Eye of Experience #36:
Luck vs. Skill

Which would you rather have, luck or skill? When - not if - you are confronted with bad weather, an unusual attitude or an airframe failure, which will you depend on? The correct answer is


Eye Of ExperienceMany years ago when I was a whole lot younger than now, I was a championship athlete in a very competitive sport. When preparing for a competition, I always used to say, “Let my opponent have the skill, just let me be lucky!”

When it comes down to a really tight situation in an airplane, I sort of believe I’d rather be lucky than skillful. While it is true that we make our own luck by being properly prepared for all foreseeable contingencies, all of us are human beings and as such are prone to occasional lapses. I know there have been occasions when I momentarily suffered “brain fade” and engaged in downright stupid activity with an airplane.


Towing The Line …

My stupidity occurred on a beautiful spring day in Michigan. I had been towing gliders for several hours. At that time we were using a Citabria KCAB, a fully aerobatic airplane with a double inverted system (fuel and oil). Our procedure was to tow the glider to around 2,000 feet MSL, at which time the glider would release and break right and climb while the tug broke left and dove, with the 200-foot tow rope trailing. The tow plane would then make a low pass over the field and drop the rope so it could be hooked up to the next glider while the tug came around and landed, taxiing back for the next hook-up.

After about three hours of this up-down, up-down activity it gets to be rather boring. So, after the glider released on one particular flight and feeling good, I looked around thoroughly, dove to entry speed and did a loop. On the back side of the loop, I glanced in the mirror (we had a mirror mounted at the top of the windscreen in the Citabria so we could observe the glider while it was on tow) and I was horrified to see the tow rope, which was still attached to my tail and about which I had completely forgotten. Stupid? You bet it was! I was lucky. Had it been anything less than a perfect loop that rope could very well have come down and fouled the prop or seriously damaged a wing.

… Very Ferry

There’s yet another example of my own dumbness. One of our clients, a very nice guy, but one who is prone to occasional periods of unconsciousness, had attempted to pull his airplane (a Cherokee Six) out of his T-hangar without having completely opened the overhead door. You guessed it; he caught the vertical stabilizer on the partly-opened door, damaging it badly. At that time, our maintenance shop was at a nearby airport about a dozen miles away. So, I simply called the local Flight Standards District Office and requested a ferry permit in order to fly the airplane over there. Not knowing quite what to expect what with a substantial kink in the vertical stabilizer and the rudder canted somewhat backwards, be assured I flew it very carefully and landed it very softly.

As I was rolling out on the runway after landing I happened to glance back. What I saw brought my heart up into my throat and made me break out into a cold sweat. The entire rear portion of the airplane was flapping up and down through over a foot of travel! The back of the airplane had been broken at the bulkhead at the rear baggage compartment. All the longerons were broken and all that was holding it together were the control cables to the elevator and rudder and the skin. Not knowing any better, I had flown it like that.

Again I was lucky. The air was calm that day, and there were no bumps. I was also stupid. Had I pulled and pushed a little harder while preflighting the airplane I might have discovered how badly it was really damaged – by the stupidity of the guy who pulled it into the half-opened hangar door.

In my 57 years and 40,000 hours of aviating there have been a few other occasions when I have had to call on my experience (and that of others) to save myself from bad situations. Not all of them involved brain fade, but all involved the element of luck.

A Real Squeaker

Even in today’s climate of denial of responsibility there are some things that we must admit are our own fault. One such episode occurred a few years ago: It was the only time in my long career as a pilot in which I lost control of an airplane. Here’s the story.

One of my fine clients owns a very nice Cessna 310 in which I had given him his training and which he uses to travel to his business interests in Michigan, Ohio and Indiana. He had trained for his multiengine rating in a Beech Baron, and had some experience in a Piper Seneca. This nice gentleman spends his summers at his home in Michigan and he winters in Las Vegas, running his business by telephone, fax, and computer. On this particular occasion he had returned to Michigan by carrier in mid-December to attend Christmas parties at several of his facilities. Since his 310 was in Nevada, he decided to rent a Seneca II but, because it had been some time since he had flown one, he asked me to accompany him on a flight from Pontiac, Mich. (PTK), to Youngstown, Ohio (YNG), for a party at his facility there. I agreed to do so and, with him flying the airplane from the left seat and me acting as instructor in the right seat, we embarked on the trip in a Seneca II.

