Never Again Online: Why I'll never forget my thousandth hour

July 1, 2002

I was feeling confident — not cocky, just comfortable — with my airmanship as I planned my cross-country with my two preteen kids, Scott and Claire, and a close family friend, Father Scott, a Catholic priest. He was jovial, loved flying, and, at that time, weighed 260 pounds. I was a mere 200; the kids were 100-plus each, and we had a full baggage compartment (probably another 80 pounds) — a goodly load for the club's aging Cessna 172. We left Watsonville, California, on July 16, 1977. We had spent the night at Sedona, Arizona, that neat aircraft-carrier-like airport perched on a 400-foot mesa. At 4,830 feet, the 5,100-foot runway wasn't much of a challenge, even on a hot Arizona day, with all seats occupied, full baggage and tanks. As one gentleman at the FBO said, "Don't worry — if you can get 10 feet off the runway you soon get another 400 feet below you at either end."

We made an 8 a.m. takeoff and after a 2.2-hour flight to our intended destination, I would hit my 1,000-hour mark on the nose. I was very knowledgeable about density altitude, having personally witnessed two density-altitude-related accidents (neither terribly serious), one at South Lake Tahoe and another at Boulder City, Nevada. I was very careful and pretty comfortable with the proposed landing at Wahweap, near Page, Arizona. Although the runway was only 2,600 feet long, the airstrip's altitude was a thousand feet lower than my departure point, and I was about 100 pounds lighter than at takeoff. I was so careful I remembered the moderately heavy rain that had passed through the night before, and saw the "soft and rough" and "caution: roads may be mistaken for strip" notations in the Flight Guide's airport detail. What the guide didn't say was that Runway 24 had a substantial upslope. So, because I was unfamiliar with the field, and because of the previous rain, I decided to drag the strip to study the windsock (there was no unicom) and see if there were ruts or puddles before deciding to land. So I popped in 40 degrees of flaps (later I was told, I believe correctly, that the last 10 degrees of flaps added only drag, no lift) and flew the length of the strip at about 50 feet. There were only a few ruts, so I poured on the coals for a go-around and return for landing. Then I got my 1,000-hour surprise — the terrain was rising just as fast as I was — maybe a teeny bit faster. The stall warning horn began its first low-pitched moan. I was of course afraid to dump the flaps, and had a split-second decision to make — try and coax it around in a very gentle 5- to 10-degree bank or dump it down in the sagebrush straight ahead (I might have even got away with this second choice without busting the gear — it was pretty smooth desert terrain). In that split second, Father Scott (hearing the horn and seeing my face and the sagebrush) said, "Is everything all right, Doc?" He later mildly chided me for my response: "Shut up and pray, Father!" I elected to try the very shallow left turn and, over the next 20 seconds (it felt like an hour), got to the 90-degree point and beyond, after which, of course, the terrain dropped away.

Page has a municipal airport with one hard-surface runway, which was just across Lake Powell-about six miles. I had almost quit shaking when I landed there and let Father Scott and the kids out. I flew back to Wahweap, landed uneventfully, unloaded the baggage, and went back and collected my passengers. I landed again at Wahweap and we headed for the lodge's pool (or was it the bar?— that was 20 years ago).

There are several things I would not choose to repeat. No 40-degree flaps on low passes, no overloading the airplane, no dragging below 100 feet, and no new set of thrills at the 2,000-hour mark (I'm not there yet).

As for Wahweap, the field has been closed so long that now nobody even remembers it, but I found it recently on a car trip, and sure enough, it looks just like any other dusty, rutted, desert road.

Andrew S. Markovits, AOPA 1253390, is a private pilot with more than 1,170 hours. He is a retired physician and has flown across the United States, from California to Florida, twice.

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