How stupid can a pilot be?
I’ll answer my own question. Really stupid, because I qualify!
In my entire aviation career I have never injured a crew member or any passenger but I can remember many stupid mistakes I have made and somehow, someway nobody ever got hurt. Aircraft got damaged and we all walked away but many of the incidents were not my fault. The aircraft let me down and I had to battle with it to solve the problem.
This story is about two times I couldn’t blame anything or anyone but myself for what happened.
Between semesters in college I was a counselor at my church summer camp on the Delaware River in Pennsylvania. Trying to impress a young lady, also a counselor, I met from the sister camp five miles up the river, I really made a mistake. When we first met I just mentioned that I had a pilot’s license. Naturally I wanted to impress her. I didn’t tell her that the ink was still wet on my new license and she was very excited to discover that she knew a young buck that flew.
What’s left but to put my money where my mouth was? Show off time! I had a day off and knew that she was going on a canoe trip up river with her group. At a local airport, I checked out in and rented a Piper J-3 “Cub.” I knew that my mission was to find her on the river and let her know I was for real. I couldn’t miss the canoes trailing each other on the river so I idled the engine back and started a slow descent searching for her. I sighted her canoe and saw her waving at me just a couple of hundred feet below. By now, I had glided down between the hills on each side of the river but my mind was elsewhere. I opened the window and called to her so she would have no doubt it was her young hero.
What a mistake. Intent on trying to let her know it was me right over her head I got too low to the river and when I decided to climb away from the approaching trees, I caught sight of wires drooping down from a hill crossing the river. “Oh shit,” I thought as I pushed the throttle full open. The engine coughed a few times before it came to life. I knew I couldn’t climb over the wires so I dropped the nose, dove under them, and prayed as I eased the nose up and saw them pass over my head but the damn trees were right in front of me.
That was one of those split second decisions when pilots must make the right choice or the game is over. I missed the wires but hit the top of the trees. The little airplane shuddered as the landing gear struck the branches of the trees and I heard the crunching of the contact. Yet it kept flying and I climbed out of my predicament. I was really shook and mad at myself for doing such a dumb thing. Thank God!
When I returned to the airport I had rented the airplane from I didn’t taxi back to the line immediately. I stopped and got out to inspect my airplane for any damage because if I took it back to the line with the crap stuck to the landing gear I couldn’t explain it. The only evidence of my escapade were some small branches and leaves stuck in the landing gear, which I removed to cover my ass in case someone spotted it. Pulling branches from the landing gear I took it back to the line, paid what I owed and left. Nobody knew the difference. I got away with a stupid flight that could have ended my flying career with a crash. However, the only thing that crashed was my summer romance.
My second experience involving wires happened many years later, in a helicopter. This was after I had thousands of hours of flight experience. During my years in the navy I was trained and certified as a helicopter pilot in addition to the jets, propeller fighters and large multi-engine aircraft. My first brush with wires happened when I was a novice pilot trying to show off. The second unfortunate experience happened long after I had gained recognition as an experienced and seasoned pilot.
I was on patrol with police officers as passengers doing drug running monitoring along interstate 80 in New Jersey. The helicopter was a jet powered model called a Jet Ranger. We were tracking a suspect van travelling westbound on the interstate 80 near dusk. Our enroute stop was a parking lot where other officers were waiting. The plan was to use this stop to compare notes before continuing our mission with other officers. During the last phase of this leg, at low level, as I was approaching the site still over the interstate, the officer in the seat beside me up front yelled, “wires!” I glanced up to see the wires strung from the mountain on my right arcing across my flight path. I got “clothes lined” immediately.
The wires sliced through the cockpit taking the top off the forward part of the helicopter and also ripping my headset from my head. The officer beside me ducked. The wires missed him but we were in trouble. The wires had the helicopter trapped. I dropped the collective, which controls the pitch angle of the big rotor, wrapped on full power and tilted the helicopter using the rotor to chop through the wires like a high speed ax. We had to get free. It worked. The wires snapped freeing the helicopter and we started down. Even though severely damaged I regained control of the wounded machine just in time to make a safe landing on the grass between the traffic lanes.
The machine was really beat up but the chewed up rotor blades did not fail. Checking with the rest of the officers in the back, nobody was hurt, just scared shitless as was I. I came so close to being scalped that my headset ended up in the rear seat between the officers. There was nobody to blame for this event but me, I screwed up!
Let’s review what went wrong. I (we) were too intent on the mission. I was too low for that part of the flight and all of us were unfamiliar with the hazards along our route. We didn’t expect to encounter wires strung that high in the air without any visual warning devices attached like colored balls attached to wires I know you have seen around airports to warn pilots. But, I had no excuse. Interstate 80 is not an airport. I made a mistake that someone, or something, gave me the ability to act on in a split second and survive. Really, without any plan just reaction; I do admit my mistakes for several reasons. The first is to demonstrate that pilots do make errors in judgment during their flying careers.
Secondly, news reports of an accident or incident can leave you with nothing more valuable than the writer’s opinion because they simply write about what they hear long before the facts are known. For example, the reporting of my helicopter incident by the media portrayed me as a “hero.” I really wasn’t. They printed quotes by the officers on the wounded helicopter like, “I’d fly with the pilot anywhere. He saved our lives.” “It was his quick thinking that saved us.”
There were also a lot of other opinions appearing in print and on TV by witnesses who were interviewed. But, everybody missed the point. Nowhere did the fact that I screwed up appear in print or on TV. Even the FAA investigation didn’t file a “pilot error” report. Thanks for little gifts. But, to me, the biggest gift was what happened the moment I looked up to see the wires just before the helicopter struck them. It wasn’t me moving the controls. Hell, I’d never been trained to do what happened. Someone, or something, called the shots. I just went along for the ride. Is this SPIRIT I often mention?
The reason I included this story is to impress on you, the reader, that the Captain is the key to whether or not you survive because he, like me, will make errors in judgment many times during his flying career.
The bottom line, will you survive if, and when, he does make an error in judgment?”