Know Your Partner – The Rules of Flight

Knowing our male or female partner is often a matter of trust, assumption and love.   Knowing an aircraft partner is more a case of faith and understanding.   I thought you might enjoy a sortie of an unpleasant nature with me on a day when that bond of faith between me and my aeroplane was stretched by circumstances that were not entirely in our control.

I planned out my intended flight in the briefing room as usual.  Checked the weather, looked at the NOTAM’s (notices to Airmen) and filled out the log in preparation for the flight.   I walked out to my charge, a Piper Cherokee of 1966 vintage, and checked the oil, fuel, tyres and other external items that we normally include in a check – aircraft looking good and standing level on the grass.

Firing up the engine went as normal – on this aircraft it usually required 2 attempts.   Then a quick chat to the control tower to seek permission to taxi to the threshold of the active runway – this isn’t a commercial airliner at a major airport… in fact we’re at a grass strip in England.   Clearance given, brakes off and a careful waggle of the controls as we taxi to ensure that all the linkages are working correctly.   Also watching the gauges to ensure that there are no anomallies – low or high temperatures are a bad thing.

At the holding area all the checks are normal and having done the run-up I ask for permission to enter the runway for take-off.   No other traffic to worry about, I get the all clear from the tower.   So I roll the plane onto the runway and check the brakes, temperatures and pressures for the final time while selecting the correct take-off position for the flaps (1st stage on a Cherokee unless runway conditions or length suggest 2 stages).   Lined up and ready to go…

I opened the throttle to full power and we started to rumble down the grass runway –  Rev’s increasing, pressures good.   Nice and straight on the runway.  Looking good…

Ok – so there the dream ended – looking at the dials I suddenly registered that I had no airspeed!   Looking out the window suggested otherwise.   Approaching the centre of the runway the aircraft was already saying ‘lets go fly’ – I had just missed the fact that the airspeed indicator wasn’t working 😦

Big decision time… Do I shut the throttle and slam on the brakes halfway down a runway that slopes downhill from the mid point or do I have faith in what the aeroplane is telling me and take on the climb out to work out how to resolve the issue from up there?   I went with my partner… keep the power on and climb out to join the circuit.   The aircraft wanted to fly – seemed to be the right choice at the time.

Climb out in a general aviation aircraft is pretty straight forward – full throttle and sensible angles of bank.   So, that part is easy.   It’s the turn down wind to parallel the runway that gives time to assess what to do.   Hitting the downwind leg at full throttle is not a good idea – it’s usually designed to be flown at close to or slightly below cruise speed.   This is where knowing my partner really started to pay dividends – she’s a 1966 Cherokee and my experience of flying her as an individual (they aren’t all the same) suggested cruise revs of 2300 so I set that and trimmed the aircraft for level flight.   At this point the airspeed indicator started to creep up to something close to our flying speed but it would have been fatal to trust it.   More important to trust the feel of the aeroplane!

I turned base leg and adjusted the throttle to around 1800 revs to give a rate of descent that I hoped would be around right and hung out the normal 2 stages of flap. (17-1800 revs usually gives about the right rate of descent on this aircraft).    At this point it became a case of ignore the usual instruments, concentrate on the view out of the window and adjust the revs to achieve a good angle of approach whilst feeling what the aircraft was telling me – any hint of a stall and I’d need to crack the power on pretty sharpish!    The old girl did it exactly as I expected her to – we came over the runway threshold slightly high and a little fast but the touchdown was good and the brakes then had 3/4 of the runway to play with.   She was an absolute Gem – looking after me by reacting to my requests everytime.

So what caused the airspeed indicator problem?… Some tiny wasps using the static vent as a nest.   I didn’t need this bit of excitement but I’m glad I shared it with a Lady that I knew 🙂   We had many other adventures in the 500 or so hours that we flew together but none quite as fundamental as that one!

Lessons learnt?  Check the fact that the airspeed is rising very early on the take-off run.  It becomes natural to ignore it because it is one of the least likely things to go wrong but not knowing how fast your aircraft is flying can be fatal – especially if you are un-familiar with the aircraft.

Cherokee G-BBIL

Cherokee G-BBIL



  1. Fascinating post, Martin. I didn’t realize you flew. I’m glad that you kept your wits about you, assessed the situation correctly, and had a safe landing.

    Was “the tower” surprised at your quick turnabout and landing?

    I’ve only flown in a small (twin seater) aircraft once. The most surprising thing to me . . . how C~O~L~D it got in the air even on a summer’s day.

    I’ve also been airborn in a helicopter (once over the Badlands of South Dakota) and in a hot air balloon (over the desert in Palm Springs).

    • Hi Nancy – The tower weren’t bothered… The airfield where this happened does not have full Air Traffic Control, so the calls were mainly made for the information of other pilots and out of courtesy. I did the normal downwind, turning base and finals calls, so they would have concluded that I was doing a practice circuit (which we sometimes did as a matter of course anyway).

      LoL about the cold… On the ground in summer the cockpit gets very hot and you wind up with sweat streaming down you face until you get airborne – there’s only the tiny storm window on these to open. Do you remember what 2-seater type you flew in?

