Oshkosh preparations have been running us 7/24. We’ve been preparing 3 ships for Oshkosh Airventure; on top of that we just completed a customer delivery and we have another which we won’t get done before Osh. (But we wanted to.) And on top of all that is our ‘secret ops’ which are preparing some major whammy to talk about at Osh.
But never mind that. Time to write a blog post…
Please back up about 15 years in my life…. to a memory from my past.
I was heading to Denver, Colorado to attend a “Promise Keeper” event. I had arranged to rent a retractable Piper Arrow, which boasted a 180HP engine, good range, and a useful load of about 850 pounds. The owner of the airplane affectionately called her ‘Amy Arrow’.
It was hot in the summertime; we landed at Centennial airport without issues. The Promise Keepers event was soon over, and we headed back to Centennial for the flight home. I had myself and 2 friends on board, (or, as I liked to say when I filed a flight plan, 3 souls on board).
I had filled the tanks for the flight home. I had also carefully reviewed the flight manual: the flight manual called for 25 degrees of flaps in order to produce a short ground roll. I dialed in 25 degrees, per the manual. (Very stupid… as you shall soon see.) Our plane was exactly at gross weight. Density altitude was somewhere around 8500+ feet. That shouldn’t be a problem with an airplane that had a service ceiling well over 13,000 feet… right?!
We were cleared for takeoff at Centennial.
I advanced the throttle, and Amy Arrow started to move down the runway. Slowly.
Somewhere around 3 or 4 thousand feet down the runway, I started to pull back on the elevator. Amy dutifully rose about 8 feet above the ground.
And stayed there. 5000 feet of runway remaining.
And stayed there. 4000 feet of runway remaining.
And stayed there. 3000 feet of runway remaining.
And stayed there. 2000 feet of runway remaining.
And stayed there. Still 8 feet off the ground, 1000 feet of runway remaining.
I refused to set it back down and abort the takeoff. Why? More youthful piloting stupidity.
I saw a ridgeline off in the distance, straight ahead. That was a problem. I would hit it.
I saw a descending valley off to the left. If I turned that way, I would have terrain descend, thus improving my relative altitude to the ground.
I slightly turned to the left.
I realized I was hovering over the ground… the plane would not climb. I had two opportunities to reduce drag: Get the gear up. Reduce flaps. I also realized that if I rapidly retracted flaps, the plane would immediately settle to the ground. First things first… I retracted the landing gear.
Then, I grabbed the manual flap handle, and s l o w l y went from 25 degrees, to 20, then to 15, then to 10 degrees of flaps, then to five, then to zero. The plane seemed to stop mushing over the ground.
We flew over a golf course. Since the terrain was descending, and we were now probably climbing at 50 feet per minute, we had perhaps 150 feet of altitude over the course. Some golfers looked up at this strange sight of an airplane, so close to the ground, passing over to them.
And then I realized that the plane had perhaps 250 feet of the ground, and that positive climb was definitely occurring. We would be okay.
And then I realized something else was occuring: the tower at Centennial was talking to me. I hadn’t heard them, because the crisis had shut down that part of the brain that listens to outside voices.
“are you OK…. are you OK… are you OK…” I could also hear our N number, recited over and over.
“Yes, I’m OK”.
They couldn’t see me: my plane had turned left and disappeared below their horizon.
I soon cancelled flight following and headed home for Wichita. I kept wondering what my passengers were thinking: had I just nearly killed them?
Here is my list of stupidities:
A) Dialing in 25 degrees of flaps is great for reducing ground roll, but does not improve Vy. In fact, it has the opposite effect. You can’t climb with 25 degrees of flaps in a 180HP Piper Arrow.
B) Density altitude is a killer. A non-turboed Arrow is a horrible climber in high DAs.
C) Flying at gross weight in high DAs is also a killer.
D) Lean the engine!
E) And most importantly: aborting the takeoff. I had multiple opportunities to abort and I did not do so.
As Flying magazine says, Never Again.