Life Lessons from a True Pilot

It’s Life List Friday again!  I hope you all enjoyed the Milestone Party and took time to celebrate your own milestones on your life lists too.  I’m happy to welcome back David Walker, Texas Ranger (sorry, David, I couldn’t resist).  I can be found over at Jennie Bennett’s blog today talking about indulgences, and why you need them.  See you all soon!

David N. Walker is a Christian father and grandfather and a grounded pilot. He cofounded Warrior Writers Boot Camp with Kristen Lamb. You can read more of his posts at or tweet him at @davidnwalkertx. Today’s blog is not about life goals, but rather about a life lesson learned.

The Arapahoe Airport

My private pilot’s license was less than thirty days old as I pushed the throttle on the Cherokee 140 to the firewall. The 150 horsepower engine came to life, and we began to roll down the runway.

The long runway at Arapahoe Airport—now called Centennial Airport—runs north and south. It had larger planes than mine stacked up for takeoff, so I was directed to the shorter east-west runway. Not to worry. I was used to flying the 140, and in all of my experience I’d never come close to using all the space we had available for takeoff.

Did I mention I had three adults and two small kids piled into this four-place airplane? Did I mention my little sister had brought a suitcase full of used cannonballs? No sweat, though, we still weren’t overloaded since my daughter and nephew were both preschool age.

As we rolled down the runway something seemed amiss. We weren’t gaining speed as fast as we should. Hmmm . . . About two-thirds of the way down the runway I pulled back on the yoke to lift us into the air, and the red stall light came on.

My first thought was thank God the 140 didn’t have a stall horn like Cessnas did. My sister would have gone into a panic, and there’s no telling what might have happened.

Second thought was did I have time to brake to a stop before I ran out of real estate? Someone had thoughtfully put a barbed-wire fence at the end of the runway to separate it from a deep valley just beyond, so overshooting was not an option.

Maintaining a calm exterior somehow or other, I waited until the last second to get all the speed I could and then jerked hard on the yoke to try to lift us into the air. At this point, you’ll just have to take my word for what happened. God sent a couple of angels to toss the plane into the air and over the fence. After figuring out what the problem was, I realized there was no way the plane could have become airborne on its own.

That deep valley I mentioned became very important at this point. I was soon several hundred feet above the ground and could point the nose down slightly to gain airspeed. After a gradual climb to a safe altitude, I relaxed a little and began to ponder what had gone wrong.

Wait a minute . . . density altitude! I’d read about that in my training. I knew that as the ambient temperature rises the effective altitude rises also, but in my flying around Oklahoma City I gave it little thought. So what if the density altitude was 2000 or 2500 feet instead of the actual 1300 feet. No real effect on performance.

But this airport in the suburbs south of Denver sat just under 6000 feet. With the 95 degree heat, the density altitude probably approached the service ceiling of the little 140. How stupid was I?

People had told me that a private pilot’s license is just a license to begin learning to fly. I’d thought of it as a bullet-proof shield. That arrogance and inattention had almost got my daughter, my mother, my sister and my nephew killed.

Unfortunately, I can’t say that was the last mistake I made in flying, but it was the last time I made that particular one. Never again would I just blithely plan a flight without considering the effects of the loaded weight, the altitude of the airport and the heat of the day. Like the Missouri mule, I could learn if you whacked me in the head with a two-by-four to get my attention.

     A graduate of Duke University, I spent 42 years as a health insurance agent. Most of my career was spent in Texas, but for a few years I traveled many other states. I started writing about 20 years ago, and have six unpublished novels to use as primers on how NOT to write fiction. Since my retirement from insurance a few years ago, I have devoted my time to helping Kristen Lamb start Warrior Writers’ Boot Camp and trying to learn to write a successful novel myself.

31 responses

  1. That sounds absolutely terrifying! Glad you where able to figure it out and learn from your mistake. Those little planes frighten me…

    1. Thanks, Jennie. The planes aren’t frightening – just the pilots.

  2. I was right with you in the plane! I felt your fear and couldn’t wait to see how it ended! Luckily all went well. Good luck in your future writing!

