I have been an active volunteer FAA FAASTeam member for almost 40 years. In the beginning we weren’t called FAASTeam reps; we were Accident Prevention Specialists. Then somebody decided that the word “accident” was too harsh, and we became Aviation Safety Counselors. Several years ago the program got revamped, and now we’re FAASTeam members. It’s always been the same concept though; senior aviators keeping their eyes open and quietly counseling a pilot who might be about to do (or already did) something dumb, and talk about how to avoid the situation in the future. FAASTeam reps have to be very careful and low-key; we don’t have the authority to tell people to do or not do anything. We’re not FAA inspectors. We just try to help our fellow airmen be better, safer pilots.
As a FAASTeam rep, I try to keep up with accidents in my district. A few years ago there were two takeoff accidents here in southern Indiana, both in Cessna 150s. Both had serious injuries, and there was one fatality. In my notes for future articles in this series I had several personal Cessna 150 experiences that I planned to write about. Here are some stories about what not to do with a low-power, two-seat trainer.
When I first got my private certificate (we called it a license back then) in February of 1973 I bought a 1967 Cessna 150; one in which I had done some of my training. Or more properly, my mother paid the $5,000 purchase price with a portion of an unexpected inheritance she had recently received. Even though I was 30 years old, I was like a little kid with a new toy. I played with the 150 a lot; took people for rides, and even flew it to Maine (from the Philadelphia area where I lived) to visit my mother. I kept the plane at the grass strip in New Hanover, PA where I learned to fly. It was 2,100 feet long by 300 feet wide.
I had offered to take a young woman for a ride. She wasn’t what you’d call fat, just big, maybe 5’ 11”, and surely weighed more than I did (…back then). We went up on a Sunday afternoon late in July, hot, little wind. The plane was nearly full of fuel. With light wind out of the east I elected to take off on Runway 13. That was into the wind all right, but it was a bad choice. There were BIG trees on the departure end, 75 or 80 feet high. It would have been better to take off a few knots downwind rather than deal with the obstacle, but with less than 200 hours’ total time I had never considered taking off downwind on purpose. And not going at all never entered my mind.
I taxied down to Runway 13, went all the way to the end, and, due to the rough field, put on 10 degrees of flaps. Between the uneven surface, tall grass, high temperature (somewhere around 90° F) and essentially no help from the wind, it took about half of the runway just to get airborne. But when I pitched up to a normal climb attitude all I got was the stall horn. Uh oh! I was too slow to climb. I quickly lowered the nose to stay in ground effect. Now I was aimed right at the base of the big trees, and they were getting bigger all the time! At the last second I yanked back on the yoke and converted all my airspeed into altitude. There I was, over the trees, on the edge of a stall, with the horn blaring. I had no choice but to lower the nose below the horizon to keep from mushing into the branches.
Now, in Pennsylvania in the early 70s there were still “Blue Laws”, which basically meant that stores weren’t open on Sundays. On the other side of the trees there was a shopping center parking lot. Thankfully, it was empty. I flew through it very close to the ground. I got up to best angle speed by the time I crossed the lot, and was able to effect a shallow climb and get out of there. I don’t know what my passenger thought; she never said a word. Of course I acted like nothing was wrong; that was our normal departure from New Hanover on Runway 13. But come to think of it, I never did see her again.
After I got my CFI a few years later and began teaching short field and soft field takeoffs and landings, and I always related this story to my students. I still do. It gives me the opportunity to talk about high density altitude and downwind takeoffs. When we’re out flying, usually when I’m teaching engine failure in the pattern (on long runways), I have my students do both landings and takeoffs downwind. I want them to see what it looks and feels like. Just talking about it isn’t good enough. I hope you will give your students the opportunity for these experiences so they can know all the options they have, and when to exercise them.
After I had my 150 for 18 months, two things happened. First, I was pretty well fed up with the plane because of the poor load-carrying capability and slow speed. At about that same time my house needed a new roof, and I had no money to pay for it. It was time to say goodbye to the 150. That was in 1975. After that I owned a Cessna 172, and later was a 1/3-partner in a 182, but I didn’t get involved with 150s again until I moved to Chicago in 1991. I joined a flying club that had a 150, and as a club instructor I found myself teaching in it quite a bit. I’ll tell you two Cessna 150 stories from the Chicago days.
