I love writing about my friend Dick, since his thousands of hours of flying have been so fraught with things that would (and do) give me gray hairs just thinking about them. Still, it is our hope that by bringing these lessons of life to everyone’s attention, we will all learn and so avoid our own incursions into Dick’s world.
IN THIS CASE, DICK AND SOME TRUSTING FRIENDS WERE FLYING NORTH TO GO HANG GLIDING. (Don’t get me started on why you would fly a couple of hundred miles to fly more off a hill in a hang glider … I didn’t go.) Anyway, Dick made plans to meet the people offering the hang gliding lessons at a small, private strip near their facility.
As he entered downwind, Dick noted that the grass looked a little tall, so he held the nose high and maintained enough power for a soft field landing. The plane got in fine, but the prop got “greened” from the grass it was cutting as they taxied out to the road for their pickup. The plane’s wings also got a little grass stained, as did the retractable landing gear was tugged hard through the tall grass.
I KNOW WHAT YOU ARE THINKING… “HOW IN THE HECK IS THAT PLANE GOING TO TAKE OFF LATER?”
Dick and his friends went off and learned some hang gliding skills for the rest of the day. They ran and glided down the small slope and made some pretty harsh landings, getting bumped up in the process. Finally, the day was done, and they were taken back to the airplane. DICK LOOKED AT THE “RUNWAY“, AND ASSESSED HIS SITUATION…
- Tall grass meant lots of drag on takeoff, making it hard to gain enough speed for enough lift;
- Short field — with barbed wire fences at either end;
- Did I mention tall grass? Lots and lots of tall grass…
This combination would have been enough to make most pilots start to look for a lawn mower … or a taxi … but not Dick. He piled his friends into the plane, and pulled all the way to the end of the runway. Standing on the brakes, he went to full power with the flaps down 10 degrees, and started to grope toward the opposite end of the runway.
THE PLANE WASN’T BUILDING SPEED TOO WELL, BUT DICK PRESSED ON. HE YANKED THE PLANE OUT OF THE GRASS AND INTO GROUND EFFECT, AND, WITH THE STALL HORN BLARING, STARTED TO BUILD SPEED. As the fence was approaching, Dick had enough speed (and no runway) so he pulled up the gear, and started his climb out.
The passengers were pretty agitated after the plane got back into the air, but everyone made it back to the home field in one piece. Once they got there, Dick spent time pulling a ton of grass out of his landing gear, which (along with his prop) had worked as a lawn mower / weed extractor on his takeoff roll. He then cleaned the grass stains off of the leading edges of his wings, and the bottom of his flaps.
A SANE PILOT’S WARNING
- Short strip = not much room to build speed.
- Tall grass — makes it hard to build speed.
- Airport not maintained. Private strips are just that — conditions should be verified before you assume it is safe to land there!
DON’T BE LIKE DICK. Plan your flights for success. If you are presented with lemons (as Dick was in this case) think of ways to get around the problem. Whether that includes buying a bunch of hand scythes and breaking down the tall grass, or getting the owner to run a mower over it, take the right actions to make sure your flight gets off the ground and into the air. Flight safety starts with the pilot — THAT MEANS YOU. Murphy is a permanent passenger in every plane. If you are willing to take shortcuts in flight safety, they will come back to haunt you … or worse.