Sometimes, Man Shouldn't Fly

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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.

Comments (38)

It is always refreshing to know of someone openly admitting with good demeanor, that at times, they have not used their best judgment. There are occasions when we allow to let things get worse and then worser but survive the ordeal. It is a kind of "I cant believe I did that" reflection. As a new CFI I was eager to work even when winds were variable and gusting to 40 kts swirling on the ground. Palm Springs is known for interesting windy conditions. Bumpy or not, off I went, sort of like green breaking horses in the air. Thanks for the reminder, sometimes we wake up with horse dung for brains. From an old pilot and cowboy.

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 21, 2013 2:54 AM    Report this comment

I almost always enjoy what you have to say and this was a great example. When this many little things start going 'wrong' it is time to stop and rethink the situation.

Reminds me of a flight I tried to take in an Arrow several years ago. The idea was simple: there was good local weather so I and my bride will fly across the state to pick-up her sister for a visit. I went through a similar routine with little things 'wrong'. We finally took off and part way there the clouds started moving in and getting thicker so I went lower to stay under them. It didn't get any better then I realized what I was doing! Why am I fighting the clouds? This trip is not necessary or critical! So back to the airport and put the plane away with no bent metal and a lesson learned.

Posted by: Richard Norris | February 21, 2013 5:52 AM    Report this comment

All I can say, is "Nice job Paul". I always enjoy your straight forward, no un-neccessary BS (unless its for poetic license/humor) style. And good job putting down the hammer and walking away from the nail. Hopefully your first beer wasn't skunked as well! Cheers!

Posted by: michael anderson | February 21, 2013 6:50 AM    Report this comment

There are days when I do not go regardless of wx.

Posted by: Peter Hill-Ricciuti | February 21, 2013 7:51 AM    Report this comment

Thanks for the good read. Caught myself smiling and nodding as I read along. In my case those are the days I say I have the Midas touch. Everything I touch turns into a muffler.

Posted by: ABBOTT DE RHAM | February 21, 2013 8:06 AM    Report this comment

Paul, great perspective and advice. I stick to the "three strikes" rule. If three things go wrong before I crank, I put the plane away. No science to it, but in retrospect it seems to work. When I was learning to fly my mentor always reminded me that "sometimes the best flights are the ones you don't make"

Mike Rutledge

Posted by: Michael Rutledge | February 21, 2013 8:10 AM    Report this comment

Nice story that many of us will relate to.

"Gee, I could have had a V8"!

Posted by: Robert Colby | February 21, 2013 8:13 AM    Report this comment

Sort of like saying, "Once I thought I'd made a mistake, but I was wrong." Mistake = human. Multiple mistakes = still human. But at some point as they add up, time to park it, right? I hate it when I'm sitting in front of the hangar, post-flight briefing myself, and my mistakes exceed the number of fingers. Self-chastising sucks! :)

Posted by: Cary Alburn | February 21, 2013 8:28 AM    Report this comment

There are times I have arrived at the airport, opened up the hangar to begin preflight, went that little nagging voice asked me if I was really in the right frame of mind to commit aviation. Over the years I have learned to trust that nagging voice and have just closed up the hangar and done something else.

Posted by: Ric Lee | February 21, 2013 8:47 AM    Report this comment

A subject that many pilots whose job is flying have considered occasionally, myself included. I think the standards are a little different for obvious reasons. It works out ok though because flying an airplane every day makes the decision more like whether or not to drive a car would be for most folks.

Posted by: Chuck Lemasters | February 21, 2013 8:51 AM    Report this comment

Compulsive? Do you mean OCD? If you REALLY are OCD it is CDO because that's alphabetical order. I hope you eventually find YOUR chocks. Thanks for writing.

Posted by: STAN TEW | February 21, 2013 10:39 AM    Report this comment

What a great story! Thanks so much. It's amazing how many little details can arise during the preflight. As someone who is about to make a post-annual / post-overhaul flight after five months of down time, I will be paying super-extra-special attention to those details!

