My friend Jim and his wife, Margo, were going to Hawaii and asked if I would take their two kids to Southern California to stay with relatives while they were gone. I'd use any excuse to fly my Cessna 172 Skyhawk so I agreed to their request.
The night before the trip, Jim called and asked if there was an airstrip closer to their home in Pahrump, Nevada, so he could avoid the 90-minute drive to North Las Vegas Airport to drop off the kids.
Now, in some counties in the state of Nevada certain types of businesses are still allowed that offer, shall we say, extended spa services. Several are located in Pahrump, and it turned out that Jim had located a private airstrip run by one of these round-the-clock spas. He gave me the phone number, and the nice young lady who answered told me, "We are not on any charts, but the field is exactly 28 miles from the Beatty Vortac on the 116 radial — whatever that means." I asked what condition the strip was in, and she gave me the number of the business owner. He said the airstrip was freshly resurfaced and in great shape. I went to sleep that night looking forward to my flight the next day.
The next morning, Will, my neighbor and friend who is also a pilot, joined me. We made the 15-minute flight to the given coordinates and started hunting for the airstrip. Finally, we spotted it — an overgrown grass strip with an old Piper sitting by a shed. After a couple of low passes we decided that it would be a bad idea to land there, seeing how overgrown it was.
However, the road leading to the airstrip was two miles or longer, flat, and straight as an arrow with no power lines or apparent obstructions. The first mile of the road was wide, smooth, and recently resurfaced. Then a channel crossed the road — it had a severe depression to allow water to flow, and looked like a prop strike waiting to happen — then a bit more road, followed by another channel, and finally about 1,500 feet of road that ended at the parking lot where my passengers were waiting.
The next stupid thought going through my head was that the best part of the road was a mile from the parking lot, with nowhere to pull over should a car appear. It didn't occur to me that my passengers had arrived by car, and they easily could have driven out to where I could have safely stopped the airplane. Instead, I decided to fly along in ground effect over the road, make a short-field landing just past the second wash, roll into the parking lot, pick up my passengers, and fly away again — easy as that.
I followed my plan, except that about 600 feet into the landing roll, Will said, "Uh, Bob, sign, sign!" It was located to our right and went under the wing by what appeared to be about two pounds of tire pressure, as did the gravel berms on both sides of the road that I hadn't seen from the air. We had ended up in the parking lot, safe and sound, when I made one of the worst decisions of my life.
The Skyhawk SP easily flies off the runway in 1,500 feet or less, on most days. This day, however, the airplane carried full fuel and 400 pounds of pilot and copilot. And I had just added 260 pounds of kids and luggage in the back. We were fairly close to maximum takeoff weight, plus this improvised landing strip had a field elevation of about 2,600 feet with the temperature already pushing 90 degrees Fahrenheit. The thought to unload as much weight as possible, fly gently over the two airplane-eating washes, reload the airplane, and take off on the 5,000 feet of smooth, wide road a mile away never entered my newly minted bush-pilot mind.
When you draw a crowd to watch a Cessna 172 take off, you might want to think twice about why the people are watching. Everyone appeared on the porch to watch us depart. We did not disappoint them with the show that followed, either. I maneuvered the airplane past the threat of the road signs and gravel berms, did my preflight routine, stood on the brakes, leaned the engine for peak power, dropped in 10 degrees of flaps, and started eating up the 1,300 feet or so between my starting point and the first wash. There wasn't enough road before the channel, and the pilot's operating handbook confirmed this later.
So we were rolling down the road, and at about 15 yards before the wash, Will yelled, "Bob, you really need to pull up now, and I mean now." I glanced at the airspeed indicator and it showed just under 50 knots, but with no choice left I pulled back on the yoke a bit and we rose into the air about 5 feet in ground effect with the stall horn helping us along. We crossed the wash, and as the road dropped away so did ground effect. We settled back toward the road until we picked up ground effect again on the other side. By the time we crossed the second wash, we had managed about 10 feet of altitude and a positive rate of climb of about 20 feet per minute. I had not previously noticed the uphill grade of the part of the road where it joined Nevada Highway 160. We crossed the intersection at an altitude that seemed a whole lot lower than deemed safe above people and structures, but at least by then — almost two miles from our starting point — we were flying and climbing at the blistering rate of 300 feet per minute.
The rest of the flight was uneventful, and along the way we took some photos of our passengers. Will also had managed to get a few shots of our landing strip, and later that night, safe and sound back in Las Vegas, I reviewed the pictures. In a moment of stark terror I realized what I had done that day.
I had been stupid. In my desire to please my friend and find a landing site closer to his home I had endangered the lives of two precious children. I also had endangered Will's life and possibly the lives of a few people on the ground, not to mention my own life.
Although the flight did not end with an NTSB investigation, consider how close I came to disaster. The road sign and gravel berms might easily have been 6 inches taller, and could have ripped a wing off the airplane with a dire outcome. The little trip over the wash on takeoff was on the edge of a stall and close to a prop strike. The climbout was so close to the edge that unseen power lines could easily have taken us out of the sky.
It's hard enough to take off and land from an unfamiliar airport. It's just plain foolish to try it from an unfamiliar road.
We must surely have had an air angel watching over us.
Robert H. Rose, AOPA 4961990, is an instrument-rated private pilot and owns a Cessna T182T Turbo Skylane. As command pilot and outreach coordinator for Angel Flight West in Nevada, he has accumulated more than 980 flight hours.
"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts may be submitted via e-mail to [email protected] or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.