I drove to the airport with my neck craned upwards. There was a low overcast. Before I’d started learning to fly, this only meant my bike ride to campus would be cooler. Now, it meant something else: I was in for a day of ground school.
I was getting close to my first solo flight, so Gary decided to drill me on emergency procedures.
“Let’s say you’re on the ground, trying to start the engine, and the engine catches on fire. What do you do?”
I knew this one! I’d always been a bookworm and had read most of the Cessna 172’s Pilot’s Operating Handbook over the past few weeks. This exact scenario had been in the chapter on emergency procedures. I proudly showed off I’d done my homework.
“You continue cranking the engine, so if it starts it sucks in all the flames and puts the fire out,” I confidently recited from memory.
Gary looked at me.
“Are you insane?”
I was crushed. I hated letting him down.
“Really? I could have sworn-- let me find the page, I thought it said--”
“I know what it says. But here’s what I say. I’m in a metal tube surrounded by 40 gallons of gasoline, and it catches on fire … do you know what my procedure is? I get out of the fucking plane. I am not going to sit in there like an idiot watching the propeller crank while I’m strapped into a plane that is on fire. My plan is to get as far away as possible and maybe, after I’ve done that, try to find a fire extinguisher.”
It seemed so reasonable when he put it that way.
“Here’s another one. Let’s say your engine has failed and you’re gliding in for a landing, and right before you reach the ground you realize you’re going right in between two trees. What do you do?”
“Maybe pull up, try to balloon over them and then come back down?”
“No. You go through. Maybe the trees will rip the wings off and it’ll slow you down. Maybe if the wings get left behind there will be less fuel at your crash site to catch on fire.”
That was definitely not anywhere in the manual.
“Listen, here’s my point. If you’re in an airplane someday and something goes wrong, I want the first thought through your head to be ‘This plane now belongs to the insurance company.’ It’s just a piece of metal and it can be replaced. You do whatever you need to do to make sure everyone in the plane walks away. Don’t you dare ever try to save the plane. It belongs to the insurance company. What do you care what happens to their plane? Just save yourself and your passengers.”
That conversation sticks out in my memory more than any other I had with Gary during the year he was my instructor. I bought my own plane a few months later, and in the nine years I’ve now owned it, I’ve never given it a name. I always refer to the plane as “it;” never “she.” I do this because of what he told me on that cloudy day. I resist gaining any emotional attachment to my metal box. It’s just a machine; in a tight spot, it isn’t even my machine. Some insurance company owns it.
It would be a few hundred hours before I’d be tested on if I’d really taken Gary’s advice to heart. Hour 355, to be exact.
Hour 355 - Coast to Coast, Day 1
In August of 2004 I embarked on the trip that most American pilots contemplate at some point: a trip from coast to coast -- the ultimate cross-country! My dad has always loved small planes and was excited to come with me.
My plan was to first cross the Rockies in Albuquerque, head east-northeast for Cleveland, then track parallel to Lake Erie to my final destination of upstate New York. I spent a long time picking out exactly which airports to stop at on the way. In my fantasy trip, we’d take off from Long Beach and get fuel in Winslow, AZ; head east until the Rockies ended, then east-northeast and spend the night in Liberal, KS; stop for fuel on the 2nd day in Quincy, IL; spend the second night in Youngstown, PA; and finally reach Ticonderoga, NY on the third day. I spent hours selecting those airports with a huge map of the U.S. on my floor, putting together flight plans for every one, and even picking Victor airways in between.
What a waste of time. Don't bother remembering any of those cities because we didn't stop in any of them after Winslow.
The night before the trip I packed all my bags and weighed everything. My big suitcase for 2 weeks away, a survival kit and 8 gallons of emergency water, my laptop, a heavy box full of charts and approach plates, and all the other random odds and ends added up to nearly 100 pounds. With my dad and his small bag the plane was still 150 pounds below its maximum gross weight -- plenty of leeway. Or so I thought.
The morning of the trip was hot. The temperature was in the 90s on the ground. I’d planned our first leg, from Long Beach to Winslow, at 11,000’ feet; those last few thousand feet, the plane was climbing just a couple hundred feet per minute.
Heading east we tracked directly over Interstate I-40. Looking down and seeing it was emotional. In 1998, my good friend Ben and I both relocated from the East Coast to the West at the same time, so we took an epic cross-country road trip together, driving nearly the full length of I-40 together until we got to L.A. I would never have believed that in a few short years, I'd be on an epic cross-country trip back East, 2 miles above that same spot, in my own airplane!
We passed over the Colorado River, easily visible as a thin strip of lush, green land looking very out of place in an otherwise arid desert.
