I Learned About Flying From That: Seizing Control

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

I keep my Cherokee at Ramona Airport (KRNM) in Southern California and am actively involved with other pilots there in an organization that offers introductory flights to youngsters through a program called Young Eagles. It is a very worthwhile program that offers kids ages 8 to 17 the opportunity of a free introductory flight along with exposure to the aviation community and, ultimately, the joy of flying.

I have flown about 150 kids since I joined the Young Eagles. One of the selfish joys of flying kids is seeing their thrill and excitement about the entire process, from walk-around preflight to buttoning up and getting in the air.

A few years ago, we coordinated with the Boy Scouts of America to fly about 60 Scouts who were scheduled to spend a long weekend camping at the airport. On a typically beautiful Southern California summer weekend, we met with the large group of Scouts early on Saturday morning to give them a briefing on safety requirements and flight expectations. We’ve flown many Scouts and other kids over the years, and although we never anticipate flight safety issues, it is often in the back of our minds as the youngsters’ exuberance and constant questions take the forefront.

I normally fly two kids at a time in my Cherokee and always brief them on instruments and procedures, such as: Don’t touch the controls; only open the door if and when I tell you; and help us watch for other airplanes when we’re flying. We normally do a 15-minute flight or longer, if there are fewer kids to fly, and return to KRNM.

For the first Scout flight of the early morning, I had one boy in the copilot’s seat and another behind him. The boy in the copilot’s seat, who was about 12 years old, was rather quiet but said he was looking forward to his first flight in a single-engine airplane. He even had a few questions about instruments, and we talked about what things were, what they were for and how they worked. I explained to both my young passengers what each step in the run-up involved. Soon we were finished and ready to go.

The tower gave permission for takeoff and down the runway we went, increasing in speed to rotation at 75 knots. During this time, I usually talk to the passengers and tell them what to expect. But I didn’t expect what happened next. Immediately upon rotation, the young Scout in the copilot seat panicked, grabbed the yoke in front of him with both hands and pulled it toward him. He seemed to need something to hold on to, and the only thing nearby was the yoke. That’s not a good thing to hang on to.

My left hand was jerked off the yoke, the aircraft pitched up and the stall horn blared. My field of vision, so used to seeing the end of the runway at rotation, was now focused straight up at the blue sky, or so it seemed. Well, I thought, this is going to be a problem. My right hand had pushed the throttles full forward for takeoff, so I didn’t need it for that anymore. I used both hands to push the yoke forward, but that young fellow had a death grip on it, and I couldn’t push it forward enough to bring the nose down to regain some airspeed and control.

I had to quickly get him to release his grip, which was a physical challenge and involved quickly using my right hand. Now, I don’t make a habit of hitting Boy Scouts, but I simultaneously yelled at him to let go as I brought my right arm down on his hands holding the yoke. He let go and was now wild-eyed and trying to grab paint. The Cherokee at this point was losing speed and altitude — not that we had a lot of either to begin with — and had very mushy controls. I managed to get the nose down and regained some speed, and I think we were just a few feet off the deck when I got back full control.

We were beyond the end of the runway, in ground effect, mushing along as the 180 hp engine tried to get us going faster. It seemed we just crawled along, and as we went past the end of the runway and over a cattle field, slowly we began to build up speed and headed up, this time with me as PIC. The entire incident happened extremely quickly and yet seemingly in slow motion.

Instead of continuing the planned flight, I called tower to get a closed pattern to full stop. Tower knew something was wrong, as it is not normal to have a departing aircraft pop up, stall and stay in ground effect well past the end of the runway and over a cow pasture. I still have recollections of a cow off my left wing at about the same altitude. I also have a vague recollection of tower calling me when I was struggling with trying to keep the Cherokee from pancaking, but I didn’t respond then. But now what to do with a panicked young guy and his wandering hands? I didn’t want to risk landing and have him do the same thing, so I told him to hold onto his shoulder belt with both hands and squeeze it until I told him to let go. I might have said it with some authority in my voice, as he squeaked out a “Yes, sir” and his eyes were saucers.

We climbed to altitude, got in the pattern and landed at a higher speed than normal just in case we had another incident and needed the energy, but my attention was really on him. I must have looked like a flounder: one eye pointing at him, the other bouncing between the panel and the runway. I should claim that the landing was a greaser, but I was still a little shaken, so I’ll report it was OK — not my best, not my worst. We taxied to the transient area, where the Boy Scouts were marshaled, and shut down. My flying copilot still had his hands tightly gripping the shoulder belt and didn’t release them until I told him to open the door.

And wouldn’t you know, he told me he had a great time and would like to fly again. I later heard him raving to his buddies about the great flight he had.

The lesson I learned I readily share with my fellow Young Eagles pilots at Ramona: After scores of flights with kids, you can never assume someone will react normally or the way you’d expect. You have to keep in the front of your mind your anticipated reactions to their unexpected behaviors. I have changed my personal flight safety rules to ensure that the youngsters, and other guests in the copilot seat, now hold their shoulder belts with both hands for takeoff and landing. Of course, you can always put passengers in the rear seats only, but who knows what kind of trouble they can get into when you can’t reach them.

I know that engaging in conversation and explanations during flight often has a reassuring effect on those who are anxious, but I now know that talking reassuringly to a panicked person may have minimal, if any, effect. In those situations, it might be best to give them something physical to do, such as holding on to a shoulder strap, sitting on their hands or opening a chart. Anything to get their involvement and eliminate their interference with the flight is helpful.

Also, it is important to discuss the situation after the flight with these rare guests who panic or do something inappropriate and to “flag” such youngsters for other pilots’ safety. These kids should not be penalized by missing future flights but should be made to realize the seriousness of their actions.

I still continue to fly Young Eagles and very much enjoy their enthusiasm and exuberance, but I have now foremost in my mind a clear understanding of how I’ll react when things don’t go according to plan.


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