Bad Day at Black Rock

This is the story of the worst day of flying I ever had. It's not the events themselves that were so bad, but the painful recollection of some very dumb decisions I made in the course of it. That I lived through it was pure dumb luck; that no airplanes were even creased passes beyond human ken. This happened a while back, so don't wonder if some equipment details are a bit different. Names of other participants and locations have been obscured.

It started out promising to be a whole lot of fun. Me and Charlie, a fellow Fly Baby owner, would fly to Basis airport, where we'd meet Lennie, another Fly Baby driver, and make up a three-ship to the semi-famous Black Rock Fly-In.

The flight to Basis went smoothly. My Fly Baby didn't have a radio, Charlie had only a six-channel job in his. I stayed on his wing through most of the flight. Lennie stood ready for us as we taxied into the hangar area.

Lennie's Fly Baby style was a bit different. Charlie and me wore basic leather helmets and jackets. Lennie went for the jet-jockey flight suit and Top Gun helmet, complete with built-in headphones and a tinted visor. Next to his Fly Baby, he looked like Luke Skywalker contemplating a Model T.

He'd just finished filling his plane from a jerrycan when we arrived. He asked if we wanted some gas. We declined, not wanting the additional delay. We'd get gas at Black Rock or when we returned to Basis with Lennie.

We talked about the flight. My Fly Baby had a C-85, the other two A-65s. Lennie's plane, though, was a bit heavy and slow. We agreed Lennie would lead. Lennie had recently transitioned to certified airplanes from ultralights, and was still learning the idiosyncrasies of his Fly Baby.

Though he had a high-tech outfit, Lennie's Fly Baby didn't have a starter. So we had three airplane to hand prop. We all had remote-release tail hooks, but the hangar area didn't have any extra tiedown ropes around we could tie our tails to. Lennie had the usual rope he used, so we decided Charlie and I would mount up and Lennie would prop all three airplanes.

Charlie's started up right away. Mine was a bit always had a problem when warm. Lennie was probably a bit tired by the time he got to his. And *his* airplane had a cold-starting problem.

I sat in my airplane, engine ticking over, watching the sweat fly from Lennie's head at every flip of a blade. It was a warm summer's day, and the extra layer of clothing under the flight suit necessary for open-cockpit flying wasn't helping any.

He flipped, and flipped, and flipped. Then the A-65 kicked back. He danced away, shaking his right hand. He massaged it for a moment, then stepped back to the plane. He grabbed the prop with his left hand only, ready to try start the plane one-handed.

I killed my engine and climbed out. His hand had a red mark, and was a bit swollen, but wasn't bleeding and didn't appear to be broken. "You still want to go?"

"Yeah," he said.

"Hop in, I'll prop you." It took a little bit, but I finally got it going. Then it was back to mine. I was reluctant to prop it without it being tied down, but there wasn't much choice. No problems, though.

We taxied out to the runway and ran up. Basis is an ex-military field, with long, wide runways. Lennie taxied to the center. Charlie followed, turning off at the close edge and beckoning me to the opposite one. We took off in a Vic, and eased the formation open for the forty-minute flight to Black Rock.

Soon the airport appeared. We fell out of the sky in a flying-circle gaggle of yellow, red, and blue. We drew a lot of attention taxiing to show center, pulling up next to each other and killing the engines at once. We spent a couple of hours gabbing with fellow chapter members, lifting kids into our cockpits, and checking out the other airplanes.

Then it was time to go. Charlie had recently bought land on a new airpark on an island. It was a bit out of our way, but he invited us in for a quick visit.

Eager hands reached forward to turn our propellers. We taxied to the start of the runway, Charlie leading, then Lennie, then me bringing up the rear.

Incoming traffic was still heavy. Charlie wanted to get us all off closely spaced so he could lead us to the island. He ignored a couple of gaps, hoping for one large enough for all three of us. Finally one materialized. A Champ came in, with the next plane a Waco turning long final.

As the Champ touched down and slowed for the first turnoff, Charlie waved us onto the runway. He poured on the coal. This runway wasn't as wide as Basis'. We didn't have the room for a true Vic, so we dribbled back in a modified single file. Lennie biased toward the left, and I kept to the right of the centerline.

The 'Baby's high nose kept them from view once I was lined up on the runway. But the C-85 pulled me forward quickly. I soon was able to raise the tail to see forward.

To view disaster in the making. The Champ *hadn't* turned off at the first taxiway. It was taxiing sedately on the centerline, heading for the second turnoff.

