Lesson learned

“Albert” was 25 and cocky back in 1975 when he got his license. Well, perhaps he was a tad nervous on his check ride, but thankfully he did well and would never have to do that again.

Albert thought life was good. He and his Cessna 140 were temporary based at a sleepy, little airport in the hills of northern Georgia while he oversaw the completion of a project for his employer. The pay was good. The cabin he rented fulfilled his needs and the scenery was downright pretty.

Albert loved to fly. He particularly liked to fly in the mountains. On calm, smooth evenings he liked to guide his little airplane over the hills and through the valleys. He would waggle his wings as he passed the occasional farm, but mainly it was him, his airplane and nature. That suited him just fine.

Albert traveled often to the public airport just over the mountain to get fuel, since where he based his airplane didn’t offer that service. Regularly after work, he would pull his baby out, take off and fly over for some hangar flying and a fill-up.

"Albert" today with his airplane. Deb explains the name has been changed and face covered to protect the guilty.

Albert preferred to three point the Cessna, although he practiced wheel landings. Experience and some advice from a very talented flight examiner who checked him out in it helped determine his preference. That examiner could make a Cub dance like a ballerina down the runway.

Albert remembered that he and that kind old gentleman tried to induce a crow hop while training so he would be knowledgeable enough to recover, but they couldn’t make the airplane do it. Albert was finally successful after about three hours of flight time in his new airplane. He determined that the crow hop was a maneuver to be avoided at all costs. He was also a little surprised that he was able to perform one so well and sort of fascinated that the airplane could catapult itself into the air in such a manner.

One day, Albert needed fuel. He climbed in his airplane and headed over the mountain to the neighboring airport to get some. It was a beautiful afternoon. The Cessna flew through the air effortlessly, and Albert was pretty sure he was, at that moment, the finest pilot around.

Mission accomplished, Albert headed back to home base to consider his options for supper. On downwind, he adjusted throttle and speed smoothly. Chuck Yeager couldn’t do better. Base to final, he wondered if anyone was around to watch an artist in action.

Albert guided the airplane down to the asphalt, his mind contemplating a stop at the local country-style restaurant on the way home. Tires kissed the pavement and Albert decided country fried steak sounded really good, with mashed potatoes, gravy and sweet tea.

Albert was surprised when the pavement appeared to move further away. The airplane went up instead of down. Visions of heavenly mashed potatoes and Chuck Yeager vanished as the airplane came back down and catapulted ever so high into the air.

Albert said, “Oh crap!”

On the second bounce, Albert saw something large dart away at the edge of his vision. When the mains settled on the ground, he knew something was wrong. In slow motion, the tail lifted and his C-140 landed on its nose. For a few seconds, it balanced there.

Albert’s one thought was, “Please don’t let it go over.” It was an unheard plea. It was barely a conscious thought when the airplane ever so slowly tipped onto its back. Although hanging upside down, he was unhurt until he thought of all that fuel just pumped into those wings that were just inches from his head.

Albert had been told that if an airplane flips over, the pilot should not release his seat belt until he braced himself to prevent head and neck injury. Logic could not overcome survival. He pulled the release, landed on his head, kicked the door open and ran down the wing as fast as his cocky 25-year-old legs could carry him.

Albert was cocky, but he wasn’t stupid. He didn’t stop until he was sure he was clear of a possible explosion. Half a mile down the way he was still running.

Albert finally deemed it safe to inspect his airplane. He was shocked to realize he had just survived an accident. One of his hangar mates and a witness to the incident handed him the wheel that had sheared off upon landing. He cradled it in his arms as he tried to sort the array of thoughts that passed through his brain.

Albert was an optimist. Other than the wheel in his arms, the airplane didn’t look too bad. His airport buddies helped him set the airplane aright. The prop was bent just a tad. The windshield was still intact. A little straightening, a few bolts in the wheel and things would be like new. Well, maybe not new, but as good as before.

Albert found out a few days later that the FAA didn’t see it that way. He tried to explain that he’d only had an incident, but their examination of the airplane determined otherwise.

He was scheduled for a 709 check ride. He took a day off work. He borrowed a C-150 and planned his flight down to the towered, suburban airport where the ride would take place. Since his airport didn’t have fuel, he selected a stop at an airport about 30 miles to the south.

Albert’s departure was a little later than he hoped, and when he arrived at his fuel stop, no one was there. He calculated that he had enough fuel to reach his destination but would need to fill up before the check ride.

He began to sweat. He was a good stick, but radio work was not his strong point. There was little opportunity to practice in the boondocks. He arrived at the city airport and was given clearance to land ahead of a twin.

Albert was late, and the ex-military FAA examiner didn’t appreciate his time being wasted by some wormy, wet-behind-the-ears, cocky pilot. He motioned Albert toward the plane, but Albert stopped and told him he needed fuel. The examiner assured him that he had enough for the flight as he would be able to determine if he had the right stuff in a matter of a few minutes.

Albert stopped, looked sheepish, and insisted he needed to fuel the airplane first. Suspicious now, the old jarhead told Albert to fuel the airplane and bring him the ticket.

Shaking at the knees, cocky Albert wasn’t so cocky any more as he stood in front of Old Jarhead’s desk and handed him his fuel ticket. It was condemning evidence. If the controller had cleared him to land behind the twin, he wouldn’t have made it.

Albert took the tongue lashing. It was earned. He was then shocked when Jarhead told him to prep the plane for the check ride. Once seated, Albert admitted that he wasn’t very proficient with the radio. Jarhead only said, “Why am I not surprised?”

Albert flew well in spite of his earlier difficulties. His nervousness left him once he was behind the stick. Even Old Jarhead was impressed, but his lecture about poor judgment and youthful foolishness was on target and hit home, as it was meant to do.

Albert never forgot. Nearly 40 years later, he still departs with full tanks before he flies in his beloved mountains.

Deb McFarland is the proud owner of Lester, a 1948 Luscombe 8E, and part of the “Front Porch Gang” at Pickens County Airport in Georgia. Deb can be reached at ShortFinal@generalaviationnews.com.


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