Practical knowledge

A few weeks ago I discussed Jack Roush’s accident and how it pertains to a student pilot today. The idea was that basics matter. They might not seem it, but they do.

Let’s look it from the other direction. Last week I had to fly a short trip from our home airport in Frederick, Maryland, to Fairfield, Pennsylvania. The Mid-Atlantic Soaring Association’s airport is privately owned, public-use. It has a short runway, around 2,700 feet depending on which way you’re going, it’s narrow, there’s a slope, and there’s extensive glider operations. Oh, and it was 95 degrees outside. This is where the pieces of your training come together to ensure a safe flight.

Taken in pieces, each of these elements would have been fairly easy to overcome. Short runways, for example, can be mastered with knowing how to perform a short-field landing. Learning how operate on a runway with a significant slope takes a little more applied learning, but it’s easy enough to track down local information to know how to treat the runway and traffic pattern. Other than that it’s as simple as judging the runway surface as you land.

But our flight went beyond all that. Landing wasn’t an issue. It almost never is. It’s taking off again that you have to worry about. So I started by considering our load and looking at the performance charts. I flew the same airplane the day before and I knew I was going to be making this flight, so I purposely didn’t refuel. The book said I would be able to make the takeoff easily, but that was assuming short-field techniques.

When it came time to take off, I had to wait for landing traffic without radios. Before getting in the airplane a soaring instructor said not to depart if a glider was on downwind. So that problem was solved because I knew their operations. But after completing the runup, I noticed that another glider was staging on the end of the runway. They motioned for me to go ahead.

Decision time. Not only did the glider’s position mean I didn’t have use of the full length, I couldn’t communicate with them, and I certainly didn’t want to hold the brakes and run up to full power right in front of it. So that meant waiting or taking off somewhat normally. Oh, and I couldn’t wait where I was because the tow planes needed to go through that area to get to the glider to be able to take off, thereby clearing the runway and allowing me full length.

So, it’s easy to see that flying often involves many challenges that we simply either don’t teach in initial training, or we only teach individual elements. Having to put all that training together–in this case short-field operations, density altitude, local information, right-of-way rules, regulations–is a key concept after obtaining a private pilot certificate. It’s reaching the cognitive level of learning, which is what CFIs try to get their students to strive for.

So what did I do? Here’s a better question: What would you have done?

–Ian J. Twombly

  • David Morton

    I would have taxied down the runway to an exit and come back around and taken off after the glider had cleared the runway.