We saw a race track in the middle of nowhere. According to the Phoenix sectional, it was the "Ford Motor Proving Ground" -- perhaps a place to secretly test new cars, away from the prying eyes of competitors? Another few hundred miles put us over Sedona, where the scenery changed from flat and colorless to breathtaking. Ben and I stopped in Sedona to go swimming during our 1998 road trip, but I don't think I ever fully appreciated how beautiful it was until I saw it from above.
I didn't have much time to admire the scenery, though, as I was concerned about our landing in Winslow. I'd been watching the weather there daily and the wind seemed to really kick up every day at around 1:30PM. The time now was almost exactly 1:30. Also, Winslow airport sits almost 5,000 feet above sea level. Since the temperature was 90 degrees, the "density altitude"---or, equivalent field elevation at a standard temperature---was reported at an alarming 8,100 feet! With such thin air, the performance of the engine is lousy since it is starved for air. Also, the plane is going much faster along the ground when it lands, since there's so little air to keep it aloft just before it stops flying.
Luckily, we got there just in the nick of time; the wind was completely calm. We lined up for one of Winslow's 7,000 foot runways and started our descent. The landing was stressful, but a "greaser" -- one of those landings where you're not sure that the wheels are even on the ground. (I was not able to repeat this flawless performance for the remainder of the trip.) As expected, the plane kept on rolling and rolling for a few thousand feet before finally coming to a stop. Just before touchdown, the GPS was indicating our groundspeed at about 100 knots, or 115 MPH. We taxied back to the self-serve fuel pumps and refilled our half-empty tanks.
I checked the weather in the little pilot lounge and discovered the first of many unplanned deviations we’d have on this trip: thunderstorms were starting to develop just east of Albuquerque, right on top of the airway to Liberal. We waited in Winslow for about 3 hours, hoping the storms would pass. Looking back on that decision even two weeks later, when the trip was over, I think I was being too conservative. The storms were isolated; it would have been easy to take off and just deviate around them. But at the time, I wasn't confident enough to try it since I'd never done that before---especially near the Rockies, where the options for deviations are more limited due to high terrain.
Finally we decided to just fly as far as Albuquerque and climbed back into the airplane. I was expecting the takeoff from Winslow to be a bit hairy, since the density altitude had remained unchanged at 8,100 feet. And, the plane was heavy, since we'd fully fueled in preparation for a flight all the way to Liberal. The wind hadn't picked up at all, so no help there. I used my best high-density-altitude takeoff technique: We taxied out to the end of the longest runway and did a full-power runup to find the best-power mixture. I took position on the runway and advanced to full power before releasing the brakes. The plane lurched forward at first, but then picked up speed slowly. I waited until we'd reached a speed about 15 MPH faster than the normal liftoff speed before letting the plane leave the ground.
The plane lifted off without hesitation, but then climbed ever...so...slowly into the air. We inched the air at an excruciating 75 feet per minute. We watched a few houses pass below us, close enough that I felt like we could reach out and touch them. The plane seemed to be supported purely by willpower. The cockpit was tense and wordless. My eyes stayed glued to the airspeed indicator, making sure that we maintained sufficient airspeed to keep flying, despite my overwhelming desire to yank back on the yoke and pull us higher into the air. We seemed so close to the ground, I delayed retracting the landing gear and flaps... I was not yet sure we were clear of obstacles.
We were at full power, and since it was now nearly 100 degrees outside, the engine started to overheat. The cylinder heads, which under normal operation should not be run over 380 degrees, shot up to 400, then to 420. The engine wonks on the Cardinal Flyers discussion group would demand that I level the plane off, reduce power, and let the engine cool before continuing the climb. Every other time the engine had gotten hot, that’s what I’d done. But as I watched the terrain features pass closely below us the situation felt dire.
“This is not your airplane right now,” Gary said to me through the sands of time. “If you’re in fear for your safety then forget the plane.” We were only about 1,500 feet over the ground. I was scared. So I let the engine overheat. Not my plane.
We continued our slow climb. A few minutes later, Dad noticed something: the landing gear and flaps were still out. Oops! I’d originally deferred retracting them, and with the tension had then forgotten about them. I cleaned the plane up and transitioned to a cruise climb. The engine started to cool and we made our way slowly and turbulently to Albuquerque.
Looking back, even without my poor pilot technique, this was bad planning: I should never have planned a route that required a full-fuel takeoff in the middle of a summer afternoon in the high desert. I should have accepted that we'd be stopping sooner for fuel, so that we could take off from Winslow with 3/4 or even 1/2-full tanks. "We're 150 pounds under gross, surely that must be light enough!" I'd thought. Well, the plane was light enough that we were most likely safe, but heavy enough that I was sweating.
There's an old saying in aviation: "The only time you can have too much fuel is if you're on fire." Well, apparently the real saying is, "...if you're on fire, or you're taking off on a hot summer afternoon from a high-altitude airport" but that was too long to fit on a bumper sticker. Live and learn!