Watch Those Wingtips!

No, we aren’t talking about your choice of shoes — the sound of your aircraft’s wingtip hitting something is distinctly different… One of the more challenging tasks that pilots face is keeping an eye on their wingtips while taxiing on the ground. With the tip of your wing some 10 to 20 feet away from your seat, keeping an eye on it, and keeping it out of the way of other objects, can be a real pain.

AS IT WAS IN THIS CASE… Our pilot was on his way back from an hour and a half of flying. It was hot in the cabin and he wanted to get back to the hangar area, and into the comfort of the air-conditioned line shack. After landing, he found himself stuck behind other traffic. Worse yet, he had to get off of the airport and over to his job, where someone was waiting to be relieved by him.

PATIENCE IS A VIRTUE… Rather than wait and let it get hotter and later, our pilot elected to try to slip down the grass runway adjacent to the paved strip and just beyond the runway lights on the north side of the runway. North of the grass runway was a field filled with maturing corn. This became the obstacle to the left, while to the right was a runway with several aircraft landing. Our pilot “carefully” pressed on, keeping an eye on the landing traffic, to make sure he gave a wide birth to each passing airplane.

OBSTINANCE ISN’T — As our pilot plodded along, he felt a tug to the left, and corrected it with a step on the rudder pedal. TUG, TUG, TUG. Our pilot, still looking to the right, again had to correct his path, as the aircraft started to veer to the left. Then, as he looked forward for a moment, the pilot noticed some motion on the left side of the plane out of the corner of his eye. Turning to look, he noticed that his left wing was about a foot into the corn, and was mowing down the cornstalks! Seeing the cornstalks get mowed down prompted immediate action — the right rudder pedal hit the floor, but instead of veering right, the plane came to a halt and would not move. The pilot then advanced the power, to “drive” the plane out of the corn. Imagine his horror when the plane responded by diving further into the corn.

PHYSICS VS. THE ‘BEST’ LAID PLANS — If you want to know why the pilot lost this epic struggle, have a friend hold a broomstick out at arm’s length. His job is to keep the broomstick in one position; your job is to move it with one finger. Even if your friend uses both hands, you can still move the broomstick with one finger. Now consider the problem of our pilot. The “corn” represented about 15 hands (not fingers), pushing the wingtip. The landing gear represents your friend. The corn, of course, wins.

Result: In the aftermath, the pilot and his plane escaped with little more than a few green streaks across the left wing … but the plane had to be towed out of the corn with a truck. Of course, by then all the other traffic that had been delaying him had moved to the line shack, where they relaxed in cool air and waited to give him a warm and ‘enthusiastic’ welcome.

BAD-JUDGEMENT-R-US: Was the time saved using this Rube Goldberg method worth the risk? There were three planes in the way — this translated to around 7 minutes of waiting. Shouldn’t the pilot have just waited, instead of making the risky run down the north side of the field? You bet he should have! Our pilot got lucky. Only the corn (and our pilot’s ego) was bruised in this case. However, if he had been taxiing too close to a building, well, both the building and the plane could have experienced expensive damage.

A SIMPLE REMINDER: Freedom of movement in the air comes with certain restrictions on the ground. Taxiing an airplane is like crossing the street — all the time. Remember to look to the left and the right — continuously — for unwelcome surprises. If you see something encroaching your airplanes ‘personal space,’ adjust your course. Better still, ask for a wingwalker, that is, someone to walk along the tip of your wing and provide visual cues of your clearance with objects nearby. Finally, if a space looks too narrow to fit into, it probably is. Why take the chance? (Your answer should be a lot better than ‘seven minutes.’