Friday, February 18, 2011

I'm In The Mooney Now!

Newspaper ad from friends about an earlier plane wreck

Once in a while, I should just take some advice. I get a little too independent and look what happens! But first to preface...

Back in the 80's, my brother Brent (who was still in high school) and I bought an older Beechcraft Musketeer airplane. It was a four-seater low wing and was adequate for getting us up into the wild blue yonder. I started racking up some hours and experience in it in order to prepare to get my license. To make a long story short. I wrecked it. That incident will post on another day.

After my wreck in the Beechcraft, I took a short hiatus and then bought an old Mooney. My 1963 M20-B Mooney was a relatively fast 4-seater plane that provided lots of opportunity for trouble. It had a variable pitch prop and retractable landing gear so it was faster than most other small airplanes. The landing gear was activated by grasping a big handle in the middle of the console and manually pulling it back or pushing it up to lower or raise the landing gear. It was dependable and fun to operate.

Eventually, I obtained my pilot's license.

This is not my airplane but very similar including the paint job

I flew at every opportunity that materialized when I needed to go somewhere, provided there was someplace to land upon arrival, and that didn’t even stop me sometimes.

One evening my wife was out of town and I had work to do so there was no one at our house to babysit. She previously had made arrangements for me to take our 3 young kids down to my folks for my brother to babysit. She neglected to specify to me as to what mode of transportation I should use so we flew. It probably took me longer to warm the plane up that it would have to drive the kids to my folks and back again in the car.

What the heck, a reason to fly! I threw them into the plane and flew the 6 miles to my folk’s house, delivering the cargo to my brother after a fairly risky landing in a hayfield. But I digress.

Meg, myself, Derek and Hauni right about the age when I drove them 6 miles to a babysitter in my airplane

Now, for the example of a time when I should have just gone along with good advice…

In the 80's, I got involved in developing a product that looked promising but ended up being a bust. The company name was Benzco. I had 2 partners who lived in La Grande, Oregon so that's where we set up shop.

One day after a meeting in La Grande, one of my partners took me back to the airport. He was a former pilot and had owned the Ford dealership in La Grande for many years. The wind was howling in 40-50 mph gusts. As I got out of his Blazer, he said: “Now make sure that you take off against the wind.”

Since there was no control tower, Claude must have thought I needed someone to tell me which direction my nose should be pointed and which runway to take off on. It struck me as unnecessary advice and borderline condescension. Since it bugged me a little, I said “Claude, don’t tell me what to do. I know which way to take off so you don’t need to tell me.” For heaven’s sake, I had several hundred hours of flying under my belt.

Well, Claude repeated his instructions. I felt like I was getting a lecture I didn’t need. I then told him that he should have known me well enough by then that if someone tells me to do something in a particular way; I would do the opposite just to show them.

If he wanted to verify this, he could call my dad. This had always been a unique and usually unhealthy trait I picked up as a toddler. If my dad told me to jump, I would say no. If he told me not to jump, I would say “How high?”

Claude kept harping and didn’t stop the impromptu flight school discourse so finally I said “All right, Claude, I’m going to take off with the wind just to show you.”

He started swearing at me and my stupidity so I told him thanks for the ride and to be sure and stick around for the brief airshow coming up. I climbed out of Claude’s rig, walked across the tarmac, warmed the plane up and headed for the evil runway that had all of a sudden become a challenge I would pursue.

Approaching the La Grande runway where I started my take-off run.

I have always been a dare devil but I didn’t have any idea how near a fatal accident I was about to brush up against.

The runway was nice and long, about a mile in length. A natural optimist, I didn’t consider there would be any problems because I had so much runway in front of me. I taxied to the very end of the wrong runway, stomped on the brakes, wound the engine up, released the brakes and let ‘er rip.

I kept the flaps off because I didn’t want anything impeding my acceleration until I reached flying speed. The wind was pushing me hard from the back end. This would have been a good thing if we were talking about sailboats but it’s not when you’re trying to take off in an airplane.

A short primer for those who don’t know a lot about flying:

An airplane must have headwind in order to fly. This “headwind” air speed provides the lift necessary to keep the plane in the air and also provides the pilot the luxury to control the craft. To be safe, an airplane must always take off and land into a headwind. If it is done in a tailwind, the pilot is flirting with major disaster.

