Close Calls - January 2010

Confessions of a Pilot

By Anthony Nalli

Close Calls is a column detailing the “close call” experiences of fellow pilots. I invite you to contact me at CloseCalls@TheAviators.TV or to anonymously share your stories. The experience shared and lessons learned will be of benefit to all readers. Confidentiality will be assured and I will not use your name or aircraft ident without your permission. If your submission is used in Close Calls you’ll receive the official hat of the upcoming TV series The Aviators.

Our pilot had only received his private license a few short months earlier and was anxious to take family and friends flying whenever he could. Since most of his training was done in a Piper Tomahawk this is what he rented from the local flight training facility in order to take his brother for a ride on that hot summer’s day. Our pilot’s brother was a healthy 6-foot-4 weighing in at about 230 pounds – a good thing in some situations but not just then given density altitude considerations and the fact that the wind at the time favored the shortest of the three runways.

“By now it should be obvious that this is not the best scenario for beginning a pleasure flight or any flight for that matter,” our pilot admits. “To be honest, I don’t remember what our fuel load was or if in fact we were over gross. We did manage to take off and clear the (not so) far end of the runway ‘safely’ followed by a much deteriorated climb rate.”

With years to reflect on the day’s flight our pilot already faults his novice judgment, but his self-critique peaks when he remembers that it was not very long afterwards that he looked over to his brother and asked “Would you like me to demonstrate a spin?”

Humbly adds our pilot, “No doubt my brother agreed, I’m almost ashamed to say, because he trusted my ability.”

The Tomahawk was at 4,000 feet, which our pilot initially thought should be high enough, but continued up to 5,500 feet just in case. “Thank God we did,” exclaims our pilot, “because my mother could very well have lost two sons in their mid-20s that day and it would have been my fault!”

After the well-engrained pre-checks and clearing turns, our pilot pulled back the throttle and pulled into a high nose up attitude. Very high… almost vertical! As the speed diminished he abruptly applied plenty of rudder and within seconds they were in a fully developed spin.

“Okay, enough already” he remembers thinking. “Time to recover.” Ailerons neutral, he pushed the yoke forward and applied opposite rudder. But the Tomahawk failed to respond!

With terra firma getting ever closer and adrenaline rushing, our pilot thought he was doing all the right things to recover from a spin. “Then in an I-don’t-want-to-die type of panic I pulled back the column,” he explains.

The airplane finally stopped spinning. But bewildered and not paying attention to airspeed a wing soon dropped and they began another spin in the opposite direction! This time they recovered, apparently normally, after a few turns.

“When control was finally regained I was probably too scared to even look at the altimeter,” confesses our pilot, “but I remember thinking that the elevation appeared to be more like the view at circuit height.”

Before he flew again our pilot contacted a respected instructor and booked some dual training in the Tomahawk performing numerous spins and recoveries. He and his instructor tried to figure out what went wrong – aside from perhaps his over exuberance to have fun with an airplane. One possibility was that his tall passenger might have braced himself against the rudder pedals during the precarious maneuver. Another is that due to an improper technique for inducing the spin our pilot unknowingly entered an inverted spin, something was completely unfamiliar with.

He concludes, “I know in retrospect that with the limited training and experience required to attain a license, I should not have been doing deliberate spins.”

Live and learn… learn and live!

Fly safe(r).

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