      I’ve used a lot of past tense here – I don’t fly any more. I sold my share in the aircraft when Alasdair was born. I thought I wouldn’t be able to afford to continue flying. In reality it wasn’t a money issue and I could have continued but flying takes up a lot of time and so do kids! I just don’t have the time any more. I’ve recently decided that this is a chapter of my life that I have closed and I don’t think I’ll be reopening that particular book in the future – I’ll stick with the happy memories 🙂

  2. great story martin, thrilling and an excellent example of trusting what you know!

  3. I randomly found your blog and while reading this posting, the word “piper” caught my attention. I live in the same city where piper manufactures their planes. The company is the largest private employer here.
    also found your Ready challene with the coffee label very interesting!
    cool blog! I’ll be checking back in for sure!

    • Hi Karen – Thanks for stopping by. That’ll be Vero Beach then 🙂 Glad you enjoyed the blog. I see you’re a keen gardener so I’ll be popping by to pick up some tips!

  4. Once upon a time we had a friend who was trying to get his commerical pilots licence (he ultimately did, just for the record). To help him keep his hours up, sometimes a group of us would contribute to the hire of a plane and go soemwhere. This weekend it happened to be Tasmania.

    Nothing like getting to the hire car counter and daying “No, private plane” when asked which airline you flew.

    Anyway, the plan was to fly back on the Monday morning at get to the office about 30 minutes late.

    We arrive at the airport only to discover the engine wouldn’t start. Our pilot arranged for a jump start. When we got back to the office, people asked “And you got on the plane????”

    Well, we reasoned the pilot got on the plane…..

    Love your story! I think our friend would too!!

    • Flat battery or old aluminium leads – know the problem well. Once the engine has started it no longer needs the battery or the electrics as the sparks are supplied by mechanically driven magnetos – there are two of them and the engine only needs one to be able to run. The chances of them both failing in flight are minimal so you were very safe 🙂 I’ll let you into a secret though… Aircraft maintenance engineers have to be dragged kicking and screaming into aircraft that they maintain – it does beg the question doesn’t it 😉

  5. I didn’t realize you were a pilot, Martin (and from the sound of it a very good one, too)! Very cool!
    I’m glad you were able to remain calm and react so well to what sounds like an incredibly scary situation (not so sure I would have fared as well)! Yikes!

    • I’m afraid ‘were’ is now the operative word Bob 😦 Or maybe that should be was… I would say I was a reasonable pilot and a very good navigator 😉 Our old Cherokee was a very amiable aircraft – forgiving of all but the most terrible handling errors! As for calm… Pilots (even humble Private Pilots) are trained to handle most emergencies including a complete engine failure, so I was programmed to analyse rather than panic – Quick note of thanks to Jan, my flying instructor 🙂 I will have to tell some more tales of my flying past in future blogs as this seems to have captured the imagination of my friends.

  6. Wow, Martin, such a dashing post! Aviation is such a romantic tradition. Or am I just looking through rose-tinted spectacles?

    • LoL Kate – I’ll dig out my silk scarf immediately 😉 My wife used to go to sleep in the aeroplane which shows two things – complete faith in the aeroplane (not necessarily me) and total boredom at flying to another airfield 😉

      I’m going to have to relate the story of the flight to the south of France aren’t I 🙂

  7. my heart in mouth reading this one good thing i wasnt sat next to you lol i hate flying i grip the seat until the journeys over a wimp i know i hated going to the top of a slide as a kid so my worst nightmare is up there above te clouds so you must be a man of ecitement and adventure you have hidden talents lol xxjen

    • Hi Jen – good to hear from you 🙂 Not sure about the excitement and adventure bit – my favourite form of flying is a peaceful slow flight over the open fields of the Aylesbury area on a summers evening as the shadows are lengthening 🙂

  8. thirdhandart says:

    A very suspenseful post Martin! So glad that you and your partner came through the incident unscathed. 🙂

    • Hi Theresa – Thank you 🙂 She’s still flying though I’ve hung up my gloves and put the maps away. I hope she’s still doing so in 2066 🙂 It would be nice for her to celebrate her century!

  9. Very interesting read Martin. Lucky you were in a plane you were familiar with. Who would’ve thought some wasps could cause such a problem. I guess when your flying it’s so important that everything has to be working just right.

    • Hi Tony – Fortunate indeed that we’d already done around 150 hours together when this happened. Wasps, Birds, Rats… They can all cause problems. Incidents like this get fed back to the Air Safety branch on a voluntary basis. I feel for the pilot that I read about in one of their bulletins who found a Cobra crawling out of the dash whilst flying… fortunately it was quite calm and happy due to the engine noise and vibration. He landed safely and vacated very smartly indeed!

      • Good grief!!! Being in a plane’s cockpit with a cobra is definitely too close for comfort. I think I would’ve went into panic attack mode then passed out from excessive fear.


  1. […] or the joys of flight . But at the end of the day Tolkien’s words sum up adventure beautifully for me – you […]

Leave a Reply

Fill in your details below or click an icon to log in: Logo

You are commenting using your account. Log Out /  Change )

Google+ photo

You are commenting using your Google+ account. Log Out /  Change )

Twitter picture

You are commenting using your Twitter account. Log Out /  Change )

Facebook photo

You are commenting using your Facebook account. Log Out /  Change )


Connecting to %s

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: