A Wannabe Corporate Pilot Learns a Lesson

What happens when a desire to fly for a living trumps common sense.

I learned about that from flying
Hard lessons for a young up-and-comerBarry Ross

From the time I was a teenage recruit in the Navy I had always wanted to fly. Some five years later I had my opportunity to get my private pilot’s license. That wasn’t enough for me, so I applied for a G.I. Bill benefit and began working on advanced ratings, eventually earning my CFII, AMEL and ultimately my ATP.

I worked at the same flight school where I received my pilot training at the Riverside Municipal Airport (RAL) in California. As time went by, I learned more about flying from experiences with students and their mistakes, as well as a few I made myself. Most of the flying was confined to the local area, with the occasional cross-country flight to pick up new airplanes at the Cessna factory in Kansas.

As I became more seasoned, assignments came along to fly airplanes based at RAL every now and then, and one of those assignments came from a consulting company and its Cessna 421A piston twin. The owner was himself a pilot but wanted to use en route time to conduct business via radio telephone in the cabin. He was not a careful pilot, because I often observed him preflight his airplane with an oil-level check before pulling the chocks and doing the run-up on the taxi to the departure end of the runway. This should have been a warning for me, but I was so thrilled to fly the 421 I just didn’t see the red flag.

One day, he requested me for a flight with multiple stops northward, ending at Grants Pass, Oregon. Now I was beginning to feel like corporate pilot! We flew to Hanford, California, first, then on to Fairfield, Chico and Grants Pass. Returning, we stopped again at Hanford.

As the owner stepped down from the 421 he told me to fly down to Santa Susana and pick up an associate. He advised me to plan on minimum fuel, because the runway was a tad short. I did as he asked, flew down to Santa Susana — I’d never been there before — landed and stopped at the fuel pumps. It was then I was told by the local airport manager that multi-engine airplanes weren’t permitted there.

I took on 40 gallons per side, and when my passenger arrived we headed out. Taxiing down the taxiway, I did the run-up, then I turned onto the runway as fast as I could muster, dropped 15 degrees of flap and went full throttle. I reached Vmc and brought the nose up about 15 degrees, and we leaped off the runway with the far fence disappearing under the nose. I’m sure the residents in the homes below were startled by the 421’s roar.

I learned that day not to take someone’s word when flying into an unfamiliar destination airport. A disaster could have easily occurred should an engine have coughed.

From then on, I always checked the balanced field-length chart for the airplane against the runway length and wind conditions as well as restrictions in the airport facility directory and current notams.

Later on that year, I had a situation with the same owner, the same airplane, different scenario. He had flown the airplane to Mammoth Lakes, California, with his teenage children for a ski holiday. While skiing, he suffered a fall and broke his leg.

He called for me to fly up and bring him and his children home in his airplane. It was the middle of winter, and the airplane had been sitting for a week in the tie-down area and was covered with frost. The airport manager helped me defrost the airplane by wrapping the wings in black plastic to absorb the sun’s radiation and melt off the frost. He also hooked up his Herman Nelson engine heaters to warm the oil. We brushed off the frost on the fuselage too, so I felt prepared to fly. Passengers on board, I taxied to the run-up area, which was covered with snow and ice.

I sat there waiting for the oil temperature to leave the red before attempting the run-up and prop cycling. That took a while but finally I had enough warmth to try revving the engines. The next problem was the lack of braking surface, which meant I couldn’t achieve the normal 1,700 rpm for the mag check and prop cycling without skidding. I increased the power to 1,400 rpm and did the mag check and tried to cycle the props about four times, hoping that would put enough oil into the prop governors to fully achieve redline on takeoff.

I took the runway — with snow banks on both sides, at least 3 feet high — and brought the power up to full throttle. The left engine made redline, but the right engine didn’t — and we were headed for the right snow bank. I aborted, and taxied back to the run-up area to allow more time for the oil to warm up.

Back to the departure end, full power and both engines came up to redline. We lifted off, and I pitched for Vy and raised the gear. The gear didn’t come up. Evidently, it too had frost buildup and the pump couldn’t overcome the frozen joints.

The 421 is a gut-shot duck with its gear hanging out, and at 7,000 feet, Vy was all I could achieve. I did a wide 180 and returned to the approach end. I told the owner I was going to make a hard touch-and-go, and if that didn’t work we would fly down the valley to warmer temperatures to thaw out the gear. I did the hard touch and go, began the climb and the gear came up.

I learned a lot about flying from that 421, N313SV. From too-short field landings and takeoffs to winter flying problems. The No. 1 lesson I learned, though, was never to assume anything.

Experience is quite the teacher.