A close encounter with death and hellfire – and the importance of little “small-minded” rules





– All for want of a little, small-minded rule

by Doug Lawrence

I had successfully reached the ripe old age of eighteen years and I had a private pilot license, several long-distance over water flights , and well over one hundred hours of flying time dutifully recorded in my pilot log book. I was at the peak of my physical powers, had excellent hand-eye coordination and was well on my way to obtaining a commercial pilot license and certified flight instructor rating. There was however, one realm of flight that I had yet to master – aerobatics – “stunt flying” – and that would soon be remedied.

A spiffy new aerobatic trainer had recently arrived at our local field (Midway Airport, in Chicago) and is was a thing of beauty. With it, along with an as yet undetermined amount of expert instruction, I was reasonably certain that I would soon master the art of looping, rolling – and all the other major departures from straight and level flying.

A cool fall morning soon presented itself, so I arranged to take a day off from work, rendezvoused with my favorite aerobatics instructor, “strapped on” the hot little Cessna 150 Aerobat and was shortly winging my way westward – and upward – to the local practice area.  Four hours later I had been quite properly introduced to all the basic aerobatic maneuvers, including a totally optional – but very impressive – “short” landing technique that used only a couple of hundred feet of runway – instead of the usual six hundred feet or more, typically required.

All this was, I thought,  a bit like flying a “magic carpet” – and really not all that difficult to do!

I dropped my instructor off, filled up with gas and headed back out, to practice. The weather was changing and the wind speeds near the ground were kicking up, but conditions at altitude still looked pretty good. Only now, I no longer had the calm voice of experience sitting next to me. I would instead, have to rely on known,  tried and true, well established procedures and techniques in order to safely execute all the various maneuvers, I even brought along a “cheat sheet” with  both text and handy diagrams.

Two and a half hours later, fully “wrung out” – dog tired – and more than a bit “queasy” – I was ready to head back home. Besides, a nasty cold front was pushing through, dropping the temperature by twelve to fifteen degrees, generating some low clouds and a bit of rain, along with strong, gusty northwest winds. It was high time to get back on the ground!

The late afternoon air traffic at Midway was already pretty heavy, landing on runways 31 left and 31 right, which was almost directly aligned with the prevailing wind direction – providing me with a solid ten knot headwind component – something which would certainly enhance that “short landing” technique I had earlier practiced. I figured I would give that another  try – and see how quickly I could get the airplane down – and stopped.

Now well into my final approach – engine power reduced and wing flaps deployed – it appeared as though I was making almost no forward progress – which was weird, as well as a bit scary. I don’t think I had ever flown so slowly in my entire flying career. But things were otherwise, looking very good – right up until I ran into some unexpected and fairly severe low level turbulence.

Correcting for the wind and the gusts with engine power was my only remaining option. I was almost there – about one hundred feet off the ground and right over the big, white numbers, painted on the runway. Then, it felt like “the bottom suddenly dropped out”. One moment, I was happily flying along. The next, the airplane was plunging, like the proverbial  stone.

I quickly added full power. The plane’s nose pitched sharply down. I could see those big, white runway numbers now – getting even bigger – filling up the windscreen.  My vision narrowed. I sensed a strong, metallic taste in the back of my throat. Time seemed compressed. There was nothing else I could do. Then everything went “black”.

Some time later, I regained consciousness, still securely strapped into the cockpit, still looking straight down – the plane’s nose vertically stuck into the ground like a big lawn dart – smack-dab in the middle of runway 31- and right on the numbers.

Aerobatic seat belts are stoutly constructed and designed to keep the pilot securely in place, even when upside down. This belt system had done its job. The airplane had one other useful feature – a handy little grab ring/ripcord – with a steel cable, leading to a pull-pin that allowed the pilot to quickly jettison the entire entry door, in case of urgent necessity.

Things were also starting to get a bit toasty as flames began to penetrate the cockpit and quickly climb up both sides of the doomed aircraft. There should have been at least eight or ten gallons of fuel remaining in the plane’s wing tanks, and I didn’t want to still be sitting there when that went up. It was definitely time to go, so I yanked on the rip cord. The pilot’s side door fell away and I scrambled out and down and off to the side of the runway. A few seconds later, with a big “whoosh” and a “bang” – the fuel tanks exploded and the little plane was instantly and totally engulfed. The fire department arrived a bit later and swept up what was left of the flaming debris – a bit of the tail, along with the pretzeled propeller, still attached to the now very well-done engine.

It wasn’t pretty. I lost a few personal items to the flames and would have a whopping insurance deductible to pay, but I had no reason to complain. Except for a few minor bruises, I was physically unharmed – praise God!

After a short but very pertinent discussion with a local FAA official, my flight instructor appeared, asking me what had happened. I told him I did the landing just as we had practiced, earlier in the day – only this time, something went wrong – at the very last minute. Exactly what – I did not know.

Then we got a similar airplane – one that I hadn’t crashed and burned, as yet – and went back up to do some more flying – even attempting the exact same landing – this time, with much better results. Everything went flawlessly. We figured out exactly what went wrong, too. It had something to do with a “little rule” that my instructor had somehow forgotten to mention – probably because the morning’s weather conditions were so calm and so clear.

The “small-minded little rule” that might have saved me and my airplane:

“When landing in turbulent conditions, add half the steady-state wind speed plus half the gust velocity to the standard approach speed. Minimize the use of wing flaps – and don’t try anything fancy!”

Now he tells me!

Pope Francis on “small-minded rules” and the Catholic Church

True story. Photos simulated.