Posted by: Chris Davis | May 24, 2011

Emergency or Over Reaction?

I had just landed at the fly-in after battling some 12 kt quartering headwinds across a runway located in a valley and surrounded by trees.  I taxied over to the fuel pumps to top off the tank in preparation for a day full of rides that we would be offering in the Stearman.  As I approached the self serve pump circle I noticed a Bonanza being pushed back from its fill up and I moved into the spot left vacant by his departure.  I thought nothing more about the Bonanza until about an hour later when it became the center of attention for everyone on the airfield. 

While leaning on the old Stearman and answering the seemingly endless string of routine questions I noticed the Bonanza taxiing out with a load of kids for a discovery flight.  It seems that the Bonanza pilot was offering free rides around the pattern to kids attending the fly in and whose names were randomly drawn each hour.  I thought to myself; what a great way to share aviation with the general public and put another positive light on aviation.  That positive light grew dim in the moments that followed.  As the Bonanza began to rotate on its takeoff roll we noticed a mist trailing behind the left wing; it was later discovered that the pilot did not secure his fuel cap causing it to depart the aircraft.  I jokingly commented to my pilot buddies that this would be an expensive trip around the pattern and there were cheaper ways to simulate a smoke system.  I guess the pilot must have telepathically heard my comment because what happened next was nothing short of Murphy’s Law and Murphy must have been flying the airplane.

At an altitude of what we guess was 25 feet off the runway Murphy realized he had an issue, but instead of setting the aircraft back down on the remaining 3,000 feet or continuing around the pattern and keeping the wind in his favor he decided to make the “impossible turn”, possible.  With the gear and flaps still down and trying to climb on the back side of the power curve Murphy made a relatively steep turn 90 degrees to the left.  This put him headed directly for the show crowd and the general aviation hangars as well as turning his right, quartering headwind into a right, quartering tailwind.  With this decision Murphy turned a non event into a possibly dangerous situation as he now had to out climb the hangars with maximum drag on the aircraft and a tailwind to boot.  We watched with baited breath as the Bonanza clawed for altitude realizing that the slightest additional pull would result in the dreaded pattern spin and it would be over a crowd of people.  As Murphy cleared the hangars and trees along their backside he lowered the nose and we relaxed a bit as we assumed the danger was over.  Nothing left to do, but enter downwind and return to the runway to clean out the shorts. 

No sooner had Murphy cleared the obstacles than he turned back to the right, making a complete 270 degree turn back to the opposing runway.  Keep in mind that this event began just halfway down a 5,300 ft runway with a 12 kt quartering headwind…can you see where this story is headed?  I have failed to mention the one thing Murphy did correct was aviate (sort of) first and then communicate…well, actually he did not communicate at all.  So now we have a Bonanza on a treetop level, tight, right base to final turn at midfield with a quartering 12 kt tailwind going head to head with a Cessna 182 rolling for departure on the active runway.  Could this recipe for disaster get any more complicated?  The Cessna pilot took immediate action as soon as his gear left terra firma and made a 45 degree heading change off the right side of the runway being careful to clear the trees running along its length.  The runway now belonged to Murphy…what was left of the runway that is.  With the 12 kts now quartering off the left side of his tail and only 2,500 feet or so remaining, Murphy had a hard time wrestling the aircraft onto the runway.  With an airshow quality mix of smoke and screeching sound effects resembling a teenager with a hot-rod he got it stopped and began to taxi back to the fuel tanks and a sigh of relief was felt across the ramp. 

The kids and the non flying public were pretty oblivious to what had just transpired, in fact the kids were complaining that they did not get to ride for very long.  Those of us in the flying community had a different view of the event and it became a topic of discussion for the remainder of the day.  There were a number of things that went wrong in this event turning it into a very dangerous emergency situation and none of them had to do with the aircraft.  Murphy did everything wrong that he could do wrong by overreacting to a benign situation.  A simple trip around the pattern would have done no more harm than a bruised ego and a lighter pocketbook.

All too often we hear stories like this where a seemingly benign event turns into a disaster.  Unfortunately, most of the events that we hear about do not turn out as Murphy’s.  Scenarios such as a door popping open in flight, or a fuel cap departing the aircraft should not be reason for an NTSB report.  Train properly and maintain proficiency such that if / when the time comes you will be able to handle the situation properly without escalating it to an emergency…or worse yet an obituary.


  1. The Bonanza pilot’s decision to continue the takeoff was correct. As long as the engine is developing the expected power, the flight controls were responding correctly and there was no fire, continuing to fly was a better choice than risking a landing without knowing how much runway was left. The guy screwed the pooch when he deviated from his normal ops by not flying a normal pattern. In effect, he did not “aviate.” A few years ago I saw a Bonanza carrying kids at the Shelby County airshow stall and crash after takeoff due to fuel starvation. All died. The prime rule in an emergency: FLY THE PLANE. Everything else is clean-up duty.

    • Agreed 100%…this should have been a non event trip around the pattern…

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