You want airspeed. It is essential. You don't want ground speed. The runway magically shortens up with every mile an hour of tailwind. Conversely, the stronger the headwind, the quicker liftoff occurs. If you were taking off into a 70 or 80 mile an hour headwind, your airplane could take off and fly without any kind of a takeoff run.

Stalls, spins, collisions with the ground and other immoveable objects usually occurs with loss of or not maintaining enough airspeed. I believe most airplane crashes occur from the root cause of inadequate headwind (or airspeed) and resulting loss of control. Pilot inattention and error, weather conditions and engine problems can all lead to inadequate airspeed and loss of control.

Back to the problem at hand…

I started picking up ground speed quickly, the pavement was soon zipping by. But my, oh, my! I soon realized I wasn’t picking up appreciable and necessary airspeed. The airspeed indicator was still stuck on 0 and a quarter of the runway had already passed under my tail. Beads of sweat appeared on my brow and every body orifice I owned began contracting. Pride kept me forging onward.

If I had taken off on the other end of the runway into the wind, I would have been flying in 10 or 15 seconds, lifting off after a few feet. But this was not to be because I was going to show Claude.

Passing the half way point on the runway, I finally saw the wind speedometer start to move. It showed 10 mph while I was actually tripping along at 60 or 70 mph. The runway was getting shorter in a quick hurry. My airspeed was about half of what the ground speed was. Soon, my Mooney and I were screaming over the pavement at a hundred miles an hour. If I had wet my finger and stuck it out the side window, I would have felt a slight whiff of air floating past. I could have kicked the door open and flown a kite in the gentle breeze. However, I had no time for fun and games such as these.

I was in Trouble with a capital T for sTupid.

My airplane had never gone this fast and not been flying. In fact, I'm sure very few airplanes this size and vintage have achieved such ground speed while still earthbound on the asphalt. It started shaking like the wheels were going to come off. I realized my plane and I were in uncharted territory. I could see the end of the runway looming larger and larger; every instant seemed to be hammering another nail in the coffin of Ben. The current Ben was soon going to be a has been.

I pulled back on the stick and got no response. I wanted to stop this nightmare but it was much too late. If I tried to abort the takeoff, I would have hit the end of the runway at 120 mph with the gusting tailwind undoing any effects of the brakes and screeching tires. The point of no return was now a long way behind me.

There was a ditch, fence, pasture, cows and trees just off the end of the runway that I was racing toward. With just a few feet left before the end of the asphalt and the beginning of the cow pies, I jerked full flaps on, pulled the wheel up and rammed the landing gear into the wheel wells. These actions gave me the only chance of getting off the ground and cleaning up the airplane aerodynamics in order to give me a gnat's eyelash of a chance of getting and keeping the plane in the air at this late date.

The plane sluggishly rose from ground effect, bouncing up and down from the gusts of wind around us. We finally started to crawl upwards into the air, inch by most welcome inch. The gusty environment bounced us around. I didn’t mind the bounces up but I didn’t care for the times we dropped.

The rough ride didn’t bother me. I was just ecstatic I wasn’t planted nose first in the far bank of the ditch or in an inverted position trying to pull tree branches out of my pitot tube. I’m sure at the high speed I was traveling, it would have been a fatal wreck.

There but by the grace of God go I.

The next day I got a call from my partners in La Grande. Claude was livid. He started cussing me out for my stupidity. I agreed with him. I knew I had made a really bad decision. I admitted he was right and promised I would never do it again. Do you think that satisfied him? Not a chance. He continued to rant and rave and call me every name in the book. After about 10 minutes of this abuse, I finally told him to lay off and let’s get back to the business at hand.

I think I was a little upset that Claude didn’t at least compliment me on my excellent flying skills. Besides that, I was the president of the company. What right did he have to talk to me like that?

Whenever I think of this experience, I marvel at the ground speed my Mooney and I achieved before we finally scratched and clawed our way into the air, inches above the cows and ditches just below.


James Daniel Simmons said...

Angel's in Ben's outfield!

brent said...

Great hair-raising story.