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When Knowledge Alone Is Not Enough.

To begin with: an apology to Gary, Belinda and Mike for being such an unreliable contributor. No excuses really. Just a little writer’s block and some Attention Deficit Disorder (Kids, wife, dog, mother in law etc.)  Scully Levin cornered me in the corridors of SAA recently to remind me once again that an article for Aviation & Safety was long overdue. With such men as fans of one’s scribbling; how could I decline? So here it is Scully, hope you like it.

It served me right. I was impatient. I’d taken the short cut down a narrow alley outside the terminal building and ended up behind a chattering posse of slow movers. Being a habitual high speed walker I needed to get around them in a hurry.

On one side was a low brick retaining wall about a briefcase high with a narrow surface wide enough to overtake the jaywalkers with ease. Some of us had work to do and I certainly didn’t have time for such slacking. A quick hop onto the ledge and I’d be on my way.

That’s when it happened.

The toe of my left shoe caught the corner of the wall and sent me lurching into an uncontrolled sprawl that was sure to end in broken bones and facial lacerations on contact with the raspy surface of the ledge. Luckily some fancy footwork achieved an inelegant but nonetheless impressive recovery, much to the “eishes,” “ows” and guffaws from my jaywalking audience. I must have looked like a four bar Charlie Chaplin on a masonry tightrope at the circus.

“Wow that was close!” I told myself, figuring the sick leave I would have needed for a compound fracture and some reconstructive surgery.

How could I have misjudged such a simple hop? It was obvious of course. I was overweight for the jump! In my left hand I’d been carrying my flight bag, which I’d instinctively jettisoned during my sprawl. Carrying those few extra kilos caused the problem, (that Flight Ops Manual is really heavy Johnny!) while ditching them an instant later saved me from a painful landing.

It was such a close call that I couldn’t help comparing it to the takeoff accidents at Rand Airport that have dominated my thoughts so recently.

My benign little misjudgment was a graphic reminder of how badly an aircraft performs when overloaded by even a little bit. And that’s before bringing runway slope, surface, temperature, density altitude or obstacles into the equation! Bring any of those into the mix and you truly have a recipe for disaster!

It’s natural to condemn the transgressors for their ineptitude, but at the same time it’s almost inevitable, considering the low experience and circumstances of the contenders. I well remember making similarly bizarre decisions at the same experience level. Combine low experience with a cocky ego and you have the perfect beginning for a drama of Shakespearian proportions. Throw in one or two critical elements and a dash of time pressure and you’ll soon be auditioning for the evening news.

It takes a few years experience to realize that there’s a sequence of events that precedes all accidents, and unless you learn to recognize and break your own “poor judgment chain,” you’re likely to become a statistic yourself at some point.

Sometimes when I’m conducting flight tests I tell my candidates that there are few mistakes they can make that I haven’t already made myself. It helps calm their nerves if they believe you’re human. And little do they know, it’s the truth. I still marvel at how fortunate I was to survive the stupidity of my youth. It was one of the reasons I became a flying instructor. Some lessons in life are so frighteningly profound they need to be shared, if they are to have any value or meaning at all.

I remember checking the takeoff performance figures in the POH (Pilot’s Operating Handbook) and convinced myself that even though the aircraft was at gross weight (and very possibly over) there shouldn’t be a problem getting off the runway in those conditions.

Flashback to 1979. Family and friends from around the country had gathered in Dundee, Natal after the demise of a beloved uncle. Mom had made her way down by train a few days earlier. Dad, my younger brother Warren and I flew down in a rented Piper Cherokee Archer from Lanseria. Dad held an expired PPL and Warren was still a student pilot, so I was the only one appropriately rated. It was back in the “olden days” long before GPS; when map reading was still in vogue. We’d gotten lost on the flight down and foolishly ended up above some stratoform clouds that maliciously conspired to close ranks beneath us. We eventually found a hole, but only Dad’s intimate knowledge of the area saved us from aimlessly buzzing around the hills until the fuel ran out. With a total of 70 odd hours that’s probably where I should have realized I was barely competent outside the circuit. But at 19 how much do you really know? The sight of Dad satirically kissing the ground after we’d landed was lost on me, along with his endless lectures and over-reactions about virtually everything in life. After all, I was a qualified pilot, was I not? I had a license from DCA that clearly said so! With only 200 hours, Dad didn’t have much experience himself, and anyway, most of those were on Piper Cubs from decades before! He’d barely flown an aircraft with a radio, let alone something as advanced as a fully IFR equipped Cherokee Archer! (Fat load of good it was to me at that stage!) Too impudent to respect my father’s life experience, another very serious lesson was soon to follow!

After thirty years and 20,000 hours, I can finally reveal that it was I who was the inspiration behind Forrest Gump’s famous line: “Stoopid is as stoopid does.”
                  Like the day I nearly wiped out my entire family!

Lining up on runway 18 at Dundee I took full power against the brakes before letting her go. We had one notch of flap selected and the wind was a calm 30 degrees shimmering over the black asphalt surface. Naturally the little Cherokee didn’t exactly lurch forward in anticipation of flight. But that was to be expected. The first half of the runway arced uphill over the horizon into the distance. We were sure to experience better acceleration during the latter half of the takeoff roll.

