I Learned About Flying From That: When Switches Go Awry

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

Recipe for disaster: Start with two brothers old enough to know better — one a low time pilot (210 pounds), the other a student pilot (170 pounds) — squeeze them into a Cessna 150, add 3,600 feet of elevation, blend in a lot of darkness, gradually add a crosswind, and then mix with overcast sky. Follow with a few gallons of water and a dash of overconfidence. ...

Being originally from Billings, Montana, but living in Edmonton, Alberta, Canada, my wife and I along with our two children were down visiting my family. My brother Curt and I had grown up around airplanes, spending many an hour listening to our dad talk with fellow pilots about the near-death experiences of the month. With Dad being a fixed-wing crop duster and helicopter pilot, he had his fair share of stories. Dad had in excess of 10,000 hours of logged flying time. My wife’s father from Canada was a bush pilot, who also had 10,000-plus hours of flying time, so I had the privilege of hearing his stories as well, which, of course, I shared with my brother. With all of that unofficial ground schooling, needless to say we thought we were just as good pilots, only younger.

Curt and I thought it would be fun to go for a flight in his newly purchased, used Cessna 150 late one evening. We didn’t notice there were no stars or moon visible, and, of course, we did not bother to check the weather report.

Dad was a stickler on maintenance, so upon arrival, with flashlight in hand, we checked the oil, drained a little fuel into the sight glass and found no water, checked the propeller for chips or cracks, and made sure the tires were full and the overall airframe straight. Even the hinges on the flaps, ­ailerons, and horizontal and vertical stabilizers looked great — a very thorough preflight. Being the advanced pilot that he was, Curt allowed me to fly in the left seat. He had a grand total of 200 logged hours. We rolled down the taxiway toward the runway. I was eager to show off to my brother my newly acquired takeoff skills. The wind was calm, and there were no other aircraft using the airport in Laurel, Montana, as I taxied to the active runway. I must admit it was impressive pushing in the throttle and feeling the surge of power (though actually it felt more like gaining speed than surging), watching the runway lights go by faster and faster until I rotated and we lifted off. But then, there was nothing to see but blackness. Black up, black down, black everywhere! The only lights we could see were the runway lights from the back window and two nearby farmhouses. I immediately looked to the artificial horizon as I gained altitude, reflecting back on the 15 minutes of instrument training I had received. The advanced pilot, Curt, commented on how dark it was and how it might be best to return to the airport, basing his decision on the fact that we may have made a grave error in judgment. Acting as the competent pilot I hoped to become one day, I too felt this was a wise decision. So we made a typical student pilot pattern. Here is where things got a little more interesting.

Once on final approach, wanting to demonstrate my landing skills, with zero night landings under my belt, I flew the airplane until we got about 50 feet from the ground before I humbly requested that the senior pilot take over the controls since, somehow, everything looks a bit different at night. He gladly did so, fearing for the health of his newly acquired airplane as well as his life, only to find that he felt very unsure of himself, landing from the right seat. The solution? Add power and go around with the plan of switching seats — a simple answer to our problem, or so we thought!

While on the downwind leg we unbuckled our seat belts and I proceeded to try to climb over the top of Curt. In the process, my knee pushed in the throttle. This particular 150 also had electric flaps that would go all the way down to 40 degrees if you did not intentionally stop them where you wanted. So when another knee pushed down the flap lever, unobserved by either one of us, the airplane started to “fly funny,” which complicated the problems at hand. To make matters worse the window popped open. At this point, we started laughing almost uncontrollably while still in a rather awkward seating arrangement. We then realized it is not humanly possible for two full-grown men to switch seats in a 150 without shedding clothes, but we would both rather die than be found in the wreckage unbuckled and naked, so we resumed in our original seats. Curt decided to “take another shot at landing it” from the right seat. A new issue now came to the fore — a crosswind! It was maybe 7 to 8 knots, not bad for a 200-hour pilot in the right seat pretending to be an instructor.

While on final approach — once again — Curt started to feel uneasy about landing from the right seat. Our answer to this dilemma was to add power, and around we went again. Then the rain started. It was not too heavy of a rain but enough to add a little more anxiety. The decision — try to switch seats again. So, once again on the downwind leg, we unbuckled our seat belts, listening to the rain now increasing in intensity as the 170-pound guy sat on the lap of the 210-pound guy. My knee pushed the throttle in again, the other knee pushed on the flap switch again, and then Curt said, “How do you think the headlines are going to read tomorrow morning?” The laughing went off again, and, at this point, we were unsure of who was actually flying the plane. Then came the miracle — with Curt’s butt halfway toward the left seat and my legs and feet about eye level with two impending charley horses, I made it to the right seat and Curt to the left. After buckling up again and regaining our composure we wiped the tears away. One more final approach with Curt managing the fairly stiff crosswind, and we were back on terra firma. We taxied back to the hangar, crawled out of the 150 and kissed the ground!

The lesson learned? Many things can go wrong even with the airport less than 2 miles away, even in an airplane with no mechanical problems whatsoever. A lack of experience combined with unexpected weather can put a pilot in the headlines with no happy ending.

This article was written in dedication to Ernie Clark’s brother-in-law, Glen W. Ernst, who passed away suddenly on Dec. 18, 2013, and with whom Ernie loved to fly.

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