Several years ago the flight school that I owned and operated offered glider training, and from time to time I was called upon to fly the tug (tow plane). Our system was quite simple. We would tow the glider to the required altitude (usually 2000 or 3000 feet AGL attempting to find lift in the form of a thermal in which to release the glider) at which time the glider would release, break right, and climb, while the tow plane would break left and dive. The tug would then return, with the tow rope (a 200-foot braided nylon cord) still attached. The tow plane would make one pass over the sod strip, release the tow rope (hopefully lined up for the next glider), make a circuit of the field, and land. After taxiing up to the end of the rope, which would already be hooked to the next glider, we'd go again. As the tow pilots became more skillful, they could drop the rope at exactly the right place to be hooked to the next glider, so when they came back and taxied up to the other end of the rope, they were ready to go again. Thus we could get in from six to 10 tows to the hour.
You can only imagine how utterly boring it is to spend several hours (other than being jerked around by an incompetent student on the back end of the rope) going up, down, up, down, up, down, taxi over for fuel, then more of the up, down, up, down, up, down activity. The only break was the quick taxi over for fuel (we towed with half-tanks, to keep the tow plane as light as possible). A guy could go nuts with the sheer boredom of this activity.
We were using at that time a Citabria 7KCAB for a tug. This is a fully aerobatic airplane with both an inverted fuel system and an inverted oil system, which enables it to remain inverted for more than a few seconds. In fact, this was the airplane we had on our aerobatic training curriculum.
I suppose that everyone at one time or another suffers brain fade and does something incredibly stupid, but it would be hard to match what I did one beautiful spring day in Michigan while towing gliders. The weather was near perfect for soaring -- a few puffy, white cumulus, and lots of thermal activity. After being bored nearly out of my mind with up, down, up, down, when the glider released and broke right climbing, I broke left and dove. I was about 3000 feet AGL, and glancing down at the airspeed indicator, I noticed that it was at the exact entry speed for a loop. So I honked back on the stick, checked a wingtip against the horizon, and executed a perfect loop.
The tow plane was equipped with a mirror, mounted above the windshield so the tow pilot could observe the glider while on tow. On the backside of the loop, I glanced at the mirror and was horrified to see the 200-foot tow rope following me through the loop! In the euphoria of that lovely day I had completely forgotten that it was still attached to my airplane. Had the maneuver been anything less than a perfectly executed loop, that rope might have come down and damaged a wing, or, worse, hit the prop, or the skylight of the Citabria.
Just how dumb can one guy get? The next episode of idiocy on my part is at least as bad.
Many years ago we trained a man at my flight school, an extremely nice gentleman, who was absolutely unconscious. He walked around with his feet four feet off the ground and his head somewhere up in the cloudy fields of abstraction. However, he did meet the standard, and in due course was certified as a private pilot. He then went right out and bought a PA 32-260 (a Cherokee Six). Because of his absent-mindedness, I worried about him every time I knew he was out flying. The saving factor was that his wife had also trained for her private certificate and usually accompanied him when he flew, so this relieved my concern somewhat.
As an example of his proficiency (or lack thereof), on one occasion, returning from a business trip to Iowa, at night, and having filed IFR (without being rated to do so), he decided to land at MDW (Chicago Midway). On final, he discovered that about half the runway lights were obscured in snow banks from the plowing of the runway, so he aborted the approach and went to Milwaukee, where he landed at General Mitchell Airport. What I mean is, he sort of landed. At the threshold there was quite a snow bank from *that* runway being plowed. He hit the snow bank, wiping out his landing gear and turning his airplane into a sled. It skidded across the airport, finally coming to rest, with no injuries, but quite a bit of damage to the airplane.
His next little lapse (brain fade) led to my dumbest trick with an airplane (even worse that the tow-rope incident).
I've flown a lot of airplanes on ferry permits, and let me tell you, when I do this, I do an extra careful preflight walk-around inspection, and I fly the thing very carefully -- no sudden moves or violent maneuvering. Thus, after the preflight inspection, I carefully flew the damaged airplane over to get it fixed. The air was perfectly calm, the brief trip went smoothly, and the landing was feather light. On the roll-out I glanced back through that long cabin and was shocked at what I saw: The entire rear end of the airplane, from the back baggage compartment bulkhead rearward, was flapping up and down over at least a foot of travel! The back of the airplane was broken and all that was holding the thing together was the skin and control cables. All the longerons were broken from that point rearward!
Just how lucky can one guy get? If that short flight had been anything but super-smooth, the entire rear end of the airplane might well have come apart. How did I miss noticing how badly damaged the airplane really was when I did the preflight? I don't know, but I do know that if I had been more vigorous in shaking the horizontal stabilizer (really a one-piece stabilator), I would probably discovered the true extent of damage.
I have relived in my mind both of these two incidents over and over again. These acts of sheer stupidity on my part have made me an infinitely more careful pilot, a guy who puts his brain in gear before acting. Obviously I was lucky in both these instances (skill had nothing to do with it). But how long can one go on being lucky? The lesson I learned from the incident of the airplane with the broken back is similar to the lesson learned by the persistent scud-runner who finally scares himself and goes out and gets an instrument rating.
I once knew an individual who had been happily flying VFR for several years. However, he often ventured forth in marginal weather, resulting in frequent episodes of scud running. One day as he returned to his home base, he was flying so low that, in order to stay under the solid overcast, he had to duck under the wires crossing the road at the threshold of the runway. That's when he decided to get himself rated.
In promoting this column we have stated that we learn by experience, and experience comes from mistakes. Well, when we can learn from the mistakes of others we're a lot better off than if we make the mistakes ourselves. It is a lot easier to learn from the experience of others -- there's simply no way we can make all the mistakes ourselves. That's why I write this column -- to share the experiences of others, and in this case, my own stupid experiences.