Charlie had cut his power to keep from overrunning the Champ. So had Lennie.

But Lennie didn't have much experience at aborting takeoffs. He'd been holding right rudder against the P-factor, and didn't take enough of it off.

He was drifting right. Coming towards me.

The fly-in parking and crowd were to my right. Couldn't go that way. My instinct said, "Fly".

I eased back on the stick. We were a lot slower than my normal, conservative takeoff speed. And there's no stall warner on a 'Baby.

Flying wires moaned a low protest. We sagged into the air. But instinct, this time, appeared to be right. My C-85 didn't make me that much faster than Lennie's A-65, but it did pay off in climb rate. I climbed over Lennie. I remember looking down into his cockpit as I slowly passed overhead. He didn't look up.

On downwind, clear and safe, I kept repeating the same four-letter word, over and over again. That whole takeoff was probably the worst error in judgment I'd ever had.

So far. The day was still young.

We flew to Charlie's island. I shot some pictures of the airplanes, then we wandered through the bushes to Charlie's property..

After visiting with one of his neighbors for a while, it was time to go. For this takeoff, we decided to have Charlie go first, then me, then Lennie. I waited until daylight showed under Charlie's wheels before turning onto the runway.

As I climbed out, I glanced behind. No Lennie. I looked down. Lennie's Fly Baby was in the process of running off the end of the runway. Even a few hundred feet up, I could see his stiff-legged 'Baby bouncing through the rough overrun. He got stopped OK...but why did he abort?

I tried to catch up to Charlie... he was the only real mechanic between the three of us. But he continued forward, flat-out, and I wasn't catching up very fast. I didn't' want to abandon Lennie on the island, so I whipped around and headed back. If Lennie's plane was broken, he was in serious trouble. There was no ferry service to the island...he'd have to lease a barge or something to take his plane back to the mainland.

He'd taxied back to the parking area by the time I arrived, and was pulling the cowling. His engine had started to run rough just as he was lifting off. He'd put a new set of spark plugs in, and suspected them.

We fiddled with his plane for quite a while. The plugs looked good, but Lennie distrusted them. One of the residents offered to fly him to a nearby airport where he could buy another set. This freed me to head for home.

Which was good. It was getting into evening, and the sun was getting low. My Fly Baby didn't have lights. *And* it was running low on gas. I hadn't filled at Basis, and I hadn't filled at Black Rock. Would I have enough time to get gas on the way back?

I watched the tip of the wire gas-gauge as I neared Basis. Maybe, just maybe, there was enough to get me home. Besides, there were two other airports on the way. If things looked bad, I could duck into either one and tie the plane down for the night. But the closer I got to home would mean the shorter drive for my wife to pick up and drop me off the next morning.

I kept heading going. The sun dropped. The tip of the gauge dipped. I passed the first airport. By my estimation, I still had enough to get home, though I'd have a hard time claiming that I had abided by the 30-minute rule.

The second airport neared. I was getting worried about the gas. But it was controlled. How would the tower react to an unlighted NORDO?

I kept going. I reached my home field a few minutes later, flew a minimal pattern, and landed normally.

Whew. Got away with it, and still some daylight to spare. I stuck a five-gallon and a two-gallon gas cans into the back of my pickup and drove to the gas station. Back to the airplane, dump in the seven gallons, and go get more.

More careful, this time. Didn't want to overfill the airplane's tank and spill gas all over.

As it turned out, I didn't have to worry about it. The plane took the whole second seven gallons. That's 14 gallons, total.

The fuel tank's capacity was 16. No record on what the unusable fuel was, but it probably was at least one of the two gallons remaining...if not both. The engine could have quit at any time.

We're all familiar with the cliche "Opportunity knocks but once." Admiral Dan Gallery, the author of a hilarious series of books about Naval Aviators, had an addendum: "For some men, Opportunity knocks again. If no one answers, Opportunity opens the door itself. If the door's locked, Opportunity breaks it down. If you're asleep, it wakes you up, and works for you afterwards as the night watchman."

On this day, I guess I can say the same thing about my luck. That I was able to make such a series of idiotic decisions makes me ashamed. That I survived them amazes me. *Something* was working overtime that day. But it certainly wasn't my brain.

There have been a time or two that I've been tempted to repeat some of them. All I have to do is think back to looking down into Lennie's cockpit, or watch the tip of the wire go tap-tap-thunk into the top of the fuel cap.

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