August 1, 2004
Late-summer evenings in Virginia can be very pleasant or they can be very uncomfortable. This day it was more the latter than the former. The visibility had been reported as five miles all day, but you would be lucky if you could see the ground two miles away at 1,000 feet agl. It would be hot and sticky in the airplane, uncomfortable, even for part-time flight instructors like me who were used to it.
I planned to leave the office at 5 p.m. to make my 5:30 p.m. appointment with Harold, a primary student with 10 or 12 hours. I had checked the weather periodically during the day but it refused to change: five miles in haze. I resolved to stay in the pattern with Harold, who could use the practice anyway. I was sure I could find my way around the practice area, but staying in the pattern would be the safest thing to do and I didn't want to set a bad example. Students do what their instructors do, not necessarily what they say.
For no apparent reason I hurried Harold through the preflight and taxi. I must have been uneasy about the weather even though we were staying in the pattern like I had done a thousand times before.
Takeoff performance was sluggish at best. Harold sensed we weren't climbing too well and raised the nose too high. The horizon couldn't be seen through the haze.
"Hold the dot on the first line above the horizon and hold your wings level," I said, pointing to the attitude indicator. "We'll take whatever climb we can get. It's hot and humid so we can't do much. Go ahead and turn crosswind." We were about 350 feet agl instead of at 500 feet where we usually turn crosswind, but I didn't want Harold to get so far out that he would lose sight of the runway. I didn't want to lose sight of it either.
In the west, the sun was dimly visible through the haze and the visibility was particularly bad looking in that direction. However, the lesson went well with Harold learning the value of the attitude indicator. We practiced flying the pattern in the no-wind conditions and even got in a go-around and a no-flap landing. After the flight I admonished Harold to not always believe the visibility reported by the tower and to be careful when the sun was low on a hazy day.
As we finished and I turned to leave, the owner of the fixed-base operation asked me to do him a favor: A Cessna 172 was down at the airport at Smith Mountain Lake with a rough mag; the pilot didn't want to fly it back. He wanted me to take the other 172 down there and let the pilot fly it back while I could burn the carbon off the sparkplugs and fly the other one back.
I agreed, though not really sure at all. I wondered if I could even find the lake in the haze but I wouldn't admit that to the FBO owner.
I preflighted quickly, wanting to complete the mission before dark. I took off and immediately went to a cruise climb on the gauges to about 1,500 feet agl. I was heading into the setting sun, in a hurry. I found the large lake easily enough, even though the slant visibility was one mile at best. The only reason I found the Smith Mountain Lake airport was that I knew it was near the state park, which was near the only sand beach on the lake.
I met the two young college students and told them the drill. However, the pilot had a Canadian license and told me he didn't fly night VFR.
Great, I thought. I started the engine on their 172 and did a mag check. It would hardly run in the Right position; it cut out, backfired, and blew black soot out the exhaust. Carboned up, my foot, I thought, as the engine bucked and kicked. I tried leaning while on the right mag anyway, but it didn't help.
I shut it down, got out, tied it down, and locked the doors. We would all go back in the other airplane. As we walked back up the ramp I couldn't help but notice that they were both large guys.
And they each carried a pack over one shoulder. And we had the 172 with long-range tanks. And the tanks had been full when I left home. And there was no wind blowing. And it was hot and humid. And the runway was only 3,050 feet long, and 300 feet of that appeared to be sinking into the lake on the south end. And there were obstructions at both ends of the runway.
I stopped for a minute and tried to think of something in our favor, but couldn't. I looked south and there were trees at the end of the runway. I looked north and there was a hill about a mile off of that end. Remembering the sluggish takeoff performance earlier, I made my decision. "Get in and we'll take off to the north. Give me a best-effort short-field departure."
I resolved to abort the takeoff if we didn't have flying speed by midfield. As we took the runway, I spotted a solitary sapling alongside the runway that would be my go/no-go point. "Use all the runway," I said as he tried to take the runway about 50 feet from the end. My right foot on the rudder overpowered his left. We lined up, he held the brakes, added full power, and released. The nose attitude came up a little as we started moving. "Zero angle of attack," I shouted as I held the wheel forward. I saw, and felt, him move his hand away from the wheel. The airplane was mine.
As we neared my marker we were indicating 50 knots. I wanted 55. My sapling passed and we had 53 knots — no more. I rotated the nose. Nothing happened. My stomach knotted. I quickly scanned the engine instruments and everything was normal. A little more back-pressure on the yoke and we were airborne, stall horn screaming, as we crossed the end of the runway.
The tree-topped hill seemed much closer now. I relaxed the back-pressure and got 62 knots indicated. It seemed like we were settling. A little more back-pressure and the stall warning came on. The hill got closer. A little less back-pressure and it seemed like we were settling again. More back-pressure and the horn screamed again. I could now see the individual trees on the hill.
Slowly, the trees on the hill started passing under the nose. I came fully alert. Maybe we would make it. I quickly scanned ahead but saw little in the hazy, now almost-dark sky. Back on the gauges. If something's out there, tough. We're going to climb. I slowly raised the flaps and pitched to the best-rate-of-climb attitude.
The higher we got the worse the visibility became. I leveled at 3,000 feet msl, high enough to clear any obstacles on our course, and set the power and elevator and rudder trim. "Want to take it?" I asked, pointing at the attitude indicator.
I tuned the VOR and gave the pilot a heading to fly. After a minute: "Try to keep your wings level. That will hold your heading." And not 30 seconds later: "Don't let the nose move up and down. Hold the dot on the line."
"Why don't you fly? I can't see out." The pilot wasn't upset, just matter-of-fact.
We tuned the ATIS at the home base and heard, "...three miles in haze." The only ground we could see was directly below us. I estimated 15 miles out and called the tower in case there was any inbound IFR traffic. What we were doing was really stupid and the more we flew the more I realized it. We landed uneventfully and the students settled the bill.
The implications of the events of that night didn't really sink in until a couple of days later. Everything I had done that night was wrong. Every decision I had made was wrong. Maybe not "grossly" wrong, but cumulatively, wrong enough to have possibly killed us. Furthermore, the errors were errors of commission. I knew better; in fact, I was being paid to know better. I had no excuses.
If I learned anything that night it was to make informed decisions and make them on the conservative side. Don't let events and your pride make your decisions for you. Even if you get away without killing anyone this time, you may kill a former student sometime in the future because he did what he saw you get away with. They will do what you do. And they may not be as lucky as you.
George Vames, AOPA 803597, is a commercial pilot with a flight instructor certificate. He has been flying for more than 43 years.
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