As we move beyond the end of an entire calendar year unlike any other, I find myself searching through my memory banks using the keywords “weird pilot stories” that feature a few friends of mine who perhaps were removed from the cosmic oven a bit too soon.
For instance, a buddy of mine once had an encounter with an FAA maintenance inspector who took him to task when a cable fitting that he had installed came loose, allowing a sudden retraction of the flaps on an airplane. This happened on short final, announced by a sudden “bang” as the flaps slammed home, and the airplane dropped suddenly before resuming normal flight. No accident resulted, but it certainly got the attention of the pilots on board. When the local FAA official found out about it, he confronted my mechanic friend.
“You do realize that if the fitting that failed had been on an elevator cable, the airplane could have crashed into a schoolyard and killed a bunch of kids. How would you feel about that?” he asked indignantly.
The old mechanic, who felt badly about the mistake but had little use for bureaucrats of any stripe, much less self-important inspectors, thought for a moment and replied, “I don’t like kids that much anyway.”
Now, I knew this was not true, as he has a houseful of grandchildren he loves dearly, but the expression on the inspector’s face still makes me laugh out loud.
Many years ago, as a young charter pilot, I was sent to pick up the body of an unfortunate fellow who had died in a small South Texas town and return him to his home city. Upon arrival, we were met by the funeral home workers, who transferred the dearly departed from their vehicle onto the airplane’s stretcher in the rear of the Piper Cherokee Six. For some reason, the rather large individual was not enclosed in a body bag but simply covered by a sheet. Just before securing everything, the attendant explained that he would need to remove the sheet, as it belonged to the funeral home and would need to stay behind. Ever the intrepid aviator, but completely unnerved by the idea of flying home with the naked corpse, I told the rather bored attendants, “There is no way I’m flying him without a sheet. Either the sheet goes, or he stays…your choice.” After a bit of negotiation, the sheet was reinstalled, probably charged to the charter company, and the two of us completed the flight.
A few years ago, I was teaching an “Introduction to Aviation” mini course to a group of teens who were attending a summer camp nearby. We were in the classroom at our small airport, and I was attempting to explain some basic aerodynamic concepts. Now, believe it or not, they were not particularly captivated by my description of lift and drag, so I decided to give them a short break. As I emerged from the classroom, I noticed a familiar face. Former astronaut Jim Lovell, who spent part of the year in our area, would occasionally bring his airplane by for a bit of fuel or some small maintenance issue, so we had met a few times previously.
Seizing the opportunity, I asked Jim if I might bring the class out and introduce him. Graciously he agreed. Once I had the teens corralled, I said, “Everyone, I would like to introduce you to a true American hero. This is Commander James Lovell, who was the commander of the Apollo 13 mission. I imagine all of you have seen the movie.” While every one of the youngsters nodded, indicating they were familiar with the film, both Jim and I were not prepared for what happened next. One of the kids looked up at Jim with absolute awe and said, “So you know Tom Hanks!” Lovell burst out laughing and said, “Why, yes, I do, and he is a fine fellow.”
For many years, I have taught with the Bonanza and Baron Pilot Training Program. One of our senior instructors is a retired Naval aviator who, at one time, commanded the U.S.S. America aircraft carrier. It happens that Captain Kent Ewing and his senior officers had a private elevator to the ship’s bridge. Outside the elevator at the entrance to the bridge was an area with an assortment of steam pipes and electrical conduits running across the overhead. As Ewing surveyed this array one day, he noticed an unsheathed cable connected to a couple of pulleys.
Curious about its function, the captain gave it a pull. Turns out, this activated the enormous ship’s whistle, emitting a very, very loud “WHOOOO.” Finding this entertaining, Ewing would exit the elevator, pull the cable, and continue to the bridge. “Captain’s on the bridge!” would announce his arrival, whereupon he would ask, “What’s up with the whistle?” The bridge crew, all with “deer in the headlights” expressions, would report, “We’re not sure, Captain. It just keeps going off.” Ewing, with a straight face, said, “Well, you better get the engineer up here and figure out what’s going on.”
The engineer, imagining his promising Naval career washing overboard, had no answers but promised to investigate. So, for the next three weeks, the misbehaving whistle continued to sound, until finally an ensign noticed it only happened when the captain showed up, and Ewing finally fessed up to the prank.
And, finally, as my gift to you, here are a few lessons I have learned the hard way that I hope you will find helpful…
A Cessna 150 will, in fact, climb with full flaps. That is good to know when you are a new student pilot on your first solo, and you forget to retract them prior to takeoff. However, you will never forget again.
When a buddy offers you the use of his airplane, which just happens to be a model you have never flown, so you can try to impress your new female friend, it is wise to ask if there is a checklist.
If you leave the Nav lights ON in the daytime while flying a Piper Arrow, you WILL be convinced the gear has failed.
It is not a good idea to feed your kid a milkshake before a turbulent flight.
Turning down the radio volume to explain something to your student will not make ATC happy when they try to call.
Not all dogs like to fly. Some will find unpleasant ways to let you know.
Leaving the end of your seatbelt outside the cabin door results in a very loud noise, which sounds remarkably like a major engine malfunction.
Running a tank dry does not impress your passengers. It is worse when you are married to one of them.
A bag of potato chips will not survive a climb to altitude, and the resulting “bang” will annoy your wife.
When you fail to latch the door on a Bonanza properly, it WILL come open on climb out. When this happens, it is suddenly very noisy. The good news is, you can’t hear your passenger screaming.
Now, my wife, Judy, who is normally a very relaxed passenger, was startled from a sound nap during a flight to Houston years ago when I suddenly sat upright, slapped my leg, and exclaimed, “Dammit!”
Bolting upright, she yelled, “What’s wrong?” expecting a dire emergency. “Nothing,” I replied. Turns out, I had been listening to the baseball game on the AM broadcast through the ADF back when that was possible. “The Astros just lost the game in the bottom of the ninth.”
Sleeping on the couch is not so bad.