I think I may have given away the point of this little story with the title I chose to put on it. That’s okay. I don’t think it will detract from the importance of the message.
Dale Masters flew for me at Sunriver Soaring for a couple of years. One of the many things I learned from this gifted soaring pilot and instructor was how effective it was to share one’s own screwups. After all, if an accomplished pilot like Dale could make a mistake, anyone could. And we could learn from his mistake without making it ourselves. I recently made a doozy. I’m just waiting for a bit of time to erase the pain before sharing it!
This little story concerns one of the best, most natural pilots I’ve ever had the pleasure of flying with. In fact, I have never written a tailwheel endorsement for someone in less time than I did for this pilot. To this day, I have immense confidence in this aviator’s ability and intelligence. So it was with confidence that I asked the flier to hook the glider up one day with no other wing runners around. “So what”, I figured, if this person had never hooked the glider to the towplane before.
My new assistant grabbed the tow rope and headed to the tail of my Pawnee. Once there, all that needed to be done was to release the tow hook, place the small ring inside the jaws and put them together.
I waited to see my new “hooker-upper” scamper away from the tail so I could take the slack out. No joy. I waited and waited, feeling a bit antsy because I was on the runway and had always prided our crew on quick hookups with minimal time on the runway. I didn’t understand why it was taking so long, but I was strapped in and cranked down in the cool aerobatic harness I’d been given by Tommy Jones. Even with the Pawnee’s mirrors, I couldn’t really see anything. Finally, my assistant emerged from behind the glider and waved me off. I took the slack out and waited for the glider pilot to ask to start. He did and we launched down the runway. The tow was uneventful. We got up to altitude and the glider released. I banked left and cleared away, re-formed for the usual photo pass, then continued to slowly reduce power. I banked to 80 degrees or so with flaps and loaded the airplane up to about 3 Gs in order to keep the power up as well as the drag so we could race for the earth without shock cooling the engine.
Our technique was to release the rope in a low pass so it would land at the launch point. Then we’d make a tight 360 degree turn and land, thus avoiding dragging the rope. It was on rope release that it got interesting. I guess that some might not notice how much drag 200 feet of tow rope creates on the towplane. It’s really not much, but if you have an operation like ours and make a low pass to release the rope at the launch site, you just might notice that there was no subtle decrease in drag when the release was pulled. I had a hunch that the rope had not released. I made a tight turn to return to a short final and landed, taking extra pains not to snag the rope on runway lights or any other projection. As I took the first turnoff, I looked to the inside of my turn. Sure enough, there was that rope, snaking behind me and following my turning course. I dragged it back up the parallel taxiway and pulled into my parking spot. “Now, why in the hell is that thing still on the towhook?” I was wondering as I shut the Pawnee down and hopped out. I made my way to the tail to
see what the problem was. I was amazed. We would attach our Tost ring to a lockable link, which was, in turn, secured to the spliced eye in the end of the tow hook. But that link had been opened, then attached to the guide ring of the hitch, then locked securely. The little Tost ring which should have been inserted inside the guide ring and used to secure the rope to the hitch was simply dangling there, doing nothing. There was absolutely no way I could have released it. If my engine had failed I couldn’t have released the glider and until the glider pilot had realized that there was a problem and released, we would have been joined in a high drag, power off descent.
I once wrote how dangerous assumptions could be. I guess that could be one of the lessons of this little story. But it’s not the main one. The main lesson behind this little story is that anyone can make a mistake. ANYONE. You, me, or any other airman, no matter how skilled.
And it also taught me about my own involvement in this little misadventure. A wag once said, “The road to a mistake is paved with warning signs ignored.” I certainly did my share of ignoring the warning signs!
So the next time you assume that “Well, I’d never do THAT”, remember that it only takes one mistake to have some pretty bad repercussions. Remember, this mistake was made by someone for whom I had (and still have) immense respect. Any of us can make that mistake. I’ve made some huge ones. Some have cost me nothing. I’m still paying for others.