As a 3,000-hour pilot with a CFII rating, I am reasonably comfortable in the cockpit in either the right or left side. However, when I havent flown in a while I like to go out and fly by myself and run through some maneuvers as well as get in some short- and soft-field takeoffs and landings before I take passengers.
One day in the early summer I found myself in a situation where I needed to fly my wife from Portland, Ore., to Spokane, Wash., on a Sunday. I had not flown our Cessna 172 for about four months, so on the Saturday before I decided to go out and knock off some of the rust and enjoy the kind of sunny day that we here in Oregon hope makes up for living in the rain the other eight months of the year.
I departed Pearson Field and tracked north past the Battleground VOR to practice some stalls, slow flight and emergency procedures. I then flew on up to Woodland, Wash., to a short and narrow strip that requires good procedures for both takeoffs and landings. After completing a few, I decided to fly over to Hillsboro, Ore., to dust off my radio work at a controlled field.
Most pilots in this area will fly between 1,000 and 1,500 feet agl to enjoy the beautiful scenery along the Columbia River. I have always opted to fly between 2,500 and 2,800 agl for a little better cushion in case of an engine out. I climbed to 2,800 feet, leveled off, and leaned back to enjoy the cruise flight.
My enjoyment ended abruptly when, without warning, the tach dropped to about 1,850 rpm and the engine began vibrating and running very roughly. I immediately ran through the emergency checklist, but the problem persisted. I had a number of open fields below me, and I began to pick out a field and set up best glide speed.
I had a nagging feeling I should check my instruments again, and I noticed that I was holding altitude and that my oil pressure and temperature were both in the green. This made me think that my problem was a stuck valve and I decided I had a little more time than Id originally thought.
Scapoose Airport was about 15 miles away, with a number of suitable fields along the way if the engine didnt hold together, so I made a 90-degree turn and headed toward the airport.
I angled around and made a straight-in approach to runway 33. I kept the power up because I thought that if I reduced power the engine would die completely. I adjusted my descent with flaps and slips and, when I knew I had the field made, I pulled the throttle. Sure enough, the engine quit immediately. I glided to an uneventful landing.
After shutting everything down, I got out and pulled the prop through. On the second revolution, it just spun free. Stuck valve. When we later pulled the cylinder head we discovered the stem had separated and done a pretty good job of beating up the top of the cylinder.
What I learned for myself is what Id been teaching students. Fly the airplane, do the checklists and use all of the information your airplane can give you before committing yourself to a course of action. The big one, however, is that one of the most useless things is altitude above you. The extra 1,000 feet I took into the emergency gave me the mental support to take a little more time in diagnosing what was happening to the airplane.
I am a 117-hour student who is finally preparing for my check ride. Taking this long to get my license has provided me with many opportunities for learning experiences. This past weekend I had one of the more interesting ones. My instructor and myself were practicing the various types of takeoffs and landings in a lightly loaded Cessna 172.
While we where taxiing back, a Chinook landed abeam the middle of the 3,000-foot runway, on the upwind side. They kept the engines running and announced on the CTAF they would be departing shortly.
When we were ready for takeoff, I mentioned the article I had read several months ago [Risk Management, March] on the effect of rotor wash, and how it was stronger than the wake turbulence from many larger planes. I then said that since we were doing a short field take off we would be off the ground and above them before we got there so they shouldnt present a problem.
My instructor didnt object to my decision, so we taxied into position and took off. Bad call. We were slightly less than 100 feet off the ground when we passed the Chinook. The next thing I knew the plane was knocked to the right at a 45-degree bank. This is not a comfortable position to be in at 100 feet agl.
My instructor told me afterwards that she was expecting some turbulence and was ready to grab the controls, but not as much as we got.
Thinking about it later, I realized that with them sitting on the ground with the rotors going the turbulence must have been bouncing back into the air. It is a possibility that is not mentioned in any of the texts or articles I have read.
But good things come out of everything. When we were coming back to land the Chinook was still there. I had already decided that if it didnt look as if I could put the plane down really close to the numbers, we were going around. I have had trouble making myself aim for the ditch in front of the runway. I know mentally that is what I should do, but making myself do that has been difficult. On that landing, I did it without a qualm. We waited for them to leave before taking off again.
Ride on the Wild Side
I was out camping with some friends in northern Wisconsin when I decided to show them what light planes were all about. I had received my private license just a few months earlier and my logbook was stuffed with all of 80 hours.
I went into the FBO at a small airport and inquired about rentals. I was shown a Piper Warrior at a reasonable rate, so I reserved the airplane for the next morning. I was on a trip with 11 other people, and nine of them expressed interest in the flight.
Mistake one was that I let the passengers decide who was going together. Only later did it dawn on me that one of the groups included three guys who each weighed nearly 200 pounds.
The next day, flying the first group was fun. We flew over our campsite, kinda low and kinda fast, but far from a high-speed buzz, then tooled around for a while before heading back.
The next group was waiting when we landed. The three big guys were ready to go, and I checked the fuel. It was just above the tabs, and I figured this would take us just to about gross weight. Everyone was eager to go, but I cavalierly neglected to ask anyone their actual weight, to designate seats by weight, or even to run a weight and balance.
As we made the takeoff roll, I was somewhat surprised at the lack of acceleration. Just as I became aware of the end of the runway starting to get closer than Id like, the nosewheel came up and the airplane left the ground. The stall horn blared and it occurred to me that Id forgotten to reset the trim after the last landing. I pushed the nose over and watched the VSI slowly wind up to a meager 350 fpm climb.
As we burned off fuel, the airplane handled more like I expected it to, and the rest of the flight – and the one after – was uneventful. But I often look back on that episode and wonder just how close I came to putting us all into the concrete from 150 feet.
Since then, Ive given much more weight to the personality dynamics that can come into play during sightseeing flights. Be assertive about being pilot in command, and dont forget that the urge to get going now usually means you have to stop and reconsider.