Impaired Judgment Combined With Impaired Ability …

Now, please understand I had been lecturing and writing on the subject of hazardous attitudes for several years. [See “Eyeof Experience #13: It Can Happen to Me!” and “EoE#15: Hazardous Attitudes Revisited.” – Ed.] Although I certainly should have known better, on this particular day I fell victim to the invulnerability attitude, and I believed “it couldn’t happen to me.” I had been up virtually all night the day before the trip and I was physically exhausted. However, having confidence in my client’s ability and in my own, I went along. While my client conducted business and partied, I tried to catch a brief nap sitting in a chair in a darkened office at his place of business.

When it was time for the return trip (around 11:00 p.m.), I suggested that we check in to a hotel and fly back the next morning, but he insisted that we return that night as he had an early appointment the next day in Flint, Mich. Knowing better, I reluctantly agreed to return that night. I then obtained a weather briefing that indicated we would have an easy VFR flight. So, having yielded to the pressure, we embarked on the return trip under VFR, without a flight plan, but with flight following.

Halfway across Lake Erie in good VFR conditions we got the shock of our lives when the approach controller read us the Pontiac weather: a ceiling at 200 feet and visibility varying between one-quarter to one-half of a mile. He also advised us that three airplanes had tried the approach before us: One had made it in but the other two had missed and gone elsewhere. Then came the usual, “What are your intentions?” I asked for the Flint, Mich., (FNT) weather (about 35 miles from PTK). FNT was reporting 400 overcast and two miles’ visibility. There is an ILS at FNT, so that would be a piece of cake. I therefore advised the approach controller that we would execute the approach at PTK and if we couldn’t get in, we’d go to FNT. Meanwhile, I air-filed IFR as we were coming up over a solid undercast.

… First Missed Approach …

We were then vectored around for the ILS at PTK. I normally like a close, tight turn on to the final, but that night the controller turned us on right at the marker, 300 feet above the glide slope. This resulted in our having to descend quickly in an attempt to capture the glide slope but, when we reached decision height and broke out of the overcast, I had lost the localizer. The runway was about a quarter-mile to our left, and we were a third of the way down it already. Perhaps we could have maneuvered around and landed on the remaining runway, but I called the miss, and climbed back up into the soup, breaking out in the clear night sky on top about 1,000 feet AGL. Since we had visual contact with the runway at decision height, I decided to take another shot at PTK rather than diverting to FNT. This time I requested a long turn on to final.

… Second Miss – Loss of Control …

This time we joined the localizer at least a mile outside the marker at intercept altitude. However, although the approach was right down the glide slope and with the localizer needle centered, when we reached the DH (decision height) we saw nothing below or in front of us. (I was flying and my client was looking for the runway.) Again I called the miss, but this time due to my physical, mental, and emotional exhaustion, I failed to retract the flaps and gear. After applying power and honking back on the yoke to start climbing out, the airplane stood on its tail and started straight up!

Realizing that the manually-operated flaps were still extended for landing, I leaned over and reached for the flap handle. The missed approach procedure for the ILS to Runway 9 calls for flying straight ahead and climbing. As I looked up from retracting the flaps, I saw that we were in a 50-degree bank and diving with full power only some 200 feet above the ground! My client was screaming that there were trees right below us. I wrestled the airplane back to a wings-level climb attitude. Our heading was 060 degrees and the approach controller was asking just what we were doing. (We were supposed to be heading 090.) In a career spanning well over half a century this was the only time I had completely lost control of an airplane.

… The Third Time’s The Charm

After getting my heart out of my throat and back into my chest where it belongs, and getting the adrenalin rush settled down, I asked for one more shot at PTK. Having twice had visual contact with mother earth, I opted to try once more before diverting to FNT. This time all went well and we made a relatively uneventful landing.

I have no way of knowing how much of my regaining control of that airplane was an instinctive response to the great training I had and the years of experience I had accumulated at that time, but the factor of luck surely played a substantial part in the recovery. There is no question about the fact that we were lucky to survive. Since that time, I certainly pay a lot more attention to my personal physical, mental, and emotional condition as part of my pre-flight planning.

Lucky Again

The hairiest experience I have ever had in an airplane occurred several years ago when I was vectored into a tornado and the airplane came partially unglued in flight – the cabin door was ripped off and lodged in the tail. Here’s the story.

The Calm Before The Storm …

On a quiet Sunday afternoon in early spring several years ago – with weather throughout the area reported as 2,000 overcast and three miles (marginal VFR), I embarked on a short flight (about 60 miles) from Detroit City Airport (DET) back to Flint where an associate was waiting. My plan was to leave the Aztec I was flying with him and return to (PTK) in the school airplane he had flown to FNT. I didn’t bother to file IFR, but took off VFR, requesting flight following. I climbed to the minimum vectoring altitude for that area and headed for FNT. My home base, PTK, was about halfway between DET and FNT, six or seven miles to the left of a direct course between DET and FNT.

