A low-hour pilot meets the imperatives of ergonomics.
It was a crisp, early morning—cool enough to make your fingertips slightly numb, but a perfect flying day: no cloud and no wind. I had yet to gain my RA-Aus flying certificate, but was well on the way with four solo hours under my belt in the school’s silver Sportstar. My regular instructor wasn’t on duty that day, so it was the CFI, who had a rather odd disposition, in that he only seemed to be happy when he was either upset or angry about something or other—and this was most of the time.
We got on OK though. He was busy with another student pre-flighting the silver Sportstar, so I was to have the white one today—same plane but different set up—an early glass cockpit. I had flown this plane once or twice before, but was not completely comfortable with the different layout. There was also a problem adjusting the pedal position on this plane, as it lacked an operating lever. This meant it was a two-handed job to move the pedals to one of three positions. I had noted this on a previous flight and mentioned it to the instructor—the parts were ‘coming’.
The CFI gave me a ‘challenge’ for the day’s solo flight—an expanded flight envelope and circuit joining exercises. He went back to the other student and I got on with the pre-flight. Everything OK, time to adjust the pedals to the mid position, my normal flying set up. With head and shoulders in the foot well, I struggled for what seemed like ages to get the pedals to move, all to no avail. The numb fingers didn’t help. I had to call for assistance—this made the CFI really happy and after he had just about blown a blood vessel getting the pedals adjusted, it was my plane. I pitied the other student—at least I was getting out of there.
I hopped in the plane, buckled up and found the pedals were in the wrong position—they were full back, forcing my knees backwards and up into an uncomfortable flexed position. What to do? Call the CFI again—no I didn’t think that a good idea—he was happy enough after the last episode.
‘It’ll be OK,’ I thought to myself—start motor and taxi—with some pedal brake inputs to get used to the new position. I was anxious to get on with the ‘challenge’—nothing could go wrong on such a glorious day.
Make the calls, do the run-ups and thinking about the new ‘challenge’ the CFI gave me. Line up, smooth application of power and go! Some right rudder to keep her straight—50 metres into the take-off roll with full power and then veering violently to the left; no time to think, no time to react before hitting a wide, deep culvert to the left of, and parallel to, the runway.
Stunned but not hurt, engine off, electrics off, I got out. Extensive damage to the aircraft undercarriage, wing and prop. So, what happened? I really did not know. All this made the CFI really, really happy (not), but to be fair he was good about it. After the mess was cleaned up he took me back to the office for a stiff drink—only coffee unfortunately.
I couldn’t think straight for a few days, there was paper work to fill out, and I still hadn’t worked out what happened—whatever it was, it was very quick. My confidence was totally shredded. Would I ever fly again? I doubted it.
As the mental fog lifted over the next week there was only one plausible explanation.
During the take-off roll, as I increased pressure on the right pedal, I must have also activated the right foot brake—this was due to the abnormal angle that my foot made with the incorrectly placed rudder pedals. This would have resulted gross overcorrection with the left rudder—leading to the culvert.
This incident was a classic ‘Swiss cheese’ event. Numb fingers leading to inability to deal with a defective pedal mechanism, leading to a cranky CFI also misplacing the pedals, leading to me accepting an unsafe situation rather than shutting the engine down and getting out of the plane until the situation was rectified. After all I had a ‘challenge’ to confront and conquer. Little did I know just how big that challenge would turn out to be. In retrospect I am glad that the culvert was there—it stopped the plane from ploughing into nearby hangars, which would have been much more serious for all concerned and could have easily led to fatalities—a close call indeed.
I did get back to flying after a few weeks, but did a lot of dual time before my confidence returned.
I went on to gain the RA certificate, and more recently, the PPL. Nowadays, whenever I hear myself saying ‘it will be all right’ there is a loud voice in a deep recess of my brain which yells out ‘no it won’t—fix it’! I hope that voice never fades.