• Careful Isn't Always Enough

With a freshly minted commercial pilot's certificate in my wallet and maybe 300 hours in my logbook I confidently offered to fly a TV crew from Albuquerque to a remote Indian reservation. I was thrilled when my boss agreed to pay for the plane, fuel and my hourly wage.

What a novel experience--fly and get paid for it. It would be my first flying income after spending thousands of dollars on flight instruction. With eager fledgling enthusiasm, I even contemplated buying a white shirt with captain's shoulder boards, but that really seemed a bit overblown for a Cessna 182*.

Flight planning revealed one minor flaw in my scheme--no airport at our destination. No problem, the camera crew assured me, we land on the road there all the time. And you can, that's perfectly legal in New Mexico.

The place was surrounded by mountains, but the road/runway was straight and deserted. So after a cautious circle overhead revealed there wasn't a vicious wing-devouring roadside traffic sign lurking anywhere we landed uneventfully and taxied into town in a way that somehow seemed reminiscent of cowhands driving into town in a buckboard. "Mornin' m'am. Mighty nice day up here in these parts."

The camera crew went off to their shoot at the Indian school. As the day wore on it got hotter and I got bored-er, so I did what any a good professional would do, sit under the wing and ponder flying something bigger and better. What it would be like to fly a Beaver on this job? Could a DC-3 get in here? Naw, wheels would be wider than the road. Well, an Otter would be okay instead, if a Twin Beech wouldn't do it. Definitely gonna have to get that tailwheel endorsement.

But finally I dug out the POH to see what esoterica might be found to amuse me. Ah, here's something interesting. Density altitude (over 9000 feet), takeoff weight (right at gross), and runway length (not near enough). Gulp.

I paced off how far it was to the cattle crossing and fence that defined the end of the "runway"...twice. It wasn't any longer the second time. So when the camera crew returned frazzled from unexpected problems and eager to get home I gave them the bad news. People or equipment, take your pick. But I practice what I preach and was ready when the unexpected occurred. I pointed out a nearby cantina, and they voted unanimously to send the expensive rented video equipment ahead on the short 20 minute hop home. I assured them I'd be back within the hour.

Start was standard procedure, leaned for altitude. There was no taxi, we'd takeoff from essentially where we were parked on the dirt road. Run up, after a slight turn to avoid blowing sagebrush and dust through town, was by the book. All set. Belts tight. Seats, doors and windows locked. No cattle, horses, people or vehicles ahead. Check list complete.

We were airborne pretty darn near where I predicted. Cool. Am I good or what? Now, wing down, roll to the right to miss the mountain looming straight ahead. Excellent, engine sounds strong, gauges look good. Start the flaps up. Every thing's going just the way it's supposed to. And I'm being paid for this too! Then I went blind.

Late in the day, with afternoon sun directly in my eyes, I was solid IFR turning toward more mountains. No choice but to continue the planned circling departure. With no idea what radius turn would keep us out of the treetops, I did the only thing I could--turn as sharp as possible. I could die here, miss the mountain but hit the ground! Watch that stall speed! Why, oh why, don't small aircraft have an angle of attack gauge?

After another 30 degrees of turn the sun went behind the wing and I could see again. But for several heart stopping seconds I was in the hands of fate depending on the always correct adage: when all else fails, fly the plane.

If you think you have everything figured out, count on the fact that there's something you didn't consider. A corollary of that is when you think everything is going just fine, count on the fact that something is going to go wrong.

Be surprised if nothing goes wrong, not when it does.

Blue skies and tailwinds,


*You're right, that's not a 182 in the picture. It's a 1964 210 that my Dad flew. But it is on a road in Northern New Mexico. I wish I had a picture of another airport/road he used behind the mountains east of Santa Fe near Mora, NM. It was nothing more than a patch created by dragging a railroad tie behind a tractor through the piñon and sage brush. Landing approach was north until just before you hit the mountain, then turn base. Continue until just before you hit the mountain, then turn final. Get it down, 'cause you ain't goin' around. Why? You guessed it, you'd hit a mountain.


  1. The Doctor at the Mora Valley Clinic (5000+ alt.)dragged a length of R.R.track held by a "V" chain behind his Jeep to knock down the cactus etc, When a shallow dich was encounterd he came out the other side about 20degrees off course necessitating a solid push on the right rudder in a timly fashion to finess the rollout.Take off was fun too.
    Never did solve the problem of the slow leaks in the tires!

  2. The cause of the slow leak, it turned out, was cactus needles. The solution was the same as if they were nails.