|Never Again ...|
wanted my friends to experience the joy of small-airplane flight, so we
decided to take an afternoon and picnic in the Wenatchee Mountains.
Looking at the Seattle sectional, we thought the dirt runway near Lake
Wenatchee State Park (2.400 feet long; 1,936-foot elevation) would be
picturesque, and we could hike the apparently short distance to the
lake. I checked the Piper Archer's performance data and decided that the
runway was long enough for a safe landing and departure.
The day of the picnic was a rare sunny day. I topped off the tanks of the Archer, we loaded up coolers and backpacks, and the four of us took off toward the mountains beckoning in the east.
When we arrived at the Lake Wenatchee strip, it was obvious from the air that it was much farther from the lake than we thought. But since we had come so far and had no alternate plans, I decided to land anyway and check out the situation. I touched down on a very rough dirt runway, and began taxiing on what appeared to be a dirt taxiway parallel to the runway. This taxiway was actually a service road, and I was unaware that my right wing was brushing shrubbery and saplings. Just as my passengers were about to warn me, I noticed a wooden fence post and jammed on the brakes as my leading edge caved in. I stopped the engine, pushed back the airplane, and surveyed the damage: a 6-inch-wide ding in the leading edge about halfway down the wing.
We climbed out and examined the area. There were no paths through the dense forest to the lake, no idyllic meadows to lunch in. Only heat and dust. We decided to leave.Now I had to decide which way to depart. The runway had a slight grade upward to the west, from where a light breeze was coming. At each end ofthe runway loomed the very tall fir trees that the region is famous for. Should I take off into the breeze uphill or go downhill with a slight tailwind?
As I was pondering this, a Grumman Tiger circled and landed. I spoke with the pilot, and we concluded that it would be best to go east, downhill with a tailwind. I still don't know if that was the best decision.
With the tanks nearly full, four adult passengers and a cooler of ice, a dry day at elevation, the temperature at nearly 90 degrees, my right wing damaged, and a rough runway, I decided to do a rolling start and attempt a short-field takeoff. With 10 degrees of flaps, and auxiliary fuel pump on, I taxied to the west end of the runway, as close to the edge as I dared, then quickly turned toward the east and opened the throttle fully. The noise of the rough field was deafening as we raced toward the towering firs that marked the eastern edge. When the airspeed got close enough to what I thought would get us airborne, I eased back on the yoke. The airplane hopped briefly, but the stall warning horn sounded and we settled back on the runway.
Now the trees were getting very close. I decided to press on. I could hear pebbles hitting the wheel fairings and wondered if I was getting any prop damage. The airspeed was a bit higher now, so I eased back on the yoke once again. The airplane mushed off the runway, and with ground effect we stayed airborne. The stall warning was buzzing loudly, but the trees were getting close, so I kept the yoke where it was and we crawled higher and higher.
We were about even with the top of the trees, and I could see an especially tall one directly ahead. I thought for sure we would clip the top, but by some miracle we missed. For longer than I would have wanted, we stayed at treetop level, with the stall warning buzzing, the airplane barely flying, and my heart pounding. Finally, the airspeed picked up, the stall warning horn went away, and the controls became more responsive.
My front seat passenger turned to me and said, "I guess you get used to that." I smiled, wondering if he could see in my face the terror I had just experienced. Later, my friend who had been sitting in the back said that she was alarmed about the trees, but when'she looked at me she didn't detect any concern, so she felt reassured.
To this day, I do not know if I would have had better or worse luck departing to the west. And I dont know if the damage to the wing was a contributing factor. But I do know that I will be more careful about the weight of fuel and passengers — we were almost certainly over the maximum weight limit. That fact, combined with the tall trees, gave me an experience I would not wish on anyone.
We could have waited until evening, and cooler temperatures, to depart. Also, with the wing damage, I could have taken the airplane solo for a test run, so the fuel burned would have kept the airplane under max gross once I'd loaded my passengers.
MORE (The Wright Power)
||published on AOPA Online|