Posted by: Dj Molny | February 21, 2013 11:28 AM    Report this comment

Your story is a hindsight reflection. To have it have meaning ask yourself if you will be able to add all this up in REALTIME. While it's happening, in the moment. Unless that happens, it will happen again, and again, and again.

Posted by: G Bigs | February 21, 2013 11:51 AM    Report this comment

Many years ago someone told me if things are going wrong then stay on the ground. It is better to be on the ground wishing be flying than in the air wishing you were on the ground.

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 21, 2013 12:18 PM    Report this comment

You sure you're not Dave Barry in disguise??

Posted by: Mark Dunn | February 21, 2013 12:46 PM    Report this comment

Whose Dave Barry :-)

Posted by: Bruce Savage | February 21, 2013 1:04 PM    Report this comment

My first instructor told me that when making go or no-go decisions, I should always remember that Greyhound is always there! I have never forgotten his advice...

Posted by: Jim Houston | February 21, 2013 1:07 PM    Report this comment

My grandfather used to say: "Saying no and skipping a flight takes all but 10 seconds. Being dead takes a lifetime." I can't say how many times I've heard his voice over the years, but I still do. Great story, Paul.

Posted by: Jason Baker | February 21, 2013 1:19 PM    Report this comment

Dave Barry is an American humorist. Being compared to him is a high compliment indeed and, I'm afraid, undeserved. But thanks anyway. A kind thought.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 21, 2013 1:51 PM    Report this comment

Hmmmm. I had one of those days, heading off on a weekend fishing trip after finally finding someone to split the gas. Solenoid wouldn't make contact to run the starter, requiring multiple clicks of the key, prop turning on "this is the last try" as per Paul's hand-propping. On takeoff, a few drops of water splattered on the window from a clear sky. That's odd. Oops--it's oil, the filler cap was off. Back to land, and wiping oil out of the cowl and off the windscreen for about 15 minutes. Landing with an oil smeared windscreen at the end of the windscreen wasn't much fun, and to cap things off, on the next morning's flight one of the fuel bladders developed a large wrinkle causing the fuel gauge in that tank to give bizarre readings and encouraging another precautionary landing before we got to the river. Yeah, I probably shouldn't have gone on that trip. The fish in the South Flathead probably would agree . . .

Posted by: DAVID CHULJIAN | February 21, 2013 3:26 PM    Report this comment

It's tough for me, too. Sometimes I'll try and break the energy directed and stop and do something completely different, or nothing, for awhile. Then, when I go back and get into the procedure for the task again, if things are still going haywire, I'm out.

If a nagging inner voice isn't of one's wife (sorry, Ric, couldn't resist), that can be a good guide, too. Platitudes and number counting don't work for me, but may for others. But getting objective somehow I think is the key to knowing if this is a day for doing something else or not. And distraction, then re-assessment works well, usually, for me.

Glad you got down safely to humorously write and share your self-effacing story for us, Paul. That beer had to taste great.

Posted by: David Miller | February 21, 2013 6:20 PM    Report this comment

I discovered recently that a Cessna C150G only burns 5.5 gph (instead of 7.4 gph) if you simply reinstall BOTH gas caps after refueling! On a lighter note though, I did find the other gas cap the next day... in the middle of the runway! Whiskey Tango Foxtrot!

Posted by: Rick Bazzo | February 21, 2013 6:35 PM    Report this comment

Cessna 150g? From 1987? Laughing = 6 gph 100LL
Cessna 172=10 gph
Cessna 206/210 = 15 gph
Cessna 310 = 34 gph

Posted by: G Bigs | February 21, 2013 6:44 PM    Report this comment

We're all proud of making little mistakes. It gives us the feeling we don't make any big ones.

