Sometimes, Man Shouldn't Fly
One of the hardest things to learn in aviation is that sometimes, it's just better not to fly and for the most banal of reasons. This is why I'm skeptical that the GA accident rate will ever improve much, if at all. Most of us have had accident-free flying careers through a combination of skill, good judgment and just plain luck. And that judgment thing deserts every one of us occasionally, as it did me last weekend.
The Cub was just out of annual and needed a post-maintenance flight to check a couple of things—the left brake and the trim system. I hate post-annual test flights. On the spectrum of human behavior ranging from eager guinea pigs to control freaks, I'm definitely the latter. I don't like surprises in airplanes and I've had a couple after annuals. Happily, none involved bent metal, fire or enforcement. (One involved vomit, but that's another story and wasn't my fault anyway. At least not exclusively.)
Everyone has days when they can't seem to get the $#%# into one sock (or even find the sock) and that was me Saturday morning. First, I got to the end of the driveway and realized I'd forgotten my hangar key. Parked the bike, walked back, got it. Then I got to the end of the road and realized I'd forgotten my street shoes; you can't fly a Cub in motorcycle boots. Back to the house for those. This happens to me a lot. I guess I need a checklist for leaving home. Or maybe there's an app for that. When I got to the airport, the headset battery was dead and my favorite chocks were missing. It sounds trivial, but not for me.
That's because I'm an obsessive, ritualistic pre-flighter. I have a little routine I go through to get my game face screwed on and it requires everything being where it's supposed to be. This is doubly important for a post-annual pre-flight. I found a pair of chocks, but not my chocks. Next, the fuel sampler was missing from the seat pocket where it always lives, probably because we refurbed the upholstery and it got misplaced. I never, ever fly without sumping fuel. Best I could do was drain it into the floor pan, which I did. During the walk around, I bashed my noggin on both aileron bellcranks. I never do that. The upper door stay, maybe, but not the wings.
Despite all this non-stop bumbling, I managed to get the airplane out of the hangar without shearing off the wing bows on the doors, secured with the alien chocks and ready for propping. When cold, our Cub always starts on the first blade. Always. Not this time. Ten blades later, I told myself I'm getting the message here, if it doesn't start on the next try, I'm bagging it. It started on the eleventh blade.
After displaying as much grace as a man of a certain age with a big butt can muster, I inserted myself into the backseat, strapped in and reached for the headset on the front seat. That would be the headset that wasn't there. It was on the bench in the hangar, just where I'd left it when I changed the battery. More chocks, more really unbecoming, immature language and eventually, I got myself taxiing out to the runway, listening to the AWOS. Ten to 12 knots, gusts to 15. No biggie. It's down the runway. Except it wasn't. It was a 30-degree crosswind. The forecast called for gusts to 25, but not until mid-afternoon and it was only 8:30 a.m. What's a 30-degree component? Don't be a sissy.
After the run-up, during which the left brake sort of worked and the trim felt odd, which is to say normal in a Cub, I took off. Ten feet off the runway, I encountered a couple of those sharp-edged, winter gusts that knock crap around the airplane—in this case, the portable radio. I recovered the radio from the floor, pointed the airplane into the downwind at 400 feet and realized I was going, oh, 200 knots. Looks like the forecast was a tad out of sync. It was nasty bumpy, too.
Then I made the first good decision of the day. I put it back on the runway, achieving against all conceivable odds, a perfect squeaker of a wheelie. I crawled back to the hangar and put the thing away, but not before a gust caught it and spun it 90 degrees in the hangar alley while I watched, hoping it wouldn't hit anything.
Days like this leave you with a sour, hollow feeling of having, despite conspicuous effort borne of years of experience, achieved absolutely bupkis. Even the nice wheelie didn't offset that because I realized I didn't have myself a potential accident chain, I'd knitted a damn mail vest.
But we all do these things from time to time, do we not? You have to for if you don't, you aren't human and you certainly aren't a pilot. Later that evening, sipping a beer in front of the imaginary fireplace in our Florida house and reviewing the day's events, I was suddenly awash in a feeling of smug satisfaction. First of all, I'd gotten away with it and second, if they ever find me at the bottom of smoking crater, I will be unique in the annals of aviation history. Accident cause: Pilot couldn't find favorite chocks.