UNEXPECTING THE EXPECTED

Imagine you’re loping along cross-country, high and dry, when ballast water suddenly begins flowing from one wing — into your cockpit. And that’s how you discover the cockpit doesn’t have a drain. From there to the nearest airport, twenty miles with a radically forward CG, you’re up to the waist in what amounts to ice water… Yes, that really happened, and the dude did land ‘safely’. Who wouldn’t love to have been a fly on the inside of his canopy?

Speaking of entomology, fire ants are best known for their reprehensible decorum, especially as stowaways. I know two soaring pilots who, after losing airborne skirmishes with the little demons, always tuck their pant legs into their socks before flying. To appreciate why the fuss, just ask yourself where you’d least wish to suffer an excruciating bite, and go from there.

I had a very young student who was, in my opinion, unduly scared of bugs. No big deal, but I felt obliged on occasion to contend that it’s the bugs who should be afraid of us. One morning we were set for takeoff and I was making a last comment when he spoke up out of turn, obviously trying to sound calm.

“There’s a spider between my pedals.”
“Oh, just those little white ones that live in all the planes. They’re harmless.”
“This one’s not white. It’s black.”

One angel said blow it off. The other said not so fast. I weighed the merits for a nanosecond, then climbed back out, feeling certain it was a waste of effort… But sure as down follows up, actual scrutiny confirmed a live black widow suspended in its web right between the student’s feet. You can guess the rest.

Which inevitably evokes the mythic rattlesnake-under-your-seat scenario we’ve all heard variants of. In most tellings the snake becomes sluggish at altitude, but even so, it’s still gotta suck! Say you’ve summoned whatever kind of fortitude is necessary, plus more feral quickness than you ever knew you had, and adroitly SNATCH your opponent so close behind the head it can’t possibly bite you. Nice play! (Worry about your underwear later.) Now hit pause and think through what the next few seconds will bring. With one hand holding the canopy open and one knee more or less guiding the stick, you reach outboard for the drop, but by then the snake is double wrapped around your arm and you dare not let go! It, meanwhile, is thinking a reptilian version of the very same thing, and with equal fervor, you may as well suppose… This kind of sequence has to end somehow, and fairly soon. Any ideas? Me too.

You may notice that these tribulations were all visited on persons other than myself. I often confess profess to being preternaturally lucky; is this proof? No, there are limits to even the preternatural, and I too have eaten my share of offal waffles in the cockpit. One sample, a kind old fellow with unusually long legs asked me to fly his modified Duster, and temporarily installed 4X4 blocks on the rudder pedals so I could reach them. Foolishly, I took no interest in how he attached those blocks, so had no idea what to do when one came to rest under the pedal instead of on it. In homage to Murphy’s law of battlefield repair, that’s all it took to conger a sporty crosswind for the landing.

Then there was a seat pan that collapsed into the bilge, dropping my eye level to below the gunnel. This occurred in mountain turbulence, naturally, which also caused my student to squeal, “You got it!” I had to crane my neck to see out and aim us away from the nearest high ground, then insisted the student take over again so I could unbuckle, squirm around backwards, and begin researching the problem.

“Whatever you do, don’t go inverted for a while, okay?”

All these unsettling embarrassments have something in common. Know what it is? Each one (with the possible exception of our first example) could have been averted by more thorough preflight inspection! … … What more is there to say?