Whenever pilots get together, stories of hair-raising flying experiences are likely to be boasted about. My Navy flying days included aircraft carrier landing adventures, being jumped by Soviet MiGs during the Cuban Missile Crisis, and numerous icing encounters while flying out of northern Maine. However, I have written about those episodes in this blog before. What about my forty-five years of flying general aviation aircraft?
One experience that comes to mind was my flight to one of our company’s branch locations to celebrate a record setting sales month. My offer to the eight branches I oversaw was that whenever a new record was achieved, I would dress in a tuxedo, arrive with sheet cake, a case of champagne, and cook hamburgers for all employees on a grill.
I was flying to our branch in Olney, Illinois, for such a celebration when I flew into a hellacious thunderstorm. Air Traffic Control was trying to vector me away from the strongest cells, but I was being blown about like a tissue in a wrestling match with a leaf blower. After fifteen minutes of that maelstrom a humorous thought occurred to me and I started to chuckle.
I imagined, if my crashed plane was found in a farmer’s field, what a surprise the first responders would have finding my tuxedo clad body, saturated in champagne and covered in cake frosting. What a way to go, they might think. I completed that flight safely, incidentally, with no damage other than an extra loud pop when the champagne was uncorked.
Another memory was a flight I was making from Palwaukee Airport in Chicago to Lafayette, Indiana. The Palwaukee field shares the same airspace with O’Hare Airport and arrival and departures amid O’Hare airliner traffic is always a busy challenge. I had been attending a business meeting in Chicago and was going to stop and attend a Purdue football game in Lafayette on my way home.
I had filed my flight plan and was patiently waiting on the taxiway with engine running for my clearance and takeoff instructions. And I waited and waited. It suddenly occurred to me that I needed to use the bathroom. If I returned to the terminal to use the facilities, it would be another hour or so before I got into the air. Just then I received my clearance and departure instructions. Okay, so I released the brakes and roared down the runway, gritting my teeth trying to ignore the urgency in my pants.
Climb to and maintain a certain altitude communications were being radioed to me every few seconds. What to do, just wet my pants? That wasn’t a pleasant thought. I had some clothes, wrapped in a plastic drycleaning bag hanging behind the back seat in the plane. If I could somehow reach that plastic sheet, tear off a piece to make a waterproof container, maybe I could avoid soiling my drawers.
My headset and lip microphone had a lengthy cord. I would be able to continue responding to ATC even while climbing over the seats to reach my clothes. “Six Romeo Hotel. Climb to and maintain five thousand.”
“Roger, Climb to five thousand. Six Romeo Hotel.”
My auto pilot held the heading and altitude as I scrambled out of my harness and over the seat backs. Fortunately, Departure Control paused long enough in their calls for me to tear the plastic off the clothes and scramble back into the left seat. Whew!
The plastic receptacle I made wasn’t totally leak proof but was good enough to contain most of my deposit. Arriving in Lafayette, I discreetly dumped its contents on the ramp before tying down.
Another interesting Sales Celebration experience occurred at our Vincennes, Indiana branch. Dressed appropriately in Tux with cake and champagne accoutrements, I invited my wife (our Columbus Showroom Supervisor) to accompany me on that flight. The interesting thing about O’Neal Airport in Vincennes is that it is a grass field with very undefined runways.
Our sales celebration extended beyond sunset and when returning to the unlighted airfield found it was pitch dark with very little moon or atmospheric illumination. The field, wide as it may have been, was surrounded by hangers. My taxi and landing light only illuminated about 50-feet while the plane was on the ground. Drifting to one side or the other in the dark during take-off could result in a very unfortunate surprise.
My solution was to taxi—very slowly—across the field and to place a flashlight in the grass aimed back toward our starting take-off point. The zero-zero take-off aimed at the flashlight was apprehensive but successful and we soon climbed into the skies where horizon and stars were visible. Whew.
My last story occurred out of Eagle Creek Airport in Indianapolis where I had rented a Decathlon, an aerobatic aircraft for some fun doing loops and rolls while hanging in the straps. Unfortunately, it was one of those days when coordination seemed to be an allusive skill. I was trying to do slow rolls and just seemed to keep falling out of the air.
In frustration, I decided, okay, I’m going to roll inverted and climb upside down. I’ll show you, you dumb airplane!
Climbing while inverted, pulling negative G’s, is not a pleasant sensation. Blood rushes to your head till you think your eyes are going to pop out of their sockets. After just a few seconds of that crazy maneuver, I suddenly heard an explosive CRACK like someone firing a rifle behind my head. OMG! Something must have broken; a wing rib or stringer perhaps. I kept expecting a rush of wind to announce a gap now torn in the airplane’s outer skin.
Executing a gentle roll to right side up. I floated downward as weightless as I could make it while searching for a landing/crash site. Hallelujah! There, right under my nose in Zionsville was the Indianapolis Executive Airport. Never applying an inch of power, I circled down to its inviting runway and executed the softest touchdown imaginable. Rolling to a stop, still on the runway, I hesitatingly turned in my seat to search for the damage.
Ah ha! There it was. The Decathlon I was flying has a glass overhead, like a moon roof, so pilots could see the ground when doing loops. The clip board I had signed when renting the plane was kept in a zipper pocket in the door. When pulling those negative G’s, the clipboard had ripped from the zipper pocket and slammed into that Glass overhead. BANG, thankfully nothing cracked or was broken.
After brief moments of reflection, I decided that was enough aerobics for the day, returned to Eagle Creek and went home, where I had a change of underwear.