Andy Rooney

Posted by: Rafael Sierra | February 21, 2013 8:39 PM    Report this comment

Geez Paul, I'm shattered. I always thought CFIIs were perfect and never made bad decesions :-)

Posted by: DANA NICKERSON | February 21, 2013 9:15 PM    Report this comment

Paul, enjoyable article, thanks. BTW, was the typo, "favorite chocks we're missing" deliberate, just to maintain the tone of the story?

Posted by: FRED GERR | February 21, 2013 9:58 PM    Report this comment

No, not deliberate. Fixed it. Thanks.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 22, 2013 5:26 AM    Report this comment

A great story Paul...I agree with you 110%...if the stars aren't lining up correctly, it's time to push it back in the barn until another day.

Posted by: R. Doe | February 22, 2013 7:03 AM    Report this comment

Paul, bad karma days aside, you are getting to the stage where you need to start "forget proofing" yourself. Anything necessary or desirable for flight (shoes, spare glasses, gloves, rabbit's foot, hangar key etc) should be stored in the hangar... except the key, that you need to hide outside the hangar.

Posted by: Richard Montague | February 22, 2013 10:28 AM    Report this comment

This would require me owning three pairs of shoes. For me, two is an extravagance.

Posted by: Paul Bertorelli | February 22, 2013 11:48 AM    Report this comment

A superior pilot is one who uses superior judgement so that he/she does not have to use their superior skill.

Posted by: matthew wagner | February 22, 2013 5:32 PM    Report this comment

I use Mike's 3 Strikes rule myself. Watching my iPhone crawl from my cowling, up my canopy, over the fuselage, and off the tail into the weeds during a run-up one day last summer counted for two. After shutting down and recovering the phone I restarted the run up... Very carefully. My checklist now includes "phone stowed in pocket".

I've had several days that I failed all three before finishing my coffee.

Posted by: neil cormia | February 22, 2013 7:24 PM    Report this comment

I have at least twice decided not to fly and even skip a whole day of appointments because too much went wrong even before I got to the airport. I have this "two strikes" rule (like Mike's three only one less) where if two significant things go wrong, I decide flight just isn't for me that day and even if I have to go somewhere for appointments, I'll find another way or just cancel everything. I'll never know what this has saved me from, but I can say I've never regreted cancelling.

Interestingly enough as the years have flown by, the times where I invoke this have declined. Or maybe I can just see it coming now in advance and just avoid it through process.

Posted by: FILL CEE | February 27, 2013 9:44 AM    Report this comment

I live by the Rule of Three. If three things go wrong prior to a flight, I scrub it. Forget the Jepps and have to go back? That's one. Airport gate card inop? That's two. Hangar door trolley jumps the track? We're going home.
Nothing magical about the Rule of Three. But I am here to write about it.
Robin White

Posted by: ROBIN WHITE | February 27, 2013 10:44 AM    Report this comment


You know, the mind is the first thing to go! :)

Posted by: Richard Mutzman | February 28, 2013 5:11 PM    Report this comment

I had an instructor who once told me that if three things go wrong prepping for a flight, bag it. Of course you can't always do that, but it is always on the forefront of my mind.

Posted by: Donald Neuberg | March 1, 2013 7:36 AM    Report this comment

To quote Clint Eastwood as "Dirty Harry" in one of the last scenes in 1973's Magnum Force;"mans gots to know his limitations", this should apply to pilots as well!

Posted by: Rod Beck | March 2, 2013 8:31 PM    Report this comment

I certainly have had days like that when I just get in a funk getting ready and out of the house to go to the airport. Most times its the wind nawing at me and then a series of little things that happen and I have no problem cancelling for the day. It can be a difficult decision like cancelling school or work on a snow day, but I guess thats what its all about. Personal minimums that aren't written. More unfortunately I have had days like that on my last 2 checkrides attributed to lack of sleep and a humbling lesson on fatique. Good stuff, thanks for sharing. Steve Spinney

Posted by: Steve Spinney | March 8, 2013 7:28 AM    Report this comment

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