Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, October 20, 2009

Staying Centered

If you’re a pilot, there’s more to staying centered than transcendental meditation

It was 1984, and I was ferrying one of the last of the Cessna 207s to South America. It was a midsummer afternoon in South Texas, and the mushroom cumuli were climbing high into the stratosphere all along the border and south toward the Gulf of Mexico. Waves of thermals were rising from the hot black asphalt at little Zapata County Airport, deep in the heart of Texas, as I taxied out after a fuel stop.

The plan was to fly the 100 or so nautical miles down to Brownsville, and then launch into Mexico the next morning for the first big leg south to Guatemala. The 207 was loaded heavy with ferry fuel, spare parts, baggage and whatever else we could close the doors on, and the airplane was laboring under the load.

OAT was about 100 degrees, and CHT was approaching four times that as I finished the abbreviated run-up, announced on the Unicom and took the runway. Takeoff had seemed a fairly leisurely affair. And then, all of a sudden, as if it had discovered a crack in the earth, the right wing dropped just before rotation at about 55 knots and slewed hard to starboard, practically out of control. I slammed my left Reebok to the floor as hard as I could, but the 207 still headed for the dirt. It came to a stop with the remainder of the right tire hanging partially over the lip of the asphalt, the loose Texas prairie a few inches below. Fortunately, the big prop never touched the ground.

The right main gear wheel had simply come apart, and it had taken the right tire with it. The wheel and tire were history, but fortunately, the brake assembly and remainder of the lower strut were undamaged. By some miracle, the airplane had stayed on the asphalt runway—barely. Had the right wheel dropped off the edge into the dirt, we might have lost the right gear strut completely and possibly wiped out the airplane.

I haven’t always been so diligent about staying centered on the runway during takeoff, but in those days, Zapata was a narrow little strip, perhaps 35 feet wide, and I had been careful to keep the nosewheel dead center on the white line as I powered up. Good thing, as it turned out.

I learned to fly in the ’60s in Long Beach, Calif., where the longest runway, 12/30, is nearly two miles long and 200 feet wide. Training aircraft generally aren’t welcome on the long “airline” runway, but even the other eight GA runways are more than 5,000 feet long by 100 feet across. Little guys rarely need more than half that. That didn’t matter to my instructor, Gary Meermans, a check pilot for United in his part-time job. He always insisted that I use all of the available runway in both length and width. Gary suggested that I hold the centerline to lift off, and not sloppily allow the nose to drift left as torque and P-factor exerted their influence.

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