Don’t Always Keep On Keeping On

I have been thinking about some fascinating but challenging situations — events you hope never to encounter that involve decisions and require reactions to life-or-death consequences. “When to give up,” a decision not naturally part of most pilots’ DNA, has been rattling around in my brain for a long time, so here goes.

Two events that occurred years ago — takeoff accidents — had a profound impact on me, although the first happened to my (then) future husband when I was 6 years old. The second involved an acquaintance, an older man I knew when I had a flying school at Lunken Airport, and while I didn’t actually witness the crash, I was close — too close — to the scene.

After Ebby had nearly finalized the sale of his first P-51 in 1948, he couldn’t resist the temptation to take it out for “one last spin” before the deal was done. E.P. (as I would always call him) was just about to lift off from Lunken Airport’s (then) Runway 24 when a spray of white steam suddenly spewed from under the long nose and enveloped the cockpit. Fully aware there was no chance of getting the fighter stopped before the end of the 5,100-foot runway, he unhesitatingly chopped the power, pulled the gear up, slid off the end of the runway, plowed through a fence and came to rest in a nearly empty airport parking lot. A coolant line had failed, and had he continued the takeoff, the engine would surely have seized over the densely populated area before he could get it back onto any runway. So, yeah, the damage was extensive (to put it mildly), but nobody was hurt.

Little wonder E.P. would later caution me to never, ever take “one last spin” in any airplane for which you had a firm buyer.

The intriguing thing to me was his instantaneous and, I think, instinctive reaction. When the coolant line blew, in a split second he did what he had “armed” himself to do: abort the takeoff and accept the consequences, which meant bending a lot of metal and losing a lot of money. Maybe his military training (he’d flown P-40s and P-51s in the Canal Zone in World War II) had something to do with it, but then Ebby Lunken was a “natural” — an intuitive and simply splendid pilot.

About 20 years later, the other man I knew was taking off from Lunken’s (then) Runway 20 in his B55 Baron with a friend in the right seat and two kids in the rear. Dick was a successful businessman and also a former military pilot, as had been his right-seater, the difference being that the pilot was current and qualified while the “co­­pilot” hadn’t flown actively for years.

As they broke ground on this 6,100-foot runway, the guy in the right seat — for whatever reason, but I have to guess the desire to look “cool” — reached over and, uncommanded, retracted the landing gear. The airplane settled back onto the runway, badly chewing the propeller tips. They’d already used a lot of runway, and Dick’s instinct was to “make it fly” over the looming Kentucky hills. With the engines shaking and losing power, he attempted a steep 180-degree turn back to the runway from a few hundred feet. Yes, the Baron stalled in the “impossible turn,” hitting trees and crashing on a perimeter road. The right-seater was killed, and while the pilot and rear-seat passengers survived, Dick lost an eye and sustained other severe injuries. The airplane burned and was a total loss.

What should he have done? Well, from the comfort of our armchairs, it’s easy to say Dick should have done what Ebby did: pull the power and slide to a stop — for sure, bending metal, but probably ensuring survival.

So this is what bothers, intrigues and gnaws at me. I confess (I think you already know), I’m an “if you’re not living close to the edge, you’re taking up too much room” kind of gal. But I’ve sincerely tried to cultivate that instinctive reaction Ebby exhibited: In a bad situation, choose the option, however unattractive, that will minimize risking a catastrophic outcome. Accept the fact that you’re going to bend the airplane, maybe get hurt and have the FAA, insurance companies and airport authorities on your back. You don’t want to “keep on keeping on” in the desperate hope you can pull a rabbit out of the hat. But this takes serious thought, so think about it before every flight: “What’ll I do if …?”

Put yourself in the following (real life) situations.

You’re on final at a fly-in to a short grass strip with obstacles at both ends and a bunch of people watching. Having stayed high over the trees, you shove the nose forward to get it down on the end, but your speed is too great. When you flare out, the airplane won’t “sit” and, as you’re cringing over the embarrassment of a go-around, you’re eating up runway. Can you for sure clear those trees on a climb-out? Well, you’ll have to, because staying on the ground this deep on the runway means running off the end — and talk about embarrassing!

IFR at a 7,000-foot minimum en route altitude in a PA-28-181, you’re beginning to pick up a little rime ice, although the freezing level was advertised as 9,000 feet. Rather than immediately taking action — requesting a higher altitude or turning around — you assure yourself that you’ll soon run out of this. Then, approaching higher terrain over the Appalachians, things rapidly deteriorate, and suddenly, freezing precip — like a fire hose — encases the airplane in clear ice. The ceilings underneath are low, but you can’t maintain altitude.

And, finally (this one is mine), giving dual in a tandem, relatively high-powered airplane (think Husky), you allow your three-hour student to make the takeoff on a narrow concrete runway at a private strip. As the tail comes up, it (of course) veers to the left and the big guy up front overcorrects with right rudder. He lets go as you yell, “I’ve got it,” and try to get it back on the concrete, but there’s a low wooden fence directly in your path. Rather than pull the power and hit the fence, you desperately chant, “Fly, you bleep, fly.” It valiantly tries, but the belly rakes the top of the fence and you nose over into the corn with far more damage than just a bent prop.

Bad decisions from ignorance, pride or unrealistic hope will get you into worse trouble than “giving up.”


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