As a kid, I was lucky to go on a lot of family vacations. Colorado, California, Florida—wherever we went, I always angled for the window seat on airplanes, eager to watch the earth disappear under me during takeoff.
I was that kid who was brought up into the cockpit to meet the pilot and copilot, marveling at all the shiny knobs and dials and levers, knowing that, one day, I wanted to be a pilot.
In those days, for me, the journey was its own reward. The best parts of those vacations were the flights there and the flights back. Yeah, there were memories made in between, but from the moment I arrived at the airport, I was ready for adventure.
While I was in college at Villanova University in Pennsylvania, I was able to take a discovery flight. We got up in the air, and the guy told me to take the controls. I was a little suspicious. “You sure, man?” But I did—and I was hooked.
My beautiful wife, Kaysi, bought me a flying lesson at the Cape May Airport in New Jersey. I own a brewery there—the choice for the brewery’s location may have been swayed a little by the fact that it’s at an airport. The flight school has since closed, but the brewery is still going strong.
And I’m still flying.
A few years ago, as I was working toward my instrument rating, my instructor, Larry, called me one night over the winter. He and I had a great relationship; I’d pursued my private certificate with him. He asked me to fly one of his other students from Salisbury, Maryland, to Cape May. Larry said he’d sweeten the deal with a free lesson.
I said, “Of course, Larry, whatever you need.”
I was flying my buddy Mike’s Piper Dakota at the time, and his nose-gear wheel pant was off, being painted. On this frigidly cold, pitch-black night, in a rush, we pulled the airplane out of the hangar with a tow bar.
We jumped in the airplane and fired it up.
The Delaware Bay in the middle of winter is a huge, black expanse of open water. No moon, no wind, no waves—it looks like a gigantic slab of obsidian, extending in all directions. It’s imposing and beyond exhilarating.
Nonetheless, we arrived in Salisbury, and as soon as we landed, we heard a huge pop followed by the horrendous screeching sound of metal dragging on asphalt.
My heart sank to my stomach. It was horrifying. Not only did I have this mishap, but it was in my friend’s airplane.
I was ashamed. I was totally at fault. It was a bonehead thing to do. I let myself be rushed because of the cold and didn’t check everything I needed to check.
“Just tell the tower that we think we’ve got a flat and we need to stop,” Larry said.
We turned off the airplane on the side of the runway and got out to inspect the damage. The tow bar was wrapped completely around the wheel—a full 180-degree bend—and the prop actually hit the tow bar, nicking one of the blades.
I was shaking, I was so upset. In fact, I was so upset, I forgot to shut off the ignition—the thing could have taken my head off.
We taxied over to where Larry’s other student was, rather uselessly as we weren’t going to be going anywhere. We called everyone we knew with an airplane, but no one was available to pick us up, so we spent the night in Salisbury. The next day, a friend flew to Salisbury and took us back to Cape May.
The plane ended up being stuck there for a few months. They did the teardown, and the prop obviously needed to be replaced, but the next day, once the smoke had cleared, it began to dawn on me that there was more damaged than just the airplane.
I contacted Larry. “How do we deal with this, man? We’ve got to call the insurance company. We need to report this to the FAA.”
At first, Larry didn’t want to report the incident. It turns out that he’d filed an IFR flight plan, and at the time, I was not IFR-certified.
“Ryan, you were pilot in command,” he was saying. “It was your flight.”
I told him he was crazy. It was a training flight; he’d filed IFR. I wasn’t even certified to fly under that designation. He was a CFI. He filed the flight plan. He was responsible.
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Larry ended up dropping off the planet. He stopped returning calls and, basically, absolved himself of all responsibility. He buried his head in the sand and left Mike and me to deal with the insurance issues. This mess completely destroyed our relationship.
Coincidentally, at the time, Mike’s airplane was at about 1,800 hours and due for a teardown anyway. But that actually made the insurance company sit up and take notice. Were we filing this claim just to get a free teardown?
Mike did quite a bit of arguing with his insurance company. “Look, Ryan has absolutely no motivation to get me a free engine and prop. Furthermore, he did it in the dark. Over the Delaware Bay. In the middle of winter. There are so many easier ways to do a prop strike.”
Thankfully, they did the right thing and ended up paying for the repairs. I still have not heard from Larry.
So today, years later and after 800 hours of flight, I learned a few things. For one, have a CFI you can trust. Know what he’s up to and that the flight plan is correct. Additionally, have a clear understanding of who is the PIC. But, most important, never let yourself be rushed. If I had simply taken two seconds to ensure that the tow bar was removed, I could have avoided all of this.
Yet, even after that, I wasn’t dissuaded from flying. I’ve since worked up to my instrument rating, and having a license definitely helps with my duties at the brewery. I’m fairly active in legislative affairs, so if I have to run to Trenton, New Jersey, or Washington, D.C., for a meeting, I can spend an hour in the air instead of nine hours in a car.
I’ve been flying for about seven years, and I’m working toward my commercial certificate. And I still find something romantic about flying over the Delaware Bay at night. It’ll never stop being exhilarating.
This story appeared in the April 2020 issue of Flying Magazine