Lessons learned, sometimes the hard way

It was getting on toward lunch time, and the weather was perfect for flying other than a pretty stiff breeze.  My boss and friend, an experienced pilot, grabbed me and said, “Hey, this place is driving me nuts.  Let’s go rent a plane and go fly.”  How could I resist?

My friend (I’ll call him Joe) has flown a lot.  His colorful history includes time as a commercial pilot doing courier runs, ferrying various aircraft of questionable history and condition, instrument rating, multi-engine, high performance, and even some stick time in a P51 Mustang.  He’s had his share of close calls and rough landings in airplanes that probably shouldn’t have been flown at all.  To say that his flying skills are above average would probably be a dramatic understatement.

So, off we went to the local airport, where we rented the only plane they had available at the time — a well worn early 1960s vintage Cessna 172 that has seen a lot of use as a trainer.  I wasn’t that impressed with the general condition of the plane, but it checked out OK on preflight.  Being a non-pilot and really knowing nearly nothing about the instruments and equipment, I scanned the instrument panel looking for clues.  OK, there’s a COM (VHF communication) radio, there’s a NAV (navigation) receiver, backup COM and NAV…  “Hey, Joe, what’s that one?”, I asked.  “Oh…  GPS.  We won’t need it today”, he replied.  “OK, how about that one?”  “No idea.  Looks like they use this as an instrument trainer, but we won’t need any of that stuff today, we’ll just tool around a little while.”

Startup and the first few yards of taxi were uneventful.  As we turned onto the taxiway, Joe said, “Huh.  That’s weird.  Look at that — the yoke just flopped to the left”.  He centered the yoke, let it go, and it again flopped to the left.  After some discussion, we decide it was probably just the left quartering crosswind catching the aileron and flipping it down.  No big deal.  Run-up was also uneventful, except now the yoke wanted to flop to the right.  Well, we had turned almost 180 degrees, so maybe that was just crosswind too.

Joe got us out lined up on the runway, and we took off.  About five seconds later I heard in my headset, “We missed something on preflight.  The rudder is pinned or something, I have no controls.”  I looked over saw that Joe with a very worried look, holding full left rudder and full left aileron, and we were still beginning a lazy roll to the right — at 50′ AGL and right toward a hangar.  Joe fought the controls as I desperately looked for a stuck flap, hung aileron, something that would explain the problem…  not that there would be anything we could do to correct it until after impact.  Nothing was visibly wrong, though, so there was no real explanation as to why we seemed about to barrel roll a 172 into a hangar.

Joe took the time to thumb the PTT and announce that we had a problem and would be returning immediately.  I was looking for a soft place to hit…  and there was no immediate candidate.  I thought of the tanks of aviation gas just above my head and developed an instant dislike of high wing aircraft.  I decided that, since my life insurance was current and my family would be OK financially, I could just hope for a hard impact to get it over quickly.  I expected Joe to do a 180 and land downwind, but he managed to wrestle the balky aircraft into a wide left turn and make the downwind leg — where he immediately had to apply full right rudder and aileron.  Things were not looking promising in the slightest.  Clawing for altitude, the plane was dangerously uncooperative and neither of us honestly expected to walk away from the flight.  We turned onto the base leg and saw the Beech Bonanza on the run-up pad, and given the difficulty of controlling the 172 Joe told me to get ready for a very rough grass landing to the left of the paved runway.  He did manage to get it on the pavement, though, and in one piece.  We got it onto the taxiway — I didn’t know about Joe, but I was shaking a little.  Maybe more than a little.

After some examination on the parking pad, we discovered that the mystery box on the instrument panel was an autopilot (how Joe failed to recognize that will always be a mystery to me, I think it was a run of the mill Bendix/King KAP-140).  It was set for a heading of 240 degrees, as I recall, and the active runway that day was 12.  The confusing part was — I had, at Joe’s direction, turned that box OFF before we took off.  So we did what any reasonable engineering types would do.  We pulled the breaker, verified that it wouldn’t turn on again, and took off again without incident.  I later heard that Joe spoke (frankly and enthusiastically, I am told) with the FBO and found that the plane had just been returned from having some avionics work done.  Whether that autopilot was malfunctioning then or not, I’ll probably never know.  I do know it was trying its damnedest to make a turn to heading 240.

So that’s the adventure story.  And for several years it was for me just that – an adventure story, and an illustration of Joe’s flying ability.  I suspect that if the same thing happened to me, or many other pilots, it would have resulted in a crashed airplane and potentially worse.  But lately I have re-evaluated the experience to look for lessons to be learned.

  1. The first lesson: never, under any circumstances, fly anything unless and until you understand the function, use and application of each and every control, indicator and device on the plane.  If I were to get into that same airplane today, I wouldn’t fly it without some instruction on what every device is and how it works. Never again.
  2. Never ignore a “hey, that’s weird” moment.  When the yoke flopped unexpectedly during taxi, it should have been an immediate show stopper until we knew for absolute certain what was going on.  Instead, Joe may have been looking more for an explanation that wouldn’t interfere with flying – and I was too inexperienced to know any better.  When we turned and the yoke flopped the other way, it should have immediately sounded alarm bells — we were facing into the same quartering crosswind.  He didn’t seem worried, and I didn’t know any better and went along with a half-baked explanation.  Never again.
  3. Joe is an incredibly experienced pilot, who has dealt with many adverse situations.  He’s probably crashed more small airplanes than I have flown in, from his work ferrying planes that had problems.  I think that can lead to a little too much of a feeling of infallibility, or the “Whatever happens, I can deal with it” attitude.  It’s completely understandable, and completely wrong.  What turned out to be a great story could very easily have been two closed casket funerals instead.  I know I’ll have to work at never reaching the point where I get too confident in my own abilities, and remember that any incident can turn bad in a hurry — and you don’t get to pick and choose how bad it gets.

It’s still a great story — but I look at it completely differently now.  As happens more often than not, what started as an adventure is best told as a cautionary tale.