When Good Intentions Have Bad Consequences

A quick early morning hop around the pattern to maintain night currency becomes the last link in the accident chain


There I was, 1000 feet above the airport, flying the pattern, with no safe way to land my plane. I was lonely, angry, afraid and somehow also at peace. “Fly the plane!” Those words kept repeating more than I could count. My past instructors’ words offered encouragement. It’s now been two years since that flight, when I almost made my wife a widow and my children fatherless, but the part that haunts me most is it was all my fault. Here’s what ­happened.

Highly Motivated

I have always wanted to be a pilot. Life and medical school made it difficult to find the time and money. Finished with my medical training and finally earning a decent income, I sought out a flight instructor, and earned my private certificate in six months and just over 40 hours. I joined a flying club, taking their Piper Archer II everywhere. Along the way, my family was growing beyond its four-place cabin and useful load, and I was looking for other options.

About this time, I was introduced to Dave, one of the better pilots, instructors and men I’ve come across. Formerly a U.S. Navy helicopter pilot, he owned a Beech B55 Baron and wanted someone to buy part of it. To sweeten the deal, he offered to discount my multi-engine and instrument training. After the insurance company agreed, I bought in, and we began our journey.

I flew over 200 hours in the Baron over the next few years. Many times, when I would be planning a trip, I would call Dave and run the weather and planning by him. His intent was to always keep me on my toes and my head on a swivel, and to know where others have stumbled. I planned to do things systematically to avoid the mistakes other pilots had made. 

Original Goals

At midnight one day, I got called to the hospital for a patient consultation. Yes, midnight. I left the hospital around 1:30 am and decided to go to the airport and make sure the Baron was ready for the morning’s planned flight. We shared the hangar with another plane and often had to move it to get ours out. This night was no different.

I did a walk-around inside the hangar. I then attached the Robotow and pulled out the Baron. My original goal was to reposition the plane so I could plug the engine heaters in and minimize the work I would need to do in the morning. Instead, I chose to start it with the intent of taxiing to the fuel pump.

By this time, I had made several poor decisions, the first of which was to drive out to the airport and preflight my plane. I did not run through the PAVE checklist because in my mind I wasn’t going to fly. But as I looked at the night sky, I was reminded about an upcoming trip with the family. I had only two night landings in the last 90 days and figured it wouldn’t take much more time to do a quick takeoff and landing to get night-current.

Last Link In The Chain

I jumped into the plane, taxied to the runway and did my run-up without any issues. I followed my checklist and made sure I didn’t miss anything. On the takeoff roll, just as the nosewheel left the ground, I felt the left rudder slam to the floor; the right rudder was too stiff to push. By the time I had any opportunity to think, I was off the ground and trending left of the runway centerline. I looked at the left engine nacelle’s gear mirror and realized what all the fuss was about: I had left the towbar attached to the nosewheel.

The Robotow is unique in that it screws onto the nosewheel. This makes it easier to maneuver the plane without it slipping off, but also doesn’t let the towbar fly off either. I knew this. To say I was angry at myself is an understatement. I was able to retrace and point out every mistake I made that put me in that situation. All these thoughts flooded into my mind. 

I knew I had to break the accident chain. I was making too many dumb mistakes, and the only common denominator was me. I needed help. At two in the morning, there are not many people willing or able to help. I leveled off at 4000 feet msl and used my cell phone to call the airport manager, Mark, who is also a CFI. To be honest, I only called him because he would need to help me get the disabled plane off the runway when I landed. 

Applying The PAVE Checklist

The FAA’s PAVE checklist offers an organized process to assess a planned flight’s risks and mitigate them. The acronym stands for Pilot, Aircraft, enVironment and External factors. In this instance, the aircraft had no issues—except for the towbar, of course—and neither did the environment. How would its application have prevented this mishap?

  •   The Pilot: The PAVE checklist focuses on two main areas: experience/recency and physical condition. In this instance, Kelly easily met the experience/recency guidelines. Those for physical condition include “sleep” and “stressful events,” which were problematic, however.
  •   External Pressures: Also problematic were these factors, not least of which included the time of day, the planned next-day flight and the one planned with his family, for which night currency was an issue. One thing about external pressures we all must remember: They almost always are self-imposed, and thus can be unimposed.

The PAVE checklist—as well as some other checklists—doesn’t include something we strongly recommend and which should be part of each pilot’s routine: Before boarding the aircraft, walk completely around it—with a flashlight, if necessary—looking for wheel chocks, “remove before flight” streamers and, of course, towbars.

Your own copy of the PAVE checklist, which also includes a brief discussion of personal minimums, is available from faa.gov. You may also want to review the agency’s Risk Management Handbook, both of which are free for the download. — J.B.

‘Fly the airplane!’

