Never Again

Dogged distraction

May 1, 2004

It was the kind of perfect spring day that pilots love, and I was no exception. I was on my way to the grocery store, with my baby in her infant seat and the dog along for a ride. Impulsively, I changed my plan and headed up to Allegheny County Airport to rent one of my favorite Cessna 152s. After all, the grocery store is available anytime, but the weather in Pittsburgh is not always so delightful.

My daughter was already the veteran of many flights (both before and after her birth), and she could always be counted on to fall asleep during taxi, slumbering peacefully in her securely belted car seat next to me until I shut down the engine at the end of a flight. The dog, a small poodle mix, was also accustomed to flying, typically curling up in the back of the airplane. At the time, my ratings were relatively new, but my nearly 200 hours were all rather recent. Nothing in my experience made me think twice about the safety of my flight that day.

This flight began as usual, with the dog in the back and the baby falling asleep as my taxi started. Everyone was quietly settled before my final runup. There was no one else in the pattern or waiting for takeoff since it was fairly early on a weekday. The 152 popped off the runway, putting a grin on my face and leaving me to enjoy the flight in apparent solitude. As many pilots with small children know, it's hard to find the time to fly as much as we would like — not to mention finding moments of peace and quiet — once we become parents.

Everything had gone so well on the flight that I requested and got clearance to land on the airport's shortest runway, Runway 5. I usually avoided that runway because it is only 2,547 feet long and has a visually abrupt approach end, offset above the surrounding terrain, rather than a more gradual approach like the other two. I typically used it for practice instrument approaches from the Allegheny VOR, usually not landing, but going around for an ILS approach to Runway 28.

I was on short final, with power off to practice a full-stall landing, when conditions took an unexpected turn. For some reason (perhaps a change in attitude or engine noise), the dog became frightened, waking suddenly, leaping over the seat, onto the baby, and then diving toward my rudder pedals, barking the whole time. Talk about in-flight distractions! The baby started to howl, the dog set up a loud, high-pitched whine, and the runway kept getting closer. My heart still pounds when I think about it.

I didn't know if the baby was injured or just startled by her frightening wake-up. In my peripheral vision I didn't see blood (a mother's all-purpose triage standard). I could feel the dog under my rudder pedals. I didn't think I could easily get the dog out from underfoot to use the rudders (or brakes) for landing or going around.

In a split second (less time than it takes to read about it), I had to decide whether to finish my landing or go around. As the noise level in the cockpit increased, I said a quick prayer for our safety and made my decision. I chose to land the airplane and cope with everything on the ground instead of in the air. I ignored the noise and landed safely, but it was one of the most difficult things I have ever had to do.

Ignoring my own screaming baby to focus on flying the airplane was very different from filtering out any other distraction.

Fortunately I was already lined up on the runway centerline, my flaps were fully extended, and my airspeed was reduced. I had acknowledged my landing clearance, so there was no need to use the radio. There was no crosswind and the runway was long enough and wide enough (100 feet) to permit me to manage a landing without positive rudder control. All I had to do was fly it down, hold it off, and wait for the stall warning to make my gentle flare.

The baby was not hurt and calmed down as soon as I could soothe her. The dog climbed out of the way on her own once we rolled to a full stop a little past halfway down the runway, and on the taxi back to the FBO acted as if nothing unusual had happened.

It was unwise of me to fly without another adult to tend the baby (and dog) in case of unusual circumstances. I never made that mistake again, even though the passengers and flight instructors I invited along after that never had occasion to interact with either the baby or the dog — both slept through each flight that followed. The car seat always went in a backseat after that and the dog always wore a leash.

Linda Sue Boehmer, AOPA 10383122, is a private pilot, single-engine land and sea, with an instrument rating. She has more than 300 hours and owns a Cessna 206.

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