MURPHY’S LAWYER

I have flown daily for years at a time without an actual takeoff emergency, and I’ve experienced two in one hour – twice. On the first gotcha of the second pair a stiff crosswind from ninety degrees left would have discouraged many pilots from flying at all. Thing is, perfect weather can change after you launch and oblige you to land in conditions like this, so why not train for it?

I convinced the tow pilot it was a worthy opportunity, and naturally my student was inclined to agree with his instructor. Before moving into takeoff position the three of us conducted a thorough briefing – but it’s impossible to fully prepare for dynamics you’re unaware of.

Our launch was under way, student on the controls with me talking fast as I could, but before either aircraft broke ground the wind delivered a knuckly backhand. As we passed the midfield windsock it jumped so wildly I glanced over and saw it indicating a sudden tailwind. If we’d expected that, we never would have started. Less than a second later I was looking forward again, to find the tow plane in a steep bank with its windward wheel and wingtip on the ground! We cut loose at once and the tug leapt away to safety in the air.

Exactly what happened? As we neared the moment of liftoff the tow pilot was correctly holding left stick so the crosswind couldn’t raise that wing and flip him over. Then struck by new wind from behind, his bird weather-vaned left and that sharp yaw caused the right wing to rise before he could respond. It’s easy to imagine that our hasty release prevented the tug from wadding itself into a terribly expensive, potentially explosive aluminum ball with the pilot trapped inside.

But you ask, how could the tailwind reach it before us? A couple years later the full meaning of that event finally seeped through dense bone and reached my brain. For a tailwind to overtake either craft while we’re moving forward it must come from above, and in this instance the downdraft happened to bottom out between our two ships as we rolled up the runway. It pushed down and forward on the tow plane’s tail while giving us a brief pulse of headwind, so for a moment both birds acted like they wanted to fly. Meanwhile though, the air all around us was descending. We were launching into the foot of an invisible waterfall.

Examples abound of quick, positive action averting disaster. One such story that I didn’t witness is told in trenchant detail by the tow pilot Rave, a long-ago student of mine. Moments after liftoff, his airplane was rolled by a violent rotor, inverted. Again, the glider pilot released immediately. This reduction of drag gave Rave sufficient energy for a brief climb – upside down – before entering what amounted to an inverted split-S toward lower ground. He pulled out upright, below the level of the runway.

These are situations where an instant abort is the only smart choice, ugly as the immediate landing might be. Otherwise you wait an unbelieving moment or two, then realize it’s too late to abort and there’s no option left but to hang on, hoping for some kind of divine intervention.

Blind luck is splendid if you can arrange for it, but including that as part of a flight plan is like quitting your job because you expect to win the lottery.