Proficient Pilot

Poor judgment

March 1, 2010

I have celebrated 71 years on Earth, including 27,000 hours above it. Spending the equivalent of three years in a cockpit nurtures a perspective that gives one the right to reflect on events aeronautical with some credibility. Following are a few incidents observed during 57 years of flying.

  • Years ago a teenage pilot devised a novel way to be in the spotlight. He flew his rented Aeronca into the beam of an advertising spotlight used to spike the night sky and herald a movie premiere or supermarket opening. After several attempts, the pilot finally managed to remain in the spotlight for a full circle while turning steeply at low altitude. The aircraft was then observed entering an incipient spin and recovering only 200 feet agl. It was an illuminating experience.
  • A Super Cub instructor was competing with a peer during a spot-landing contest. Instead of using a point along the runway, though, these pilots chose to measure touchdown distance from the actual runway threshold. One approach was exceptionally low, and the Cub was hanging on the prop, perilously close to a stall. As the main tires passed only inches above the runway’s edge, the instructor chopped the power and pulled the control stick aft. Without a reserve of airspeed, the airplane did not balloon. The tailwheel caught the lip of the concrete runway and was torn away. This plus heavy braking almost resulted in nosing over.
  • The student in the front seat of the Aeronca Champ always forgot to apply carburetor heat prior to reducing power. So it was during entry to a power-off stall. As the student raised the nose with the engine throttled, the instructor decided to teach his student a lesson and stealthily turned off the ignition switches (which are not in view of the front-seat pilot). When the aircraft stalled, the student lowered the nose and pushed the throttle forward. Instead of the engine roaring to life, the propeller stopped completely. The instructor screamed at him for not pulling on the carburetor heat and “allowing ice to kill the engine.” He then stealthily turned the mags on, took control of the airplane, and entered a dive to get the propeller spinning (there was no starter). But the prop hung up on a compression stroke and wouldn’t budge. With altitude in short supply, the instructor was forced to land on a beach. The CAA inspector who later arrived at the scene believed the instructor’s story about carburetor ice and allowed him to take off (after the ice had “melted”). A police officer was less sympathetic and ticketed the pilot for illegally parking a motor vehicle.
  • The young pilot and his friend were about to depart for Las Vegas, Nevada, but there was only enough visibility through the fog to line up with the runway. No problem, the pilot thought, I’ve got 20 hours of instrument dual and an airplane with a turn-and-bank indicator for the short climb to VFR conditions on top. The initial climb was routine, considering that neither the pilot nor the airplane were IFR-qualified, until the turn indicator stuck. The pilot discovered that the indicator could be made to function briefly by stabbing at the rudder pedals and inducing a yaw strong enough to dislodge the needle. Luckily, the indicator did not fail completely.
  • The charter pilot was leaving Acapulco on a return flight to Burbank in a Twin Beech. When his passengers arrived at the terminal building, he was preoccupied with a purchase, so he did not pay close attention when one of them asked where they should stow the tequila. “In the rear of the cabin,” the pilot advised. “The baggage compartment is full.” He pointed the way toward the airplane, completed his purchase, filed a flight plan, and finally arrived at the big taildragger. His passengers were already seated.

The takeoff roll seemed normal until the pilot pushed forward on the wheel to raise the tail, but nothing happened. The airplane remained tail low. We need more airspeed, the pilot thought. Acceleration was agonizingly poor in such a tail-low attitude, and the end of the runway was nearing. With only scant feet of runway remaining, the airplane slowly levitated while dangerously nose high.

The pilot screamed for the passengers in the rear of the cabin to get up and move as far forward along the aisle as they could. This center-of-gravity shift made the airplane manageable, and the passengers returned to their seats after the gear and flaps were raised and a safe climb had been established.

The pilot learned to his chagrin that the tequila consisted of several cases weighing a ton. Not wanting to land with such an aft CG, the pilot made his passengers toss the tequila—one bottle at a time—through an emergency exit and into the ocean.

That these five pilots survived their own stupidity is no credit to their skill. If Lady Luck had not been present, we likely would have learned about their misadventures in sobering NTSB reports.

That these pilots were young and immature is no excuse for their reprehensible behavior. They should have lost their certificates. I have a right to administer harsh condemnation because in each case—I am hesitant to confess—the pilot was me.

An adage claims that “good judgment comes from experience, and much of that comes from bad judgment.”

Barry Schiff has flown 314 types of aircraft, and has 12 type ratings and seven instructor ratings.