I Learned About Flying From That: A Summer Break

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

It was June 1974, and I had taken a respite from the summer session at the University of Mississippi Law School to come home for the weekend. I couldn't think of a better way to shake off some academic cobwebs than to take my father's 1967 Cherokee Six 300 up for some lazy Saturday afternoon sightseeing, and I invited my old high school buddy Jerry along for company.

By the time we arrived at the Grenada, Mississippi, airport it was mid-afternoon with the temperature hovering in the low 90s. A weak high had been hanging over the mid-South for weeks, with just enough energy to suck the inky moisture off the Gulf of Mexico but not enough to produce any air-cleansing rain for the murky sky. There wasn’t a cloud in sight, but neither was there any blue sky, just a thick haze with no definable horizon.

We took off with the plan to fly west toward the Mississippi River to check out some duck-hunting sloughs we had hunted in years before. Once airborne, we were met with a visibility made so marginal by the humidity that, at 3,000 feet, we had almost no view of the ground except directly below us. It didn’t take long poking around in the sticky heat until we were both drenched with sweat and thinking a cold beer and a game of pool might have been the better choice for the afternoon’s entertainment.

We landed back at the airport and taxied up to the gas pumps to top off the tanks before returning the airplane to the hangar. Just about the time the last of the four tanks was filled, another friend, Bill, and his daughter showed up at the airport. Bill had begun taking flying lessons when his policeman’s pay would allow and asked almost pleadingly if we would take him and his daughter up for a “hop around the field.”

Jerry and I swallowed our disappointment at having to go back up into the heat as we pushed the Six back away from the pumps and began to enter the airplane. Before we could get the doors latched, two older gentlemen, Mr. Ben and Mr. George, who often bummed around the airport on weekends, waved us down and asked if they might join us on the flight.

Before I go further, let me paint the picture here of the passengers. I was then a fit and trim 190 pounds. Jerry, at 6 feet 2 inches and fresh out of four years as an Army MP, weighed in at 210. Mr. Ben and Mr. George probably weighed 180 each, but Bill dressed out a clean 300 pounds and had a daughter that made 150 easily. Combining those weights with the 84 gallons of avgas that the big Cherokee held, it didn’t take a calculator to know that we had blown past the airplane’s gross weight even before Bill climbed on board.

To this day, I don’t fully understand why I allowed myself to continue on the flight. There was no pressure other than to accommodate casual friends with a sightseeing ride, but continue I did. I suppose I reasoned that it would be only the extreme case of Murphy’s Law that could render the flight a mistake, so I let myself be taken along in the typical chain-of-errors judgments that so often lead to disaster.

Not without apprehension, I lined up on the very end of Grenada’s Runway 13 to get every inch of its 5,000-foot runway length and pushed in the power. The takeoff run was noticeably long before we eased our way into the humid murk and slowly gained altitude. We had reached about 300 feet agl when something went terribly wrong inside the long nose in front of me. Suddenly, there was a substantial loss of power and a violent shaking, which made me absolutely certain that the engine would not long stay in its mount.

I reduced the throttle even though the manifold pressure had already dropped below 20 inches and lowered the Cherokee’s nose while looking for a clear opening for the forced landing I thought was imminent. We had literally reached the point of no return for the takeoff. Almost none of the runway’s 5,000 feet was left below me, and ahead was a crossing highway complete with ditches and fences on each side. Beyond sat a very substantial masonry structure left behind from the airport’s use as a military base and beyond that nothing but a wall of 100-foot trees in a mature forest.

The reduced throttle brought some relief to the vibration but not enough. I backed off the prop control and finally found a spot where the vibration didn’t threaten to tear the engine from its mount. At this power setting, the VSI showed we were losing altitude at less than 20 feet per minute as the altimeter hand almost imperceptibly unwound toward 400 feet msl. We were by then barely 200 feet above the treetops passing below.

With a quick scan over my shoulder I saw and heard Jerry calmly preparing the other four passengers for what he too expected would be an unscheduled meeting with Mother Earth. His military discipline was in full charge, which thankfully left me free to fly the airplane.

My mind was racing as I evaluated the options. I was in a stabilized slow descent, though, with no assurance it would continue. I didn’t have a clue as to what was wrong up front, but the oil pressure was steady and things weren’t getting any worse. The trees ahead were simply not a viable option for a forced landing, but there was a large cotton field 30 degrees and one-half mile to the right of our heading. I knew that I had to reach that cotton field to have a legitimate chance of any of us surviving the crash.

I gently banked the Cherokee to the right and was immediately met with an increasing rate of descent. I leveled the wings to preserve my altitude and nudged the right rudder. With each nudge of the rudder the nose moved a few degrees toward the cotton field with almost no increase in the rate of descent. The 30-second ride over the trees to the field felt like the longest hour of my life, but as the cotton plants passed beneath our wings, we were still holding 200 feet between us and the ground.

To the right of the field below us was another open field, and beyond that another, each of which would take us around in a big circle to the runway. With the luxury of plowed fields the entire way around, and no reason to choose one field over the other for a forced landing, I nudged the rudder and kept bringing the airplane in a circle back around to the airport.

It was probably a two-mile circuit back to the approach end of Runway 13. The trip seemed to take an eternity, but, with only one small patch of woods to cross right before the threshold, we made it. I cut the power over the numbers, made a silky-smooth landing and coasted to a stop just as the engine quit and the prop came to a silent halt.

We exited the airplane half laughing and half crying in amazement at our good fortune. I took the tow bar from the front baggage compartment, and we began pulling the airplane the half-mile to the hangar. Looking back, it’s funny that no one suggested going for the powered tug.

The next day, the local A&P called me to come out and see the damage. The Lycoming had swallowed a valve, which had embedded itself in the top of the piston as securely as if it had been welded there. The combination of the imbalance of the piston and the detonation within the open cylinder had set up a resonance of vibration that, well, you just had to experience to believe.

Today, the FAA training syllabus emphasizes the common human errors of aeronautical decision-making. My errors that day were multiple and compounded. I allowed myself to be pressured by circumstance to take some friends “around the field” knowing full well that the airplane would be at least 10 percent over gross weight in searing heat and humidity. An off-field “landing” was averted by the narrowest of margins. Had we been at the legal gross weight of the Cherokee, that margin would have significantly increased.

Of the five hazardous attitudes the FAA lists that negatively impact a pilot’s judgment, that day I was guilty in varying degrees of at least four: impulsivity, invulnerability, macho and resignation. Combined with the inevitable application of Murphy’s Law, it was a dangerous cocktail of poor decisions that almost cost six people their lives.


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