    1. Thanks, Patricia. Good luck to you, too.

    2. I felt that too, especially the barb wire fence part, that was terrifying. Well done writing, David!

  3. I’m with you, Jennie! I never want to be in a little plane. Thank goodness you made it, David!

    1. But, Marcia, you’re missing out on a lot of fun – not to mention getting where you’re going in maybe a fourth of the time. Just be careful around brand-new pilots who think they know more than they do.

      1. How bout I hold your hand on the flight, Marcia.

  4. Wow. What a chilling, humbling experience. But it taught you something very valuable. And that’s the good in it. Thank you so much for sharing!

    1. Thanks, Sonia, and you’re right. I definitely learned from it.

  5. Wow, David! As Sonia said, what a chilling and humbling experience. I am one of those people who gets the willies when I have to fly at all and who gets giddy with relief when my plane lands, so I don’t think I’d ever want to be in one of those little planes either. This is such a great reminder of the fine line between courage and faith in our abilities and awareness of our vulnerabilities. After reading this, it makes me grin a little that my guest post at your place today is on “sticking our necks out” as writers, and then I bounce over here and read something truly scary!

    1. Thanks, Pam. I feel just the opposite. In a commercial jet, I have neither knowledge nor control of what’s going on, and I know if it loses power (rare, but possible) it’s going to sink like a rock. If I’m flying a small plane, I have the confidence of feeling in control, and I know that if it loses power (still rare but possible) it will glide long enough to find a field or some such place to land.

    2. I get scared too to fly, but I mean, our country’s had a lot of mishaps and sadness caused from plane crashes. I remind myself that fear must NEVER keep me from living my life (much like you say to stick your neck out there). I’m hoping I’ll be flying to Texas next year for the DFW conference and maybe meet David!

  6. And Jess, I also wanted to let you know that I LOVE your indulgences post over at Jennie’s, but for some reason I cannot get my comment to go through there. My FAVORITE indulgence these days is a Saturday morning sleep-in : ).

    1. And I would add to that a movie marathon while still in pj’s. 🙂

  7. Thanks for the great post David and the great story. I’ve taken a handful of flying lessons, but have never piloted alone. To tell you the truth, I wouldn’t want to do it either. My hat’s off to those that can pull if off. You’re definitely a better man than I am! But the story definitely brings home the importance of having a checklist and checking it twice.

    Thanks for hosting Jess, I’m running over to check out your post, right now.

    1. Thanks, Gary. And once again, welcome to Life List Club.

    2. Welcome Gary! Excited to get to know you better!

  8. Hate. Those. Puddle-Jumpers!

    1. You’d rather wallow in the puddle?

  9. Cool story David. Funny how most a/c incidents give the pilot time to think about things whereas most auto accidents are over before the drivers realizes. Don’t know which I prefer (apart from the obvious, no accidents at all). There is a runway in French alps which slopes downhill with a big valley beyond, so the aircraft can take off (too slow) then trade alt for airspeed in the valley. They used it in a James Bond movie. I’m sure you’d feel right at home there!

    1. That’s so true how car accidents give you NO time to think. Well, unless you count the few seconds I saw in the rear view mirror that another car was about to hit me. That was not fun. I’m glad David and his family had more time to correct the issue.

  10. This does nothing to help ease my general sense of discomfort over flying!

    1. You’re kind of a pro at the cross-country road trip; I have no worries about you getting around. 🙂

  11. Wow I’m impressed you’re a pilot, very cool! I’m glad you were all safe after that flight. I’m not keen on heights so I’m not sure I’d do well in a small plane!

    1. That’s a good point, Vix. A smaller plane would feel scarier to me too. Yikes, I hadn’t even thought about that part.

  12. Though I’ve heard you tell this tale many times, David, including shortly after it happened, I got chill bumps all over again reading it. Your writing skill is obvious. Just to clarify… I am NOT the sister with suitcase full of cannonballs. Love, Barb

    1. LOL. I don’t know, we made need you to take off your shoes and stand over here please.

  13. Brett James Irvine | Reply

    Great post David.

    As a fellow PPL holder, I enjoyed reading your perspective, particularly because you had no clue what was going on 🙂 At PPL level you’ve done so many forced landings in practice that you would assume you would be calm when the real thing comes, but there is no way of telling until that moment.

    Good thing you used your wits and came out alive!

    1. I bet his family thinks so too. I for one am glad they make you do those trainings! LOL

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