A Pilot's Perspective.

By Barry Meek.

April 2008

Golfing and Flying Don't Mix

I once witnessed a dog get chewed up by a prop.  It wasn't a pretty sight, one which has been depicted on the big screen in a few Bruce Willis movies where a bad guy meets the same fate.   What you see in the movies is very close to the real thing.  I attended a fly-in breakfast at a small, country airport several years ago, before the time when security fences and locked gates were the norm.  For the most part, pilots knew and understood safety around airplanes, so it was a surprise to see one fellow bring his dog into the picnic area which was quite near the turf ramp and runway.

The morning was warm, people were happy, the breakfast was bacon, eggs and pancakes.  Pretty soon the fly-bys started up.  The owner of the dog got invited by another pilot for a flight around the patch.  He tied the dog to a post and climbed aboard the tricycle-gear airplane with his new friend.  The dog got excited, broke the leash and dashed toward the plane which was by that time, already running.  The horrified owner of the dog looked on as it ran straight into the prop, and was slashed to pieces in an instant.

The sight we'd just witnessed stuck with me for years.  It didn't cause nightmares or affect my quality of life.  After all it wasn't my dog, and dogs don't happen to be on the top of my favorite animal list.  In my work as a paramedic, the sight of blood and trauma isn't uncommon.  However actually witnessing the event that causes it is rare.  By the way, we can't blame the dog for it's own demise.  After all, a dog will usually follow it's owner anywhere.   I only hope this fellow learned a lesson about looking out for his animals, and that nobody leaves their child in his care.

There's a resort and golf club we liked to fly to on Sunday mornings for an outing and a breakfast.  The strip was grass and actually split the course in a way that golfers needed to cross it twice in 18 holes.  The cart trails didn't make much of a difference to the runway, and there was almost no air traffic, so the airplanes didn't interfere with the golfers.  The community around the course included a few pilots who flew in and could tie down near their homes.  That was about all the traffic there was, and naturally it was an uncontrolled field.   There were "stop signs" with the warnings about active runways and that planes could be operating at any time, posted at the cart crossings.  But the golfers were complacent, and usually never bothered to look, or even think about air traffic.

One morning, along with two friends, I planned a flight into the resort for lunch.  I always called the manager's office ahead of a trip there, requesting permission to land, and to be aware of any special events they might have planned that would interfere with use of the strip.  The usual response was for me to be aware that I'd be landing at my own risk, the strip is in good shape, and "come on up, you guys are always welcome."

Photo by Joe Olson

On arrival, we flew the standard approach, broadcasting intentions on 123.2, crossed centre field for a look at the sock, then proceded through the downwind and final.  The runway was clear at touchdown and part way through my roll out, when suddenly a golf cart sped out from the left, crossing directly in front of the plane.  Judging the speed and closing distance between us, there was no way to avoid the collision.  The prop was about to chew into the side of the cart, slicing through the first golfer, then with enough momentum, do the same to the driver.

There was no way I could get it stopped.  The wheels were locked and sliding on the grass.  Speed was too slow to fly. By the grace of God, at the last second I saw the golfer in the passenger seat look up, then warn the driver who stopped just as the wingtip of my Cherokee sped past in front of their cart.

The vision of what a prop had done to that dog years before, flashed into my mind.   I taxied back to the parking area and for several minutes my knees were so weak it was actually difficult to stand.  My mouth was so dry, I couldn't speak to my passengers.  I busied myself with the log book until my nerves could settle down.

One of the golfers walked back across the strip to the parking area to aplogize for their lapse in judgement.  It turned out that his wife was the driver of the cart, and they had not seen or heard the airplane as we flew over centre field, nor on final approach.  When idling, and on a turf runway, a small plane can be very quiet.  What caused their near-death experience was that they ignored the stop sign and entered an active runway without even a glance in either direction.

A parent teaches a child is to look both ways before crossing a street.  Drivers do it instinctively.  Pilots check before entering an active runway.  At least most pilots do.  But if you spend half your life in an environment like a golf course, or on a quiet country road, or a retirement village, you're just not as likely to be on the lookout for traffic, if for 3 days out of 4, you never see a car.

That episode could have ended up with two dead golfers and a nasty court case.  I suspect that it wouldn't have been difficult for my lawyer  defending me in any action, given the clear warning signs at the cart crossing, and the fact that proper aviation procedures had been followed.  In short, I don't think I did anything wrong.  However, was my airmanship up to par?  Probably not.  I could have been more vigilant.  I could have informed my passengers of the ever-present danger of when people are close to runways.  I could have briefed them on the possible incursions and where and how to look for them.  Having a few extra eyes in the cockpit never hurts.  Intent on the touchdown, the speed, staying on the centre of the strip, generally getting us down safely probably occupied too much space in my brain that morning.

The golfers were lucky.  I was lucky.  In my minds eye, I saw the golfers being sliced up as the dog had been.  We've all seen prettier sights.  The airstrip is still on that golf course, which surprises me.  With all the litigation, people not accepting responsibility for their own actions and so on, I always expected that incident would be another nail in the coffin for the strip.  Maybe it was.  But so far, we can still fly in and enjoy a meal at their club house

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