Sunday, May 26, 2013

Did I Use Up My Nine Lives?

Did I use up my nine lives? My wife thinks so, and I guess I do too. After I relate some of my adventures and misadventures, see what you think. Please note that several of these accounts have been previously reported.

The first of many really started way before I ever sat in a plane either as pilot or passenger. As a kid I used to ride my bike to nearby LaGuardia airport to “watch” the planes land and take-off.  I would stand as near the threshold  of runway 4 as I could, letting the planes, DC-4,6 and 3 types as well as Connies get as close to me as possible. That is until a policeman came up to me one day, and pointed to the large ruts in the bushes at the threshold area that marked where the landing planes had left their marks. They were made by the landing gear, and if I had been standing there. Ouch! After that I stood way off to the side. An early lesson l learned.

It was quite a few years later that I ended up doing the flying. When still a young inexperienced pilot flying out of Tew-Mac field north of Boston, I was supposed to be headed towards the Cape area in a Cessna 172 with several of my friends. All was well until I started seeing the mountains of New Hampshire instead of the flatter terrain south of Boston. Something wasn’t right. As I was only on a VFR flight I really hadn’t set up my navigation instruments, or really paid attention to other some things important either.This older plane, not unlike many small planes, did not have a slaved DG (directional gyro). This is the instrument that gives the pilot the magnetic heading the plane is on. As part of my pre-take-off check I had not taken the time to set the runway heading into the DG, and as a result it had been almost exactly 180 degrees off. So instead of flying south, I was heading north.  Therein was the explanation for seeing mountains instead of the ocean. Luckily I wasn’t in heavy IFR (bad weather)!

The next event, occurred years later also over northern Massachusetts, but somewhat to the west. I was flying my B-55 Baron( a light twin engine plane) from Great Barrington (GBR) to Burlington, VT (BTV). Flying VFR(visual flight rules), I was cruising at 8500 feet, without being in contact with any particular ATC facility. All of a sudden my windshield was filled with the image of a single engine plane that shot by me from my 5 o’clock position towards 10 o’clock. No time to react. The other plane, a Bonanza type had missed colliding with my plane by very little. Nothing to do but suppress a scream and wonder whether the other pilot had been asleep or reading a book while on autopilot. This was before TCAS and other anti-collision systems were available to help prevent near misses.

Finally I will relate another episode that could easily have ended with serious consequences. While a second year med student, I was able to continue to do some flying, working on achieving my instrument and commercial pilot licenses. One day some of my friends and I decided to that it would be great to visit Boston. I arranged to rent a Piper Cherokee (140 or 180). The four of us set off. Weather was VFR back in Syracuse but a bit iffy in the Boston area. Nevertheless, we departed. Great tailwind, so pilot beware. It didn’t take too long to reach the Massachusetts border, and all was well. A routine check of the weather in Boston revealed only some clouds but it was still VFR. However as we approached the Worcester area, the weather was deteriorating  rapidly enough so that I would have to make an instrument approach in Boston. Wow, how did that happen? Things can happen fast in the aviation world. As a VFR pilot I wasn’t prepared to land in bad weather. So, as Boston was I had no option but to turn around and try to land somewhere to refuel. Remember the great tailwind? Now it became a whopping headwind, knocking our groundspeed to probably about 80 to 90 knots. To add to the concern also was that now the airports such as Albany and even Utica had bad weather, only Syracuse was open to VFR traffic. Ouch! I leaned the engine as much as possible to stretch our diminishing fuel supply and crossed my fingers and maybe even prayed a bit. ATC(air traffic control) gave me advice and weather upgrades, but weren't able to advise me that the weather was legal to land for us until Syracuse. At any rate, we made it back, but just barely. When we pulled up to the pumps there couldn’t have been more than 20 minutes of flying time left. That was scary and a lesson learned for the rest of my flying career. Plan ahead for all contingencies.

Well there it is: my reflection on some events that could have had severe if not fatal outcomes. Yes, I do believe Lady Luck may have played a part here. What do you think?

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