July 1, 2003
It was just after dawn on a brilliant June Saturday in Colorado Springs. I was up early in eager anticipation of a short 40-mile flight to Pueblo, Colorado, consumption of the requisite $100 hamburger, and some area sightseeing before returning to The Springs, as we natives call it. I had just passed my instrument checkride, my confidence was through the roof, and I was looking forward to a nice, relaxing VFR pleasure flight. I had planned an 8 a.m. liftoff to take advantage of the cool morning temperatures, since density altitude is always a factor given The City of Colorado Springs airport's 6,184-foot field elevation and the limited performance of our mission aircraft, a Beechcraft Sundowner. This flight would be a welcome respite after more than 40 hours of grueling, nerve-wracking instrument training.
My friend David, who had never been aloft in a small airplane, would accompany my frequent flier wife, Linda, and me. I should have taken it as a harbinger of bad things to come when our cat, in a freak accident, jumped from a high perch and smashed my coffee cup to bits. Nevertheless, I cleaned up the mess and we headed to the airport.
I began my preflight after confirming the obviously perfect weather, and discovered that the Sundowner had not been refueled after its last flight. I immediately summoned the fuel truck, but apparently they decided it was more profitable to refuel several airliners before my Sundowner, so we waited, and waited, as the summer morning heated up (strike one).
More than two-and-a-half hours later, our aircraft was finally refueled and I finished up my preflight. To my dismay, I discovered that both of the plane's tanks were filled to the brim, not to the "tabs" as specified (strike two). Since I didn't want to disappoint David, and we had already waited so long, I elected to proceed with the flight. I taxied out, performed the runup, and was cleared for takeoff on Runway 35, with its 1.2-percent uphill grade (strike three).
Acceleration on takeoff was slow, but this was more or less normal performance for a Sundowner at high elevations. As soon as we lifted off, the stall horn went off, and within a second it all finally came together in my head: hot, high, and heavy, taking off uphill. Unfortunately, I had used up a lot of runway so there was not enough left to land and get stopped. We were just barely out of ground effect and climbing at what seemed like about 10 feet per minute with rapidly rising terrain dead ahead. The tower called and asked if I needed assistance (ATC folks really have a gift for understatement). I asked for an immediate right turn and gingerly banked the aircraft away from the now ominously close terrain.
I had two things going for me. First, because of my recent 40-plus hours of instrument instruction in this very aircraft, I was current. I knew every nuance and feel of the Sundowner and was able to fly it right on the ragged edge of the stall. Second, the terrain drops off rapidly to the south of the airport, (coincidently toward Pueblo). I executed the turn, and we enjoyed an extremely closeup view of Peterson Air Force Base as we whizzed above it at about 200 feet agl. I think it was more the ground dropping off below us than the airplane climbing, but soon we were at a respectable altitude. I made some excuse and trolled around long enough to burn off the excess gas. Ironically, I made one of the best landings of my life at Pueblo Memorial airport, and David complemented me on its smoothness. I didn't feel the need to point out that I had darn near killed us all.
After our meal (I don't recall having much of an appetite) we made an uneventful return trip to Colorado Springs. After we tied down, my instructor, who had witnessed the whole debacle, only said, "Gee, for a minute there I didn't think you were going to climb out of ground effect." I mumbled some unintelligible response and departed the airport with my still-happy passengers, who were blissfully unaware of the peril in which they had been placed.
I took many lessons from this flight, but chief among them were: All flying requires careful and thorough planning. After months of meticulously planning every aspect of my IFR training flights, this was "just" a simple VFR pleasure hop to a nearby airport in perfect weather. In my anger over the lack of refueling and the fuel truck's delay, I totally lost sight of the reason why I wanted to go early, and the reason we always fueled only to the tabs. Furthermore, if something doesn't feel right, and things aren't working out as planned, stop. Break what could ultimately become an accident chain. Either carefully replan the flight, taking into account all of the new conditions, or simply don't go.
Tom Carrington is an engineering manager for SAIC (Science Applications International Corporation, contractor for the International Space Station, at the Johnson Space Center. He holds a private pilot certificate with an instrument rating and has logged more than 500 hours.
Additional information on density altitude is also available via these links:
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The NTSB has organized a safety seminar May 10 to focus on aerodynamic stalls and loss of control, a leading cause of general aviation fatalities.
According to the most recent Joseph T. Nall Report, in 2010 there were 43 accidents involving weather, and 28 of them were fatal. In fact, weather accidents are the most consistently fatal types of accidents.
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