Things I Might Not Do Again


I just pulled down from a dusty shelf in my office a plaque awarded to me for an important aviation achievement. It was presented to me personally by none other than famed flight test pilot and Collier Trophy winner Scott Crossfield. More on that in a moment.

The reason I retrieved it relates to something I saw on the evening news last weekend. A Piper Malibu, having landed undamaged on the median or maybe the lanes of the 101 freeway near San Jose, was being towed to a nearby airport. As the camera scrolled the airframe, I thought to myself, hey, that looks just like my friend Chuck Kissner’s old Malibu, the one we flogged across the continent several times with me in the right seat. When I saw the N-number, it sure enough was the same airplane. This is not something you want to see on the evening news. Or at all.

Dredging my memory, I was thinking this was the airplane’s second engine failure. Well no, Chuck informed me by email, it was actually the fifth partial or full failure, at least that we know about. Chuck had three—two turbo hose departures and a fuel pump failure. His then-partner had a broken crankshaft and now this failure. The airplane is an early Malibu and has north of 5500 hours.

Even experienced vicariously via a 15-second news clip, such a development causes one to, shall I say, rethink one’s decisions. Chuck was more whimsical: “Ah, the power of rationalization,” he wrote me, reminding me that even after his mechanical mayhem, he continued to fly the airplane over the Rockies. At night. Sometimes in weather. Sometimes with me along.

Readers of this blog know that I’m fond of measuring risk numerically so even if the airplane had five failures in 10,000 hours, that’s not what I would call low risk. If you explained this to a non-aviation person about to ascend the airstair into the cabin, would it cause pause? Logically, it should, I suppose. On the other hand, the airplane made it down safely every time.

In addition to being a serial quitter, the airplane had another unnerving habit. Being pressurized, it oil canned a little in the form of a robust bang at random moments. Chuck had warned me about it, but I still nearly soiled myself when it did this over the mountains in weather. At least it was daylight.

The Malibu was—and is—one of the great GA airplanes. Big, fast and comfortable. But Piper was further along with the airframe than Continental was with the engine. The TSIO-520-BE did the job of pressurizing the cabin with a pair of turbos and driving the thing into the flight levels, but it didn’t have much to spare and the early airplanes could be maintenance hogs. What the Malibu really needed was the IO-550 series, but by the time that was available, Piper had switched to the Lycoming TIO-540 for the Mirage.

Chuck is off flying piston airplanes at all now, but I’d still get in that very same airplane for a long trip. But I’m no longer interested in traversing the Rockies or Sierras in weather or at night. I’d still fly night IFR, even in the winter, considering the airplane has boots and handles icing effectively. We did one such trip westbound from Rhode Island to California into the teeth of a winter gale. When the groundspeed drops to 120 knots in a 200-knot airplane, the discussion naturally turns to things made by Pratt & Whitney bolted on to things made by Boeing.

Now, about that plaque. We were awarded it by the National Aeronautic Association for “speed over a recognized course from San Jose … to New York … for Class C-1d, Group 1 on May 4, 1992.” According to the plaque, the trip took 10 hours and 56 minutes for a speed of 234.16 mph. It’s an impressive plaque with a bespoke raised gold seal. I don’t have it hanging up because I don’t have the wall space and because if someone asked about it, I’d have to explain what “vanity record” means.

These so-called city-pair records seemed to be a thing in the early 1990s and may still be, for all I know. But it’s about as significant as the record my personal parachute packer, Kyle, awarded me over the weekend: the most number of skydives without dying. I like that guy. He keeps packing them and I keep unpacking them.

I went to the National Air and Space Museum in Washington, where the late Scott Crossfield handed out the awards. What a gracious man. When one of the recipients told Crossfield that he was a personal hero, Crossfield replied: “Well, tonight, you’re mine.” Maybe I’ll withdraw that crack about the vanity record. For a brief, shining moment, the awards made us feel like we were participants in the larger world of aeronautics, even if strutting across the stage for an eye blink.

Crossfield asked me what the unrefueled range of the Malibu was, but damned if I could remember. But I do know it has a hell of a glide ratio.