Every so often I like to pause my serious blogging and throw in a story, just for fun. (My last one of those was about being in jail.)
Here’s another one.
My Dad was an old-school private pilot, taught by his older brother in a tail-dragger out of Thompson Falls, Montana, back during the Depression. He flew just intermittently—renting an airplane was expensive—but during my early teen years the frequency picked up, as he was able to get a little financial support from his employer when he flew himself around for work-related things. I went along every chance I got, and I became pretty proficient at navigation with the radios (VORs, in the trade) and with take-offs, though I was never really very reliable on landings. My height being what it was, I sat on a small suitcase so I could see over the instrument panel on final approach, and that would occasionally get distracting.
Comments on the above paragraph are completely unnecessary. You know who you are.
We were living in the Boston area at the time, and since Dad and all of us kids had been born in the Pacific Northwest, our family would occasionally fly out to Spokane for family reunions on the Olinger side. For one such trip, Dad rented a Cherokee Six to accommodate the five of us and our luggage, which, since three of us were females, and two of those were teens, was fairly substantial. But the Six could handle it quite nicely.
We flew from Hanscom Field northwest of Boston to Spokane in a couple of days with no problems, Dad doing the flying and I doing the navigating from the right seat. After several days with extended family (Dad was one of 11 kids), we began the return trip, which was to be significantly longer; Dad had a younger sister in Duncan, OK, who hadn’t been able to come to the reunion, and we thought we’d drop by there for a visit. The Six could do that leg in a day, but it would be a long one, and we’d need to refuel twice to be safe.
About a third of the way, we decided, was Worland, WY. (The second stop would be Liberal, KS, which is a whole ‘nother story.)
We landed at Worland, taxied to the ramp, and called for refueling. The Six holds 84 gallons, which weighs, oh, about 500 pounds.
Now, ordinarily, that wouldn’t be a problem; we’d taken off in Spokane fully fueled, and Dad, as a careful pilot, had done the weight and distribution calculations carefully. So we were fine for takeoff in Spokane.
But Worland is not Spokane. Most importantly, Spokane’s elevation (specifically that of Felts Field) is just under 2000 feet, but Worland’s elevation is more than twice that. And as you may recall from high-school science, atmospheric pressure, and thus air density, drop with increasing altitude. And as the density drops, the amount of lift you can generate drops with it.
And that’s not all. As it happened, that summer day in Worland was hot; Worland routinely hits the high 90s during mid-summer.
What’s air like when it’s hot?
Even less lift.
Dad, bless his heart, forgot to factor all that in.
We received clearance for take-off, lined up on Runway 16, and Dad gave the Six full throttle.
Runway 16 is 7000 feet long, which is respectable, a lot more than the Six ought to need. We used all of it, and we were about 2 feet off the ground.
That’s not normal.
Maybe 1500 feet beyond the end of the runway, there was a fence. I remember it as a split-rail fence, maybe 3 feet high, though of course there’s a higher chain-link fence there now. I distinctly recall lifting my feet off the floor in a well-meaning attempt to help us get just a liiiiiittle more altitude.
A bit further out was a set of telephone poles, which experienced pilots know are usually connected by invisible wires, and I honestly didn’t know whether Dad was going to go over or under them.
He went over.
And in the expansive area of relatively flat prairie beyond, we tooled around until we finally got enough altitude to get out of there.
I really thought we were going to have to put it down and maybe even get tangled up in telephone wires.
But Dad knew the fundamental rule of flying: Keep flying. If you can.
And he did.
When we were in stable flight, he looked at me, and with a tone of utter disgust with himself, he said, “I can’t believe I didn’t think of that.”
Dads don’t like to make mistakes that can kill their family.
I learned a lot from that.