Acknowledgements: AIR FACTS (Jules Tapper)

This is a story about two words – “unfortunately” and “fortunately” – and has been de-identified in order to protect the embarrassed. However much can be learnt from the following incident.

It had been a hot and busy day. The pilot was a diesel and electrical engineer and a specialist on installation and repair of electric power generators in remote areas. The job was done so it was back to the plane and a quick onload and lash down of his heavy toolbox. The Cherokee 235 was lightly fuelled and, with only the pilot and his toolbox on board, one would think it would have performance to spare.

Unfortunately the pilot was a big feller, well over 100 kilograms,  and his toolbox probably weighed nearly as much. Fortunately, the airstrip was firm, over 600 metres [1968 feet] in length, the day not too hot, and a windsock down the far end indicated a slight headwind at that point. Take-off performance would be quite good.

He knew the aircraft well, having operated in and out of some quite restricted spaces over quite a long period. No need to taxi back right to the end of the strip – half way up will do! Unfortunately, a bad decision in retrospect.

The throttle was advanced and the aircraft accelerated quickly down the strip and out towards the nearby lake. What the pilot did not realise until he had passed his accelerate/stop point was that the wind, although indicating on his nose at the far end, was in fact hitting a curved ridge just abeam his proposed rotate point, and was curling back down and partially across the strip – giving him a slightly downwind component 

This was “a case of the biter bit”, but there was no means of stopping it. At the last moment and in desperation (as a collision with the fence seemed inevitable), and with very little airspeed showing on the ASI, the pilot reefed on full flap.

Fortunately, the instantaneous increase in lift generated carried the aircraft over the fence and sagging just above the stall into the next paddock. The pilot heaved a sigh of relief as he milked the flap away while staggering away in ground effect.

Unfortunatelywith his nose high attitude, he did not see a cattle beast right in front of him. With a huge impact, his propeller and one undercarriage leg hit the beast and there was a large thump aft. 

However, the plane was still flying, even if a bit unstable in pitch and with the motor vibrating a bit. The pilot glanced over his shoulder and was horrified to note that most of one side of his tail-plane was missing and with the balance turned upwards like a giant wind-brake.

To his credit, he immediately closed the throttle and crash-landed into the next paddock and slid to a halt. Had he not done so and continued on, the aircraft, as speed built up, would have become undoubtedly unstable and crashed into the lake with little hope for a happy ending. Fortunately, there was not a scratch on the pilot.

Unfortunately, the aircraft was not so lucky. The impact with the cattle beast had bent the prop, torn off one undercarriage leg and wrecked the tail-plane assembly completely as well as doing associated wing and fuselage damage.

So what would an analysis of the incident reveal? The pilot admitted afterwards that, had he known the local characteristics of the strip better and not been in such a hurry, he would have taxied back and used the full length for take-off. He would have bolted away had he done so, as he would probably have been airborne and accelerating quickly when he would have encountered the area of tailwind component. Even if a little sink was encountered, at this point he was still over smooth ground with no obstacles to immediately climb over.

“What happened to the poor old cattle beast?” I hear people ask. Fortunately, it was a quick death. The propeller had cut it clean in half right on the backbone. There was some post-accident humour in the incident however, when the pilot later informed me quite indignantly that he had of course to pay a substantial amount as an insurance excess incurred for subsequent repairs to his plane, plus a pay-out on the third party damage (the beast), but that he had not been offered even a little portion of the meat that was dressed out from the departed animal!

And the moral of the story?

·      On take-off, remember that the runway behind you is of no use to you. Take all you can – you never know when you will need to use the lot.

·      Learn from the mistakes of others… There is no truth in the motto“Al audaz fortuna favorece” (Fortune favours the bold ) when it comes to aviation safety.


Tony Birth