There are a lot of sayings in the Aviation Community to prove various points. One of them fits this story perfectly:
“Being a pilot consists of long periods of boredom speckled with moments of sheer terror”
This has never described my career. Terror is a very STRONG word. I’ve been scared and on edge at times, but ‘Terror’ is on a whole level of it’s own.
Well, I can now say that I have experienced Terror as a pilot. And I’m not proud of it.
Several weeks ago I was flying in the Pacific North West near Seattle, with all of it’s Aviation History and culture. I love being in places like this where the makeup of the community pretty much revolves around aviation.
The world of Flight Simulator is inviting and holds a level of invulnerability that real pilots don’t get to have the luxury of dealing with. In the real world, all bets are off.
Of course, I don’t have unrealistic expectations of the vast abyss that makes up the differences between real world and the flight simulator world.
So, the romantic world of Flight Simulator was turned on it’s head when I experienced this real world takeoff out of Concrete. Now, don’t accuse me of thinking the real world is like flight simulator because I’ll be the first to say it’s totally different. And I point out WHY it was different below.
You have probably already watched the horrifying video above.
The video does not do a justice for what it was like to experience this myself. And really, I’m not trying to build this up into something bigger than it actually was. This was literally the most horrifying moment of my life. That’s what you call Terror.
Analyzing the Situation
An interesting chain of events preceded this takeoff, looking back now.
- I elected not to go direct to these small airstrips. Instead, we flew up north a bit and use about an hours worth of fuel. This lightened the load.
- The strip we went to before this was also a short field, actually the exact same field length, and I was able to practice the short field maneuvers before we even got to this airport.
- At the beginning of the video you hear me say, “I’m going to use every possible inch of runway”. Man, you can’t script it any better than that. This is of course something I learned early in my aviation career. A pilot cannot get back fuel left out of the takes, runway left behind him, or altitude left above him. Take what you can get.
Several major things of note happened once full power was applied:
- I used all available runway before I took off, but lifted off about halfway down the runway.
- Just as I rotate, you can see I turn the aircraft just a few degrees to aim for the only opening in the trees. This was not something intentional I did at all, and something I only saw once reviewing the video. These are instincts a pilot can build and something I did unconsciously.
- There was an air pocket at that end of the runway (we knew, because we had flown through it on the arrival) and the aircraft didn’t climb well through that air pocket.
- All that is ‘human‘ in me told me to ‘pull up!‘ but all of my training said ‘airspeed, airspeed, airspeed‘. This meant a lower nose attitude than was comfortable, but the reality is it was better than stalling and not having a chance to get out at all. This is VERY difficult to stick with.
- The trees to the left and right, although they look close, aren’t as close as the trees underneath (if you didn’t see the trees underneath, re-watch the video)
As more of a personal note rather than an analytical note like above, this was the scariest thing I’ve ever felt. I truly didn’t know if I was going to make it. The only thing I could think of was airspeed, and my wife back home. Those were the only two things that crossed my mind for what seemed like a hundred times in those few intense seconds.
Once past the trees, I could breathe and start to burn off all that adrenaline, although my hands and body were still shaking from the intense infusion of adrenaline long into the night.
What I Learned
This was a very close call, to say the least. Every performance parameter was in place, the aircraft should have operated as ‘published’ in the documentation, but it didn’t. Because of many of the circumstances above (both good and bad) this ended with a very close call and a lesson learned.
So, what was the biggest lesson for me?
Know your personal minimums vs. the aircrafts ‘real’ minimums.
Although the handbook says you can do it, and everything ‘checks out’, know what you are and are not comfortable with. Also, know what your aircraft really CAN and CANNOT do.
Other than that, I’d like to open up the comments and hear from you. I realize I run the risk of being railroaded for even showing this, and many might call me stupid (although I did everything by the book) but this is something I want the world to be able to learn from.