When Challenges Can Become Failures
I have an irrational fear about attaching HD cameras to my plane, motorcycle, or even myself for that matter. The logic being that as soon as I do I will have an accident and it will inevitably end up online as the first thing you find when you type “complete failure” into a search engine. This idea might be supported by the notion that most of the cool videos we see online typically are a result of someone doing, or in this case attempting, something out of the ordinary. Otherwise it wouldn’t be worth watching.
In the more memorable, and at times comical, videos you might witness someone pulling off an impressive feat only to fall short a moment later having not thought about the “what’s next” component. There are plenty of such examples in aviation. Low passes, confined area takeoffs, short-field landings, canyon flying, the list goes on. In many cases we see density altitude playing a significant role.
Most, if not all, of us have been educated on the effects of density altitude. High field elevations alone or combined with higher temperatures noticeably depreciate any aircraft’s performance. Our CFI usually demonstrated density altitude to us with a takeoff performance chart and a “let’s pretend we’re taking off from Denver, CO” scenario. I say Denver because density altitude scenarios always end up in Denver just like X was always for xylophone in elementary school. I digress. We humored our instructor and calculated the ground roll distance to find it was significantly longer.
Unfortunately, this is usually where the lesson ended. This is also the point where many takeoff videos turn sour. Several videos can be found of aircraft eeking their way down a runway, finally rotate, only to make a nasty realization that their plane isn’t climbing. Some make it past treetops in a dramatic, puckering fashion. Many don’t. Either way, I wouldn’t want to be in that seat when it happened.
When it comes to density altitude and performance calculations, we tend to see pilots only calculate their ground roll. Calculating climb performance tends to fall to the wayside and it can result in an alarming surprise for pilots not used to it. Especially when higher terrain surrounds you. I once took a student into Ruidoso, NM – KSRR where the field elevation is 6800 feet. As we rotated, the student pitched for a normal 8-10 degrees nose up climb and immediately triggered the stall warning horn. He promptly lowered the nose and inched the airspeed to Vy and was astonished at the performance of only 200-300 feet per minute climb. It was a great experience and he even commented on the “what if” if we took off in the other direction, towards rising terrain.
Many of us may not have the opportunity to experience such situations and must rely on books to impart such wisdom. As much as the books may lack intensity, take the time to go beyond the “we can do it” and look for the hidden reasons not to go. We all want to go fly, even when the magic 8 ball indicates “outcome not so good”. However, we become better pilots when we explore what happens next.