I Learned About Flying From That: Three Laws

Some rules weren’t made to be broken.

ILAFFT Three Laws

ILAFFT Three Laws

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

I encountered a minor problem while working on my private pilot ticket: Members of the Des Moines, Iowa, company’s flying club kept crashing their airplanes!

In one case, a member got into weather he couldn’t handle in a Tri-Pacer with minimal instruments. So he put her down in a cornfield. He wasn’t hurt, but the wings were torn off the light airplane. Then, a month after it was airworthy again, a member who hadn’t paid his member dues for two years but still had a key flew it. Whatever he did (we think he overleaned, causing the engine to detonate), he also found a handy cornfield in which to land. The Tri-Pacer survived all right, but the engine was completely trashed.

In the meantime, I needed my dual cross-country. Since the Tri-Pacer was down, I rented a Piper Colt. Similar to its bigger brother in many respects, the Colt had only two seats and one 13-­gallon fuel tank, rather than four seats and two fuel tanks.

Since I had some business in Kansas City, that seemed a natural destination. When I talked to Flight Service early in the morning, it said, “There’s not a cloud in the sky in either Iowa or Missouri, nor do we expect any.”

Until my flight instructor and I crossed into Missouri, everything was working out just as planned. Then, what looked like a dark haze appeared on the southern horizon. It grew and grew in size until it became an almost solid line of dark clouds. A call to FSS revealed they didn’t know any more about what was happening to the weather than we did. In fact, they knew less. As we flew closer to the shifting wall of clouds, it was apparent that we could neither climb over them nor slip beneath them. We certainly couldn’t venture into them.

That left us with two options. The smart thing would have been to either do a 180-degree turn and head home or set down at the nearest airport to wait out what was coming our way. That’s what I’d do today, anyhow.

A different option was favored by my flight instructor. As he pointed toward the southwest, he suggested that we try to navigate around the weather. Unfortunately, the decision to do this lured us into an untenable situation, as clouds began forming behind us and then below us. There was still time to turn back, but he insisted that we would break into the clear soon.

We didn’t. Assessing our situation, several things soon became evident:

1. Visibility and ceiling were becoming virtually nil.

2. We had no idea where we were, except that we were over Missouri.

3. We were being forced to fly so low that our navigation radio couldn’t pick up the line-of-sight VOR transmitter.

4. The needle on the fuel gauge seemed to be plunging toward the E.

“OK,” my instructor finally said in resignation, “I’m going to have to put her down in a field or on a road. Look for a place where we can land.”

“Hey,” I shouted a couple of seconds later. “I know where we are. Highway 69 leading to St. Joseph is only a half-mile to our right.” Luckily, almost beyond belief, we’d flown over a small town northeast of St. Joseph that I’d driven through just the week before, and I was able to recognize it.

We found the highway and began following it into St. Joseph. In addition to wondering if the fuel gauge was accurate, we both knew that there were several high towers on the river bluff just east of the city. We worried that even at our slow airspeed, we might happen on to one of them, or perhaps a guy-wire, before we could spot it.

We never saw a tower, and we were glad for that, as we must have been within a quarter-mile of at least one. We located the airport and landed.

Then, anticlimactically, we got a bit lost at the airport. We did some blundering around until we finally pulled up to the fuel pump. When I reached for the credit card slip to sign it, the fuel numbers so captured my attention that the FBO’s receptionist asked if there was a mistake in the figures. I looked up at her, tried to smile, and assured her I wouldn’t want to change a thing. You see, the ticket recorded that the lineman had put 12.9 gallons into a fuel tank that, according to the manual, held only 13 gallons.

This early experience resulted in the formation of my own personal laws of flying:

1. Always have an out.

2. Never, ever, ever completely believe a weather forecast.

3. When in doubt, reread rule No. 1 and/or rule No. 2, and adhere to them.

These laws have worked well for me for the last 3,100 hours.

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