Sumpin’s Up


Its dusk as I taxi onto the runway. The winds were calm and weather unremarkable for this nice summer evening. As the takeoff roll begins, so do my checks. Gauges green. Ambient sounds were normal but just a little slower acceleration than usual-possibly due to the higher density altitude. Slight back pressure and she lifts off normally. Climbing through 300 feet agl with a safe airspeed, I retract the flaps. I keep the gear down since I havent reached a safe altitude, as my instructor taught me.

Suddenly, sputtering, cranking, backfiring, and every possible sound an IO-360 could make cut into the evenings serenity. The violent shaking is worse than any turbulence Ive encountered. I only have partial power and its not enough to either climb or accelerate. Im barely 400 feet above inhospitable ground at 80 knots.

Should I land straight ahead, a controlled crash into a densely wooded and rocky cliff? Or, should I turn back, hoping theres enough energy and power to take me all the way back to pavement? I turn back: the infamous and statistically drenched 180 back to the airport at low altitude, notorious for claiming countless lives. Ive simulated enough engine failures at safe altitude to know that a 180-turn this low could be successful only if I maintain control.

Speaking aloud to myself-“nice bank, not too steep, watch the airspeed, best glide…good…keep the nose down…not too much bank”-I maintain control. Finally, the runway is ahead. Retarding the throttle eases the engine noise and vibration; I land and clear the runway at the first taxiway.

What happened? There was water in the fuel. A lot of water. As things seem to happen in aviation, the water got to the engine at one of the most critical times possible. Why didnt I catch it on my pre-flight? Let me count the reasons.

Haste and complacency: I arrived at the airport 30 minutes later than I wanted, so I skipped fuel sumping. It was hot and I wanted to get going. Mistake number one.

Pressure was mistake number two. I wanted this flight to be successful, timely and fun. But never did I think about safety.

Time of day: I did not want to be flying at night. I was rushing to take off and get airborne so that I would be landing with some daylight. Mistake three.

This event has made me a much better pilot, because as strange as it sounds, this was the best learning experience I have ever had.

– Kiki Winchester


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