When I was about 10 miles along the way, whisps of cloud began to form under me and I noticed there was a solid wall of cloud straight ahead at my altitude. I air-filed for an IFR clearance, “present position direct FNT.” My request was immediately granted and I was given an assigned altitude of 3,000 and a new squawk code for the transponder. After leveling off at my newly assigned altitude, I began to get some pretty heavy jolts – you know, the kind in which you bump your head on the ceiling even though the belt is cinched up tight? I called approach and asked if he was painting any heavy weather, or if he had his scope on circular polarization (which wipes out the weather, leaving only aircraft on the screen), and he replied, “Both!” This was a clear indication that all was not well. If he had turned off the weather on his radar and it was still coming through, it was indeed very heavy weather. I was also beginning to pick up a bit of structural ice. Since PTK was much closer, and I had a dry house and warm wife nearby, I decided to abandon the idea of going to FNT and head for PTK. I advised the controller that I wanted to amend my destination and execute the VOR 27 approach to PTK, which was only six or eight miles off to my left.

… The Event …

Note the extreme rudder trim and overall damage.

That’s the entire door in the tail. Note how the top rear pin has been ripped out as well as the hinge at the front of the door. That’s ice on the windshield.

Pretty beefy structure, huh?

The response to this request was “Turn right heading 180 degrees for vectors to the final.” This would bring me outside the final fix for the angling final to Runway 27 at PTK. I started the turn and … WHAM! It was like driving right into a brick wall. The cabin door departed the airplane, followed shortly by the baggage door. I was being tossed around like a cork in a stormy sea. I found myself inverted, hanging by the seat belt with the hand mike plastered against the ceiling. The pressure changes were unbelievable. The airspeed indicator was reading from 0 to 200 MPH and back to 0 within the space of less than a second, and the altimeter was winding up and down from 1,000 to 4,000 feet and back in the same time frame.

I distinctly remember the thoughts that were running through my head. My first thought was that the door had fallen through a roof and landed on a baby sleeping in a crib in a house down below. Next, I was telling myself, “Okay, after all these years you’ve finally had it – you’ve bought the farm.” Finally, I thought, “All right, dummy, if you just settle down and do what you know how to do, you just might survive.” I reduced power, applied approach flaps and wrestled the airplane around to an upright attitude. Of course the gyros had all tumbled, so I wasn’t really sure of my attitude. Meanwhile the controller was reading PTK weather to me. He said they were reporting 1,000 and 3. With reduced power and approach flaps I continued to let down, figuring I’d break out 1,000 feet above the ground.

I advised the controller that I had lost the door – it had not just popped open, it was gone! He handed me off to the tower controller just as I was breaking out beneath the overcast, but at 300 feet above the ground, not 1,000. I saw a water tank beneath me, and called the tower and advised that I was “at the Waterford tank inbound.” (There is a large water tank 4.5 miles southeast of the PTK airport.) The tower, which had been advised of my situation by the approach controller, responded, “Cleared to land.” So I proceeded northwest, expecting to see the airport at any second. It didn’t happen. After a few minutes I saw an antennae tower in front of me sticking up into the cloud. (Remember, I was about 300 feet AGL.) I had mistaken a water tank just northeast of the airport for the one southeast. I was now about 10 miles due north of the airport.

I advised the tower of my true position and headed back toward the airport. As I came up to it, heading south (on a right base leg for Runway 27), the controller said, “We just had a wind shift. The wind is now 360 at 34. You may have 27 if you prefer.” (Runway 27 at that time was 5,300 x 300 feet, and runway 36 was, and still is 1,850 x 50 feet.) I said I’d take 36 and land into the wind. (36 has a long overrun between two rows of hangars.) As I turned final, I added a bit of power for the flare, and the right engine stopped! I had completely neglected to add carburetor heat and the carb had iced up sometime along the way. I had been experiencing severe control problem with the rudder, and now I knew why. I completed this adventure with a smooth, uneventful landing.

By the bye, some five minutes after I landed, the airport went to 100 feet and a quarter mile! A flight instructor who lived nearby had been at home monitoring the radio, and he had come over to the airport to watch the crash when I arrived. He had his camera with him, and took these pictures right after my arrival. His wife dropped off the photos the next day.

Luck or Skill? (Or Both)?

Without my aerobatic experience, and without having kept my cool throughout, I surely would have died that day. But, without a great deal of good old-fashioned luck, I most certainly would also be dead. The lesson here is simple – you can’t count on luck to save your butt; you must also acquire the skill to help yourself out of the tight situations.

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