I Learned About Flying From That

Something Felt Wrong

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Illustrated by Barry Ross

It was Sunday morning and time to head home. I had been fishing in British Columbia over the previous four days with some of my friends. There were four airplanes in our group, my T-tail Piper Lance II, a Bellanca Aries, a Cessna 210 and a Piper Dakota. We were located about 70 miles southwest of Williams Lake at a fishing camp I visit three or four times a year. I had been going there for a number of years, so I was very familiar with the dirt runway that had been carved out amongst the 50-foot-plus-high lodgepole pines.

The fishing as usual was great, however, all weekend my mind had been occupied with some problems that were waiting for me on my return to California. The runway was close to 3,500 feet long with about a 400-foot overrun at the northeast end that was all tall grass and shrubs, and then there were the pine trees. The southwest departure was over the lake, however, we just about always took off to the northeast as we would head to Williams Lake for fuel. The runway was crowned so no matter which way you went, you would go uphill and then down and there was invariably no wind. Field elevation was close to 4,000 feet above sea level, the morning air was cool so there was no real density altitude issue.

Having been in and out of this location many times I had developed a fairly safe and efficient departure procedure. Following my run-up I would line up on the runway, with brakes still on, go to full throttle, and tweak the mixture both by the EGT and just the sound of the engine. As I would start my takeoff roll I would perhaps tweak the mixture a little more and I could "feel" full power. By the time I would be halfway down the runway I would have about 55 knots indicated. My practice would be to hold it on until I had at least 75 to 80 knots, and then it would virtually leap off the runway giving me a good rate of climb to clear the trees at the end. Departing over the trees was really quite safe and in all my years flying there neither I nor anyone else that I knew of had ever experienced any situation otherwise. However this day was different.

Still with my mind preoccupied with what I had to take care of on Monday, I went through my run-up and checklist, lined up on the runway, brakes on, full throttle, tweaking the mixture then starting my takeoff roll. I was instrument rated with about 1,500 hours in this airplane, which I had owned since new and was the only pilot, so I was well experienced and comfortable in it and knew every nuance, squeak or rattle by its first name. I had perhaps not rolled 100 feet and it "felt wrong," and right then I should have shut down but the urge to "get home" overrode good judgment. The airplane just did not seem to be accelerating as it should. My "justification" to continue was that it would pick up speed, especially as I had a "downhill" slope coming up; all the time the feeling of "something's not right" was gnawing at me. When I reached the crown I barely had 40 knots, normally I would be at 55 to 60 by this stage; still I kept going and the end of the runway kept coming and I was nowhere near having my 75 to 80 knots.

Now I was halfway down the last half of the runway coming up on 55 to 60 knots and not sure I was going to make it at this point. Oh and by the way I was fairly close to my gross, what with all the fish and my passengers (who always lied about their weight). By now if I wanted to abort I would not be able to stop and would severely bend my aircraft. As I reached the end of the runway I barely had 55 knots and I "yanked" it off the ground with the stall warning horn blaring. Grass and bush was flying everywhere as my prop cut through the vegetation at the overrun. I was about 15 feet off the ground, holding my airplane in ground effect trying desperately to build up speed to get over the trees. Once again with the stall warning blaring I managed to clear the trees and not by very much. Safely now off the ground, above the trees flying straight and level I sat in my seat, my heart in my mouth, a terrible ache in my back, and I said to myself, "What the hell was that all about?"

After some deep breathing I managed to relax somewhat and get my mind to concentrate on the job at hand, namely flying the aircraft. I then noticed that I still had "three green" showing and had not, as is my normal practice, retracted my gear as soon as I had a positive rate of climb. Being somewhat preoccupied with my hair-raising takeoff I had forgotten this. I reached over to the gear handle located right above the parking brake. Then everything fell into place. I had missed the last item on my takeoff checklist -- brakes off. My passengers were not aware of all this drama, one had his head in a book, the other had the stereo headphones on listening to music. Once on the ground at Williams Lake, when I walked around the airplane I found the prop and the leading edges of the wing all stained with green from the grass in the overrun as well as a branch from one of the shrubs wedged between the strut and the wheel.

From the day I started to learn to fly I have had a sign hanging from the wall in my office that says, "Flying is not inherently dangerous; however like the sea it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness or neglect." Most appropriate. Flying requires 100 percent of our attention at all times.

To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.com.