AcknowledgementsSporty’s AIR FACTS Journal & Rene Vercruyssen

 (Air Facts Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That”, where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com)

“I learned to fly, like nearly everyone else in the 1980s, in a Cessna 150. And like most new pilots I could not wait to fly “real” planes with better performance ......... it was buying an RV-4 with an O-320 and a constant speed prop that freed me from all the pedestrian performance concerns of pilots flying lesser airplanes .... or so I thought.

 ....  based in northern California I had always wanted to see the hot air balloon fest in Albuquerque, New Mexico .... all my experience in the hot rod RV-4 had been based in the Sacramento Valley of California, where airport elevations vary between20 ft. MSL to a not-quite-ear-popping 300 ft. MSL. Most take-offs in my RV-4 resulted in the mains coming off the ground before the forward movement of the throttle reached its stop, to be followed by a 2000 fpm initial climb settling into a 1500 fpm climb in a steep crosswind turn. Great stuff!

 The flight to Albuquerque was largely uneventful other than some challenging crosswind landing “practice” at one of my fuel stops. The balloon fest was even better than all the hype. I had some time available before simply pointing the hot rod back home so I decided I would fly up to the headwaters of the Colorado River and follow every turn of that crooked snake all the way to Arizona. A trip of a lifetime in the perfect little aerial sports car. More great stuff!

 It was getting later in the afternoon and I needed to make a fuel stop at Bryce Canyon. I was surprised to see such a monster-long runway at a very quiet rural little airport. It is nearly 7,400 feet long .... I landed and fuelled up. It was hot so I rested in the air-conditioned lounge and sipped on some cold water .... the elevation at Bryce Canyon is 7,600. Runway 3 is downhill and there was about a 5-knot headwind on it that afternoon .... but runway 3 was not in the direction I was heading, so I started taxiing for a take-off on runway 21, because that was!....  I was in a hurry and baking in the brutal heat under the canopy, so I didn’t taxi all the way to the end of the monster-long runway. I decided that half the runway was way more than I needed because I was flying a plane that flew like Superman!

 I did my run-up and remembered to finish with leaning for maximum power. That may have saved the day, as every other decision that afternoon was biased by ignorant overconfidence .... I lined up at the midpoint on runway 21 for my uphill take-off with a tailwind on a brutally hot day at 7,600’ ft, and throttled up. My mighty hot rod RV-4 was performing worse than any overloaded Cessna 150 I had ever flown. I should have aborted the take-off to re-evaluate the chain of recklessly bold decisions I had made, but there was so much more runway in front of me than I had ever imagined I would need for a take-off in my hot rod. 

 I continued to let the asthmatic Lycoming twist the Hartzell in a pathetically weak attempt to claw into the thin, hot air hoping the thick RV wing would begin to produce lift. As my more experienced pilot friends often espouse, hope is a bad plan in an airplane. I would estimate the height of the airport perimeter fence to be about 6 ft, because if it was 10 ft I may not be here to confess the embarrassing chain of knucklehead decisions I assumed could not possibly beat down the omnipotent capability of my hot rod airplane! 

 Every airplane can be brought to its knees given the immutable laws of physics and a mountain of stupidity .... so, don’t be stupid!”


Tony Birth