This is my last Air Safety blog post on Industry Insider, for I am retiring after 43 years of law practice. I therefore give myself permission to recall some of my less than outstanding exploits during 47 years of flying light airplanes. Thankfully all ended safely, but not always thanks to me.
A few months after receiving my private pilot license, on a rare sunny spring day I decided to take a sightseeing flight over the Washington, D.C. area. I went to a local airport in suburban Baltimore, and with less than 100 hours total time in my log book—none of it in the area–was perfunctorily checked out in a Cessna 150. I took off, flew over downtown Baltimore, then south to D.C. I flew as close to the White House as I dared, then followed the Mall past the Capitol, the Supreme Court and the Library of Congress, taking photos along the way, and proceeded eastbound to Annapolis. After overflying the Naval Academy, I turned north and returned to the airport. All of this was perfectly legal then, for I stayed clear of the Prohibited Area over the White House—the only airspace restriction in those days. I got some great pictures, but given my inexperience and unfamiliarity with the area, that I managed to return the plane, myself and my passenger safely was a tribute to good luck, not to good airmanship or good judgment.
While stationed at Monterey, California I often flew around the area and down the Big Sur coast. The coastal fogs creeping inland added to the beauty of the sights, and I blithely overflew them–sometimes while Navy aircraft were making practice instrument approaches to the Monterey airport, unseen in the enveloping fog below.
A few years later, after the military and law school, I flew with my wife and another couple to a short grass strip near historic Ste. Genevieve, Missouri without doing a proper preflight weight and balance computation. I merely eyeballed the passengers, and concluded that we were legal. While sightseeing in Ste. Genevieve, I realized that it might be more challenging to get airborne from turf than from the paved runway back home. Fortunately we lifted off with room to spare, and I tried not to let my passengers see my relief.
Returning from Chicago on a hot, hazy day I failed to get an updated weather briefing before departing. As the flight progressed the haze grew thicker and thicker, until I realized that I could no longer see the ground. After reversing course out of the cloud, the sky was dark and threatening, with cloud to ground lightning visible, and I landed at the nearest airport. By the time I parked and shut down rain was falling so hard that I could not get out of the plane. I had encountered the only storm in the entire State of Illinois. In less than an hour it passed, and I enjoyed an uneventful flight home.
A couple years later my wife and I planned a pleasant day trip, but at the airport, the plane’s battery proved to be stone dead. The fixed base operator gave us a jump to get started, and assured me that the alternator would recharge the battery en route. Fifty miles out, the alternator light illuminated, and the radios went silent. I turned back, assuring my wife that I could cope with the situation while reviewing the emergency procedures in the pilot’s handbook. I pumped the landing gear down manually, and made a fast, no flap landing. Lesson learned!
Taking off on a local flight I realized too late that the airspeed indicator was not indicating. I lifted off, left the traffic pattern to get the feel of flying without airspeed indication, returned and landed very carefully. Back on the ground I found the cause: an insect had packed the pitot tube with mud, which I had overlooked during the preflight inspection.
After several in flight radio failures and a total electrical failure I finally bought a hand held emergency transceiver. Thereafter I never had to use it.
These were not the only times when good luck trumped bad judgment. But I tried to learn from my mistakes and become a better pilot as a result. In the end, I proved the adage that there are old pilots and bold pilots, but no old bold pilots, for I definitely became an old one.