After I joined the military as a pilot trainee, the close calls didn’t go away. They just changed in their nature.
Watching the manifold pressure gauge
Fairly early on in the Harvard period, when I was practicing ‘circuits and bumps’, I had done a couple of successful ‘touch and go’s (landing and then taking off without stopping). I was trying to improve my fine control, so I was watching, among other things, the manifold pressure. We were supposed to set it at 32 inches for take-off. You used a throttle control on the left side of the cockpit for this. One of my takeoffs seemed very long and slow, and, although I had raised the undercarriage, the aircraft did not seem to be accelerating as fast as usual, so I dropped the nose a little. To my immense surprise, I was just above the ground over a wheat field off the end of the runway. To get more power, I pushed the throttle all the way forward – and the manifold pressure jumped from 22 inches to past 32 inches, with the satisfying result of both more speed and more altitude. Oops.
I completed the hour of circuits and parked the aircraft on the tarmac. Someone said to me excitedly as I walked in, “Did you see the aircraft that just about went in off the end of the runway about an hour ago? He went right out of sight.” I said that I hadn’t (of course, since I was the one in the plane), signed the aircraft in and went to the flight room, thinking no more of it.
A few minutes later, one of the aircraft maintenance crew called me aside privately and asked me to walk out to the aircraft with him. He asked me if I was the one who had been low on takeoff. I sheepishly admitted it and told him what I had been doing. He laughed and then showed me the wheat stalks caught up in the undercarriage, which had been raised when I collected them. He also suggested keeping my head out of the cockpit on takeoff – which was extremely good advice.
Lesson learned: When you CAN look out of the cockpit, do so. The dials are only an aid.
Unauthorized and unlearned aerobatics
Before we learned how to fly aerobatics, we were allowed to go out to the flying areas just to gain experience in flying outside of the circuit. We were limited to 10,000 feet of altitude above sea level, above which you were required to use an oxygen mask. A couple of us decided to meet in one of the areas, which was strictly forbidden. I found out why. The other student and I met and flew side-by-side, kind of, leaving a lot of room between us and talking on an unused radio channel. Then the other student said, “Have you tried any aerobatics yet?” I said that I had not. Then he said, “Well they’re really easy, watch this.” And with that he did a sloppy but successful roll. He explained that all I had to do was push the stick over to one side and the aircraft would do the rest. Not wishing to be thought a coward or ignorant of how to do a roll – how hard could it be? – I reluctantly pushed the stick over to the right. In moments, I was upside down!
Momentarily disoriented, I centred the stick, so the aircraft stayed upside down. This was NOT what I had in mind and, since the nose was rapidly falling anyway, I thought I’d help by pulling the stick back and dive the aircraft to an upright posture. I had, however, failed to pull back the throttle so the engine howled, the airspeed rapidly increased and the aircraft became very noisy and the controls got stiff as it approached VNE (Velocity Not to Exceed). I vividly remember the little house and red-roofed barn as they rapidly increased in size as I dove on them, pulling back desperately as hard as I could on the stick. Starting at 10,000 feet, I leveled off at under 3,700 feet, which would not have been a problem except that in that part of Alberta, ground level is over 3,300 feet. I immediately climbed back to 10,000 feet and never again indulged in unauthorized aerobatics. When I spoke later that evening with my partner in crime, he said that “you went down like a dart and I just got out of there.”
I could have been dead that day due to the combination of lack of experience and excess of testosterone, but I wasn’t. I’ve always thought that I have been living on borrowed time since that day. It occurs to me, looking back 50 years later, that if I had killed myself that day, it might have been written off as a suicide or just a complete loss of control. The other guy wasn’t going to tell anyone what we had been doing, was he?
Lesson learned: There is a reason the Air Force teaches aerobatics and doesn’t have students learn on their own.
More to come