a look at how a few friends handled it.

How to make an emergency into a nonevent

My intrepid flight instructor friend Josh was out practicing stalls one day when the engine quit in a brand-new Cessna 172. Nothing like reading "McCauley" on the back of a propeller in flight to get your complete attention. Stalls were supposed to be aerodynamic, not mechanical — or so Josh thought. Besides, engines don't just quit in new airplanes.

Josh's preflight planning had put him over a 2,200-foot strip. While he was spiraling down toward the strip, Josh ran through his engine-out procedures and the checklist with no success. Josh wasn't panicking; he was thinking: "Runway's getting big, better make a decision — continue trying to restart or commit to landing."

As he was setting up for his unplanned landing, he tried one last thing. He slid the throttle to full, the mixture to idle cutoff with the fuel pump off — a flooded start procedure. He lowered the nose for some speed, the prop began to turn, and the engine came back to life — Josh along with it. He still landed at his emergency strip, but now it was because he wanted to.

For most of us, this would have been a major emergency, but given how well Josh was prepared, it was only a minor inconvenience that made for a great story back at the FBO. When I heard Josh's story, I was very impressed with his professional, logical approach to the problem and how he solved it. Then I paused to think about the situation. (Visualize Joey on the sitcom Friends trying to figure something out.)

Reflecting upon Josh's story, would you and I have been current enough to make his engine problem a nonevent? For some of us, moving from a Cessna 152 to a 172 is a challenge that we train for. Others of us think, "I fly a (enter name of bigger airplane here), and even though I haven't touched one in five years I can always fly a 172."

It's not always as easy as it looks

Even though I was current, I clearly wasn't completely comfortable in the 172. But when my friend Chuck confidently said, "Your airplane," I took control and nothing bad happened. Great. I had been itching to fly a small airplane for a while and this was my big chance.

We entered the pattern at Independence, Oregon, and everything was great, downwind, base, and final. I vaguely remembered something about 80 knots in the pattern and 70 knots on final — everything was still great.

I thought my first landing was uneventful, maybe even a greaser. I asked Chuck if he had any suggestions for the next trip around the pattern, expecting a "no, that's great." My fantasy was rudely interrupted when Chuck remarked in his best deadpan, "Well, I probably wouldn't flare above the rooftops again." Not so great.

I had flared so high that I had time to drop the nose, pick up speed, and flare again. Do not, I repeat, do not try this at home, or with someone's airplane that you care about. The landing was saved, but opinions vary as to whether this was because of skill or luck. It certainly takes a great deal of something to screw up a landing like that and end up with a greaser.

My next two landings weren't bad, but unfortunately I choked on the last landing of the day. I was getting closer — this time I flared at about basketball-rim level. Unfortunately, this left me too low for my patented flare, drop, and flare again method. I don't know how Michael Jordan gets down from there without hurting himself, because I sure couldn't. It's one of those landings where you feel bad for the airplane and want to buy it a beer afterward. The difference between these two outings in the same Cessna 172? I was legal, Josh was safe. When I added Chuck to my flight crew I jumped from just legal to safe. Did I have to go with Chuck? No. But was I better for it? Yes. And of course, my performance kept Chuck entertained for weeks.

The Chino NDB

If you think you're current, then go do something that you don't do very often, like NDB or localizer back-course approaches. I am reminded of when my friend Rob and I were out practicing NDB approaches one night at Chino, California. We saw and smelled all of Chino that night (lots of cattle there), as we never broke out over the same neighborhood twice.

However, we kept at it. And each time we broke out over a neighborhood closer to the airport. This really made a difference some months later shooting an NDB approach down to minimums at 2 a.m. after working all day and flying 10 hours. I would have been legal to do it either way, but I was certainly a lot safer with the practice. Everyone around you has knowledge — use it. If you aren't sure if you should be doing an inverted back-course approach at night in ice — ask your friends for their opinion. Sometimes their assessment of your prospects is a little more realistic than your admittedly biased view. If they turn white at the thought, or (depending on who your friends are) they suddenly really want you to go, then maybe you should reconsider.

When the gear comes down and tries to take you with it

The only way to get time in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) where Dave lived involved flying with a bag over his head. So Dave was ecstatic to be in the clouds on this December day, getting tons of great IMC time — sans bag — and loving it. He had decided to fly down the coast of California because going inland where the minimum en route altitude (MEA) was high involved icing. Dave's idea of an enhanced ground proximity system was to have no ground in his proximity.

Suddenly, Dave felt a jolt and saw his airspeed start to decay. He wasn't loving it anymore. With occasional glimpses of the snow and trees covering the coastal range not far below him, Dave was alarmed by the fact that he was already at the MEA, with no radar coverage, GPS, or DME to help. Even at full power, he was unable to maintain altitude and started a slow descent below the MEA. Yes, below the MEA. The way things were going, the best outcome Dave could hope for was a mangled airplane and a relatively unmangled Dave. He realized his first priority was to fix the problem, not necessarily to prepare for impending doom. After scanning the instrument panel top to bottom, roof to floor, door to door, Dave noticed a yellow light flashing. Hmm. Flashing lights are usually bad. Suddenly he realized that the airplane had suffered premature gear extension — the automatic gear system airspeed source in the Piper Arrow had iced over and caused the gear to come down. Apparently the airplane had decided that it wanted to land and had taken matters into its own hands. If Dave had an uncommanded gear extension in the airplane he flies today, the solution would be simple — smack the copilot and tell him to put the gear back up.

Dave reached for the gear handle and couldn't believe it — gear down, handle up. Now what? He remembered something from the manual about an override latch between the seats. He found it, monkeyed with it for what seemed like forever, and the gear came up — Dave's life expectancy with it.

Dave called Oakland Center and informed them that he had brilliantly fixed the problem they didn't know about and would like to land and contemplate his life's choices.

What saved Dave? Since he hadn't flown the Arrow in a while he had made it a point to pull out the manual before the flight and reacquaint himself with any obscure information he might have forgotten. If Dave hadn't done that he still would have been legal — legally mangled at best, legally dead at worst. But because he took the time, he's safe and around today.

What can we do to assure a safe outcome?

Flying can be a tough gig at times. It's also one of the most rewarding experiences in life, no matter how many, or how few, hours you've accumulated. But it can turn calamitous at a moment's notice. There are many airplanes we can legally fly on good days, but how many can we safely fly on bad days?

Make sure you know your airplane; read the book like Dave — don't wait for the movie to come out with you as the tragic star or femme fatale. If you don't feel comfortable in the airplane, get some formal training or go flying with another pilot friend. If you're having trouble with something, keep after it until you feel good about it. Make sure that when you have a problem you can handle it and be around to talk about it with your friends.

Review the abnormal and emergency checklists for your airplane and make sure you understand how to do everything on them. Grab your favorite instructor or a knowledgeable friend and go over them together if you need to. Joining a flight club is great for this. Make sure the airplane checklists are complete, up to date, accurate, and readily available in the cockpit every time you go flying. The time to see if the checklist is on board is not when it gets really, really quiet, or really, really dark.

We always think about our flying capabilities and systems knowledge right before we go for training or for a checkride. But what do we think of before we go up on a Saturday afternoon? Our response may be, "It's OK, nothing bad happened." But just because nothing bad happened does not mean it was safe. Clint Eastwood said it best — "A man's got to know his limitations." If you aren't sure of yours, look at it from another position — if someone else were doing it would you think it was safe?


Marc K. Henegar has worked as an air traffic controller, managed an FBO, and flown business jets. Today, he flies a Boeing 737 for Alaska Airlines.