By Charles Moore
It was May 7, 2008. I was so excited. The proud owner of a 1972 Piper Cherokee PA–28-140 and recently certificated, I was using my airplane for a business meeting for the very first time.
About an hour north of my home airport, Allegheny County Airport (AGC) in Pennsylvania, was the small rural town of Zelienople with a nice little airport (PJC) that has a runway orientation of north/south rather than east/west, which is more common for the area.
I would be departing around 9 a.m. with clear skies but by 1 p.m., storms were going to enter the area and ruin the wonderful VFR conditions. After talking with flight service, I decided that if I was back in the air by 11 or 11:30 a.m. I would safely beat the oncoming weather for the short flight back from Zelienople to Allegheny County.
The business associate I was going to meet, a pilot, provided me with instructions on how to approach Zelienople. On one end was water and the other a small rolling hill that hid the runway when turning base to Runway 17. This nontowered airport provided some challenges to a newly minted pilot like me. On final, once you approach the top of the hill, you pull full flaps and drop nice and smooth on the runway. All went perfect. I was so proud of myself and so excited to see my colleague waiting to pick me up and take me to his office. What fun.
During our meeting, I asked my colleague, let’s call him Joe, if he still flew and what kind of airplane he owned. He told me about his Piper 6X but that he sold it after making one too many bad decisions as a pilot. I listened to his stories and nodded in agreement that it was probably a good idea that he had hung up his wings.
After our meeting concluded, I asked him to take me back to the airport before the bad weather blew in. However, pointing out the office window at the sunny sky, Joe insisted on an early lunch with another colleague joining us at a local restaurant. Bowing to peer pressure and Joe’s insistence that the weather would be fine, I relented and agreed to lunch. As I ate my hamburger, I saw the trees begin to sway in the wind as the breeze picked up from the west. With the north/south runway and my lack of experience in crosswind situations, the flight home was beginning to bother me.
Once lunch was completed, Joe promptly drove me to the airport, but by this time the windsock was horizontal blowing west to east. Here is where the fun ended. Upon entering my airplane, I discovered that my excitement upon landing had caused me to exit the airplane too quickly and not completely shut down—leaving the master switch in the On position. It was then that I discovered that my older airplane with older battery did not hold a charge very long with the master on. I was sitting in a dead bird with no juice. Cussing myself, I walked to the FBO to ask for jumper service. All of this was burning time and the weather was getting worse. No rain yet but the wind was picking up.
My plan at this point was to watch for the windsock to show a break in the wind, taxi out, and take off as quickly as possible. I would then head south and land at my home airport on Runway 10/28, which was more than a mile long and 150 feet wide, plenty of room to put the bird down even with gusty winds. However, Mother Nature had other plans. She faked me out with low winds for a moment and as I began my acceleration down the runway, a gust picked my airplane up off the runway about 7 or 8 knots prior to my normal rotation speed. The airplane’s nose then weathervaned to the west by about 20 degrees. This scared me and for a split second I thought about cutting the power and crashing the airplane into the runway; after all, I was only 50 feet above the field, so how bad could I get hurt? Crazy thoughts go through your mind when adrenaline starts pumping. But then my training kicked in and the words of my fantastic instructor, Brian Porada, came through loud and clear: “Never stop flying the plane. Lower the nose level to the field, kick the rudder to coordinate the plane, build speed, and then start climbing again.” I get chills even now as I think back on this series of events but Brian was right—never stop flying the airplane.
After I cleared the hill and trees, I began cussing myself up one side and down the other. My little Piper bounced and shook in the turbulence for the entire flight back to Allegheny County and I kept repeating to myself: I took advice from an admitted bad pilot. How stupid! I should have insisted that he take me to the airport prior to lunch. After all, I knew what was coming. I was being a good pilot—I did all the preflight and knew what my window was and all I had to do was trust myself. The pressure from Joe overpowered my good sense. His stories were of things not to do and here I was listening to him on what to do. Years later, every time I fly, I always trust my own instincts and flight planning.
Charles Moore is a private pilot from Pittsburgh, Pennsylvania.