Several times, bad thoughts would come and go. This repeated multiple times, and each time I was met with the calming voices of those who trained me. I continued to fly around for at least 30 minutes. Mark had arrived by now and was talking to me over the radio. As I came around for my last go-around, the right engine lost manifold pressure and rpm. Remedial actions did not restore the right engine’s power.

Throughout all of this, I continued to hear my instructors as if they were in the plane with me: “Fly the airplane!” and suddenly a very loud, “Airspeed!” 

I noticed the airspeed was getting low, 74 mph, just below the red radial denoting VMCA, minimum controllable airspeed. Not good! Reflexively, I pitched down. I looked out the window and saw that the lights of the houses were much closer than I remembered them. The altimeter told me I was 250-300 feet agl. The tops of the trees were inching closer. No time for a checklist now. I secured the right engine and tried to gain some airspeed and altitude, but I quickly learned that the plane had too much drag between the landing gear, the towbar and the yaw.

I informed Mark I was unable to keep the plane in the air. He told me that the wind was low enough I could land in any direction. I was over the houses southwest of the airport. Turning left would have placed me in someone’s backyard. I decided to take the slightly riskier choice and turn to the right, taking me away from the homes and toward open farmland. I chose to aim toward the flat, empty field just north and east of the airport. As it was a new moon, I didn’t have any lighting at all, so I didn’t know exactly how far off the ground I was. I gently rolled the plane to the right five degrees, 10 degrees….

 Approaching the runway, the stall warning activated and the airplane rolled right, to almost 90 degrees. I had seen multiple videos of planes spinning to the ground when turning base-to-final, and none had a good outcome. I pitched the nose down and turned the aileron the opposite direction. I do not know how, but the plane responded. Somewhat in shock that I was still alive and in the air, I was almost caught off guard when it started to happen again. This time I was able to correct it before it worsened. 

I abandoned any thought of the runway. The best chance I had was to fly into the ground with the wings level. I pulled the left engine back to idle. The right main landing gear hit first, followed shortly by the left. Then the nose hit hard, collapsing the nosewheel.

The yoke responded as expected and connected with my face. I hit my chin on the yoke but did not lose consciousness. I first touched ground heading about 150 degrees; the plane came to rest facing about 230 degrees. I had a laceration to my chin and a couple of bruises. The airplane did not fare as well.

Lots Of Lessons Learned

Kelly Gabel
The Robotow finally came off when the nosewheel strut collapsed. What remained of the right main landing gear is shown.

The NTSB investigator believed the right wing being lower than the left resulted in the right engine’s fuel tank to unport, causing the right engine failure. He agreed that it was my fault for leaving the towbar on and not managing the fuel system during my flight. So many lessons to be learned from my mistake.

What did I learn? That there is such a thing as a bad time to go flying. Just because it’s legal, doesn’t mean it’s always a good idea. I now always use the PAVE checklist and no longer fly if my wheels won’t touch the ground prior to my planned bedtime.

Sleep is very important. I may have been trained to do surgery on little sleep, but not flying. With surgery, I’m on the ground with personnel ensuring I’m doing well. Pilots are the most important part of the operation: If we are not properly maintained, the plane shouldn’t be considered airworthy, either.

Sometimes planning for efficiency tempts one to rush something important. Routines can protect us, and deviating from them should raise a red flag. Build and follow those safe routines.

Recognize the red flags. Dave tells me that if two or more unexpected things occur before a flight, he stops and reevaluates. “Bad stuff tends to happen in waves.” 

Never underestimate the importance of a final walk-around. The reason why should be obvious.

Have a plan for aborting every takeoff. Where is the accelerate/stop point? Taking out a few lights buys you a lot of paperwork but may prevent your family from having to buy you a funeral.

Fly the airplane. This is fundamental. It’s very simple. However, it saved my life. It doesn’t matter what got you to that point; you must be able to fly the plane out of the disaster you put yourself into or you won’t ever fly again.

Find a way to break the chain of bad decisions, for which you probably are the common denominator. Asking for help early may very well save you.

Altitude is your friend. It will buy you valuable time and distance. Had I climbed higher, I probably would have made the runway when the engine failed.

Use your time wisely. I wasted several minutes by not reviewing the engine failure, fuel crossfeed, emergency landing, etc., checklists. Running the checklists would have triggered me to turn on the crossfeed sooner. 

Appreciate those who love you and care about you. 


I had good intentions in making sure I was current with my night landings, but ultimately they led me to make bad decisions, which came with bad consequences. 

I have learned a lot about aviation and about myself. I should be dead. Yes, it would have been my fault. However, the training I received, when put to the ultimate test, put me in the best position to survive. Training, and a little help from above, allowed me to write this story. Θ


Kelly Gabel practices general surgery in rural Kansas. He’s an instrument-rated private pilot in singles and twins, and now flies a Cessna 340A.


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