Our airport, Naper Aero Estates (LL10), had two runways; north-south, paved, 2,600 feet long; and an east-west grass strip only 1,600 feet long. We used the grass strip only when there was strong wind out of the east or west. One day I had a flight review with a fairly skinny club member, and we elected to take off to the east because there was maybe 10 knots of wind from that direction. It was hot out, but not stifling. The student taxied to the full length, put on 10 degrees of flaps, and opened the throttle. Everything seemed normal, except the airplane just didn’t accelerate. It was as if there was no air. We were converting avgas into noise.
As we passed the half-way point, I began to get a little nervous. At two-thirds, the plane was still firmly on the ground and not accelerating very much. No time to talk. I brought my hand up underneath the student’s, pulled out the throttle and aborted the takeoff. It just didn’t seem like the plane was going to fly. We stopped before the end quite easily and taxied off the runway. After a discussion about what happened and why (we weren’t too sure about the “why”) we switched to the paved runway, accepted the crosswind, and got airborne without any problem.
The point of this story is that if an airplane feels like it’s not going to fly, it probably won’t; at least not on a timely basis. You need to have an abort point in mind. If you reach the abort point and you’re not airborne, you need to abandon the takeoff RIGHT NOW, while you can still stop. There are no obstacles going east out of Naper Aero, but I had grave concern that the plane wasn’t even going to leave the ground, let alone climb. I had visions of going through the fence and out into the prairie. Not good.
On another occasion at Naper Aero we had to take the 150 to a neighboring airport for annual inspection. Our 172 had just completed its annual, and we could bring it home. The flying club president and I were good friends; so we decided to make the short flight together. The wind, what little there was, favored taking off to the south. There was a 12-foot hedge across the south end of the runway, not very high as obstacles go. The weather was warm but not hot, although both Mark and I were carrying around some unneeded pounds. Club rules required that the planes be filled up with fuel after each flight. So, we may have been just a tad heavy.
The run-up was normal, and with 2,600 feet available, we didn’t even think about a takeoff problem. We knew we were heavy so we didn’t expect the plane to leap into the air. But when we did get airborne it was very reluctant to climb. We made it over the hedge, but not by much. I remember saying to Mark, “Damn, that was close! I wonder what that was all about. We’re not that heavy.”
I found out “what that was all about” the next day. The shop manager called to tell me the 150 would be down for about three weeks. Why? Because two of the four cylinders had compressions in the 30s and had to be sent out for overhaul. Our 100-hp engine was making, maybe, 65 horsepower. I think we were very lucky to get off the ground at all!
The lesson here is that just because an engine seems okay during run-up, that doesn’t mean it’s making full-rated power. Running smoothly and apparently reaching minimum RPM doesn’t guarantee that all the horses are working for you. It’s easy for a mechanical tachometer to be off by 150 RPM. Compression can be low, as in our case. If the air is less dense (hot out), that will rob you of some power as well as thrust, and lift. You need to develop a feel for the plane, at least for ones you fly regularly, and when it doesn’t feel right, listen to the message from the seat of your pants.
In writing this article I don’t mean to pick on the Cessna 150. It just happens to be a plane with which I have a fair amount of experience. There are plenty of low-power aircraft out there that will get you into trouble real fast if you try to take off with some combination of low power, heavy weight, and not enough runway. I nearly put my Skyhawk in a farm pond in north-central Pennsylvania under similar circumstances (blew off the abort point), but I’ll spare you the details of that one, at least for now. The point is that it is very important that we impress on our students the notion that they need to consider all that is going on around them. The takeoff-distance chart and the short field takeoff technique we taught them don’t always guarantee a safe departure.
Larry Bothe is an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, FAASTeam Representative and Gold Seal Instructor in the Indianapolis, IN FSDO area. He is also a Master Certified Flight Instructor and has over 7000 hours in more than 80 types of aircraft. Larry is part-owner of a 1961 7EC Champ and may be contacted at LBothe@comcast.net.