If one thing serves us well in life and in aviation, it’s the art of being resourceful—intelligent and creative problem solving and making the best use of time and available resources. Being resourceful is “the ability to find a way” by digging deep for inner courage and determination. This is especially true when faced with extraordinary circumstances.
Aviation people are pretty resourceful by nature. Look around any small airport, and you’ll find evidence of this by the way people tinker with their airplanes in hangars filled with parts. It takes a resourceful person to find their way in aviation, to build an airplane, get their license or make it their career.
Some of the most resourceful pilots I know are bush pilots. Pilots in Alaska know how to scrape ice and preheat an airplane in winter; how to take a jar of engine oil into the cabin with you at night to see if the engine needs preheating in the morning, how to land a Super Cub up the side of a mountain when blinded by a whiteout. Bush pilots in Africa can tell you the best way to transport a doped-up lion or how to filter petrol when fueling from a 55-gallon drum in a sandstorm.
In aerobatic circles, people who do funny things with little experimental airplanes also are quite resourceful. One year, a few of us were practicing in Oklahoma for the U.S. National Aerobatic Championship. It was late September, and I was flying an Extra 230—the first production Extra. Another competitor, whose name I won’t reveal in order to protect the guilty, was practicing at a nearby airport also flying a 230. Taking off to practice, his canopy latch came loose. The canopy almost departed the plane and was badly cracked and unfit for use. Devastated, he thought he wasn’t going to be able to defend his aerobatic title. He called me and asked if he could fly to Chickasha where I was training to see if my canopy would fit his airplane and, if so, could he borrow it during the contest? Displaying enterprise and courage, my friend craftily trimmed his canopy so it looked like a small motorcycle windshield, and flew from warm weather to very cold weather across one of those autumn Oklahoma cold fronts to see if my canopy would fit. It did, and I let him use it in Texas at the Nationals. Saved the day!
A few years later, I was flying the Extra 260 (now owned by the National Air And Space Museum). The 260 is a beautiful airplane, but was designed strictly as a one-off prototype, constructed of a combination of wood, fabric and composite materials. It led to the popular all-composite Extra 300S and 300L series. I had planned a flight from St. Clair, Mich., direct to Buffalo, N.Y., for an air show. A large stretch of the flight would take me over Ontario, Canada. I had no plans to land in Canada, so I didn’t file a flight plan or advise customs. Everything was going fine until the halfway point when I noticed a bolt in my rudder pedal slipping out. What to do? If I continued the flight, there was a good chance I’d have no right rudder on landing—not a good thing in a slick little high-performance taildragger! My only safe option was to land in Canada—sans flight plan. It was risky because Canadian Customs could have thrown me in jail, but I gave them a quick explanation of my predicament, and they looked the other way while I got out my Swiss Army knife and Crescent wrench. Necessity—the mother of resourcefulness.
The early-era kick-the-tires and light-the-fires test pilots are great examples of “finding a way.” Arguably, the most classic example of resourcefulness is how Chuck Yeager enlisted his friend, pilot and engineer Jack Ridley, to help him close the canopy of the Bell X-1 for his sound barrier-breaking flight. A few days before the record flight, Yeager was seriously injured in a horse-riding accident and broke two of his ribs. As the story goes, knowing his injury would probably ground him, Yaeger went to a veterinarian for treatment. On the day of the flight, Ridley rigged up a clever device using a broom handle so Yeager could close the hatch. The rest is history.
As everyone knows, in 1927, Charles Lindbergh flew his 220 hp Ryan monoplane, The Spirit of St. Louis, from Garden City, N.Y., to Paris, France, becoming the first person to fly solo nonstop across the Atlantic. During the 36-hour flight, Lindbergh flew low to avoid weather and also to get better fuel burn by using “ground effect,” which we all know is the increased lift and decreased drag an aircraft wing generates when it’s flown within one wingspan above the surface. He was one resourceful dude.
One of the most dramatic examples of pilot resourcefulness is found in the story of the 1989 United 811 747 incident. After departing from Honolulu for New Zealand, climbing out of 21,000 feet MSL, the flight experienced an explosion that turned out to be a faulty forward cargo door that tore a huge hole in the forward fuselage, caused rapid decompression and resulted in nine passengers getting sucked out the side of the airplane. Over the water at night, with no pressurization or oxygen, they lost two of their engines and some of their systems. The crew initiated an emergency descent back to Honolulu, dumping fuel the entire way. Their approach speed was above 200 knots, and even with an asymmetrical flap situation, the Captain was able to land the airplane safely in Honolulu, saving the lives of the rest of the passengers. For an exciting read, the NTSB report is available at www.ntsb.org, and for a cockpit voice recording transcript that’s guaranteed to give you goose bumps, go to www.planecrashinfo.com/cvr890224.htm.
Aviation history is filled with astonishing and inspirational stories, but it’s not only the record-setting history-making flight that demonstrates the art of being resourceful. Every pilot has the opportunity to make best use of their time and assets in every flight. Odds are, most of your flights will be routine, but we all have the ability to pull something more out of our hats when challenged with extraordinary circumstances.
Year after year, we see NTSB reports of good pilots finding new ways to make the same old big mistakes, like VFR pilots flying into instrument conditions. Part of being a good pilot and a safe pilot is being resourceful and finding a better solution. An example would be flying into worsening conditions that you’re not prepared for: resourcefulness would be doing a 180-degree turn, landing at the closest airport or, if all else fails, land on a road or in a field. Sometimes, we have to do extraordinary things to guarantee a safe outcome. I wouldn’t recommend landing in Canada without a flight plan, but if it’s the only safe thing to do, then go for it. If you leave yourself an out, there are almost always options to becoming a statistic. And, by the way, if you do declare an emergency, you as the pilot are allowed to do whatever you need to get your airplane safely on the ground—and there’s no paperwork to file.
“When the going gets tough, the tough keep going.” Being resourceful means taking care of yourself when no one else is there to take care of things for you, digging a little deeper for a positive outcome and turning a bad situation into a not-so-bad one. Perhaps it’s about having faith in yourself and never giving up. You can be certain that Captain Cronin of United 811 wasn’t about to “give up the ship” as he “flew the biggest piece back.”
I’m inspired by stories like United 811. Odds are we won’t be setting sound-barrier records or faced with landing a commercial jet in the Hudson a la Sully, but they prove we can rise to even the most extraordinary of challenges when we’re resourceful. Whatever the challenge that we come across in aviation, we have the “ability to find a way.”