Passing the apex, the end of the runway comes into view and I realize it’s a gamble whether the Archer’s dismal acceleration will get us to takeoff speed by the time we reach the limit of the tarmac. Seconds later with only 100 meters remaining, it occurs to me that there is no longer enough runway left to stop; not without running through the fence at the end. Now I’m well and truly committed – regardless of the outcome! Not a nice feeling I can tell you! As I watch the runway disappear before my eyes I’m cajoling the sluggard of an airspeed indicator to reach 65 knots, which I estimate is the minimum I can risk before I dare ease the stick back. Will we reach it before the wheels leave the tarmac? Warren in the right seat is oblivious to the crisis while I can sense dad’s anxiety mounting behind me. “Stupid son – you’re going to kill us all!” he’s saying in my terrified mind.

Too late for apologies now! The wheels are about to run off the end. It’s time to find out whether this little aircraft will fly or simply hurtle through the fence and into the neat little Zulu huts; engulfing us all in a fireball when the fuel tanks rupture and explode against the fragile mud parapets. 

I ease the stick back and pray for the best. With the stall warning blaring in our ears she lifts just barely that I don’t feel the wheels drop over the edge. We must be airborne! First bullet dodged – but will she clear the fence, and then the huts, before the wings let go of the precious lift! I pull a little harder. The speed slips back to 58 knots. I can’t risk any less. The nose is pitched up, propeller blades clawing at the hot sticky air.

Quickly my right hand reaches for the flap lever. I wait for the click.  I don’t want to pull more than 2 notches. The extra drag will finish us for sure.

In seconds that last an eternity we clear the fence and I’m conscious of curious black faces staring up at us only feet away. The stall warning screams more urgently and I know the game is nearly over. I’ve got to release pressure on the stick or we’re doomed!

Then, like a merciful assassin the ground falls away beneath us into a gentle green valley and I realize we’ve been spared! I ease off on the stick and slide down the contour, hugging the slope in ground affect, coaxing the airspeed up until I can retract the flaps. Gradually the speed increases enough to convert it into a climb and we’re saved! Like a long nightmare – it’s finally over! My heart is pounding frantically. Breathe dammit breathe! It’s over! As quickly as it happened – it was over. We’d made it!

I steal a glance over my right shoulder. The expression in my father’s eyes says it all. Mom had no clue what had just happened and Warren’s smile said he’d enjoyed the ride. Only Dad and I knew how close we’d come to disaster.

The flight back to Lanseria was mostly silent with only Mom and Warren passing the odd comment.

When we shut down two hours later Dad asked to see the POH. “Show me how you calculated your takeoff distance,” he asked me quietly.

I pointed to the graphs.
     “What temperature did you use?”
“30 degrees,” I replied sheepishly.
     “Centigrade or Fahrenheit?”

My blood ran cold as I redid the calculation. I’d used 30 degrees Fahrenheit instead of Centigrade! 30 degrees Fahrenheit is below freezing while the real temperature was cooking! I’d nearly killed my entire family by miss-reading a #@$%^&* performance chart!

      “My boy, knowledge is worthless if you don’t use it properly,” is all he said. We never discussed the matter again; he knew I’d learnt my lesson.

I never forgot those words, but I wished his wisdom had stuck – for that was not the end of my life threatening adventures…

It was the only time I ever had my entire family in a light aircraft and it was a mere two years later that my wise old father was gone, leaving me severely deprived at a particularly hazardous and perplexing phase in my life.

In my latter years I’ve taken over his mantle of spending an hour or two lecturing my PPL and Comm candidates on interesting accidents and incidents, and how to avoid some of the mistakes many of my colleagues and I have made over the years. Summing it up I always issue a stern reminder. Learn from the mistakes of others! Nobody lives long enough in this game to make them all themselves. Be warned, that if you don’t - personal tragedy will be a VERY hard teacher! Some of us were lucky – but that doesn’t mean you will be! And in fact, some of the stories I tell are precisely because many of those involved didn’t survive to tell them! We owe it to their memory that we learn from their mistakes. (Studying the CAA accident reports is a good place to start.)

Postscript:
How would I avoid making the same mistake today?
Firstly: Read the performance charts PROPERLY!
Secondly: Figure out how much runway you reasonably require to STOP (and mark it clearly alongside the runway if you need to.) If you haven’t ALREADY reached flying speed by that point, it’s safer to reject the takeoff and either offload some weight or try again later when the temperature and wind conditions have improved. (And while you’re waiting – RECHECK the performance figures!) Much wiser than staggering into the air, only to plant yourself into the trees or up against a hillside somewhere along the takeoff path.
And above all: “Don’t do as I do – Do as I say!” (One of my father’s typically arcane slogans that provoked many heated debates with his two sons.)

Ironically, it’s only now, as I sit here quietly recounting this incident after so many years, that I can fully appreciate the significance of his words…
I never thought that someday, I’d be using those very same words with such conviction.

(The author is an Airbus A340 Captain with SAA and CEO of Flight Training College in George.)
Next month: Lost over the Okavango at night!


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