Most of us are generally law-abiding citizens, but it’s a rare pilot who hasn’t occasionally bent an FAR just a little bit around the edges. Leave it to Ted to break ’em into little pieces while the constabulary looks on! In “Blast from the Past” No. 8, our hero hopes for a statute of limitations on these youthful shenanigans!
One of the truly great aspects of operating a high-performance aircraft is being able to escape the constraint of speed limits that you have to put up with while engaged in two-dimensional flying (i.e., driving). How frustrating to be cruising down the freeway and have a “stater” wave me over.
In one such episode last year, the really hard part to swallow was that I had been nabbed by the Washington State Patrol air unit. I told the “ground pounder” who pulled me over to get on the radio and tell the guy in the plane that I was a fellow pilot, in fact a Glasair III pilot, and that it was extremely difficult to fly… er…drive the vehicle at 60 mph for fear of stalling, but he showed no sympathy or even understanding of such a basic principle.
My wife and kids were in the car that time, and they took great delight in lecturing me in front of the officer. They impressed him so much that he rewarded them with an official plastic WSP key chain and some colorful WSP pencils.
And these trinkets only cost me $70! I kept the key chain, because it lets me feel that I got something for my money.
But at the time, I felt… well… misunderstood, and I longed at that moment to be “slipping the surly bonds,” etc.
That wasn’t the worst bust I ever received from our beloved Washington State Patrol, however. The worst one was with Terry Hiatt, longtime S-H tech writer, in the prototype Glasair I RG.
The RG first flew very shortly before our move to Arlington from the Pig Farm, and soon after getting set up in our new home, we needed to do some flight testing to get some actual speeds on the airplane. Today we use striped test booms and fancy computers, but in those days we picked two ground points a known distance apart and timed our flights between them with a stopwatch.
The aviation magazines were all keen at the time to publish stories on the sensational new Glasair RG, and several reporters had been out to the factory to evaluate the plane and take photographs. The editors were all champing at the bit to scoop each other’s stories on this sleek new airplane, and they were clamoring for authoritative speed data, especially the all-important top speed.
We waited impatiently for the Northwest weather to clear enough for a test flight. Day after day we had low scud and rain. The magazine deadlines were upon us. We had one day left and the forecast remained unchanged.
The next morning the weather was only slightly better. It looked like we had maybe a 500-foot ceiling, so off we went. I flew while Terry manned the test instruments (i.e., the notepad and the stopwatch).
For those of you who have visited us here, our test course was up and down 1-5 between the Arlington and Marysville exits—7.2 miles of straight as a die freeway. We may have done a few runs at reduced power, but what we really wanted to know was how fast this baby would go wide open at sea level.
A run consisted of a round trip—once down the freeway to the south, a wide 180° turn and a run back to the north.
We’d average the two runs to cancel the effect of any wind. The whole procedure was repeated at least five times.
We were clearly focused on our mission, especially since the ceiling averaged more like 400 feet rather then the 500 feet we had estimated at the airport. The turnarounds were very wide (and wild) since we didn’t want to bleed off speed with a smaller-radius, high-G event.
We were so focused, in fact, that we gave absolutely no thought to what we must have looked or sounded (or felt) like to those poor souls on the ground. It was about 7:30 in the morning (smooth air, you know), and people were getting ready for school and work. Think about the noise a Glasair makes as it passes over at 400 feet and 240-250 m.p.h.
There must have been more than a few spilt milks, cats darting off the sofa, razor nicks, and so on that morning.
I’ll tell you, aside from doing our jobs, Terry and I had a real ride that morning.
It was exhilarating.
Finally, we felt comfortable with the results and headed back to the barn.
Pulling off the runway at the mid-field taxiway, we couldn’t help but notice all the blue emergency lights flashing in front of the S-H hangar on the runway side.
“What’s going on?” I asked Terry, as we taxied closer. “Maybe there was a fire or an accident or something,” I answered my own question.
Terry was quiet. Maybe he intuitively knew or suspected what I hadn’t yet.
As we taxied closer I counted the vehicles: no less than four state patrol cruisers and a county sheriffs car thrown in for good measure—all with lights a-flashin’. It was impressive, and I honestly thought there had been an emergency at S-H until I was close enough to see the whites of their eyes.
As we pulled the mixture, no less than seven uniformed guardians of the community approached our plane, and as they got close enough for me to see the expressions on their faces, it finally hit me.
“We’re in big trouble, Terry,” I said out of the corner of my mouth without moving my smiling lips.
“Whaddya mean ‘we,’ Boss?” Terry asked out of the corner of his smiling mouth.
I popped the canopy, smiled my biggest Green Bay (cheesy) smile and asked, “What’s all the excitement about, fellas?”
Now, think back to the last time you got a ticket from the state patrol. Was the trooper visibly angry and upset with you? No, usually they are extremely calm, polite and businesslike.
Well, not so this particular group of law enforcement officers. The best way to describe them would be hopping mad, with overtones of steaming and a touch of severely irate. They wanted to throw us both in the slammer and toss away the key. I don’t remember seeing any handcuffs, but I wouldn’t doubt that at least one of those guys had a pair at the ready in case we put up any fight.
We tried our best to convince them that we weren’t terrorists or fruitcakes but just “experimental aircraft pilots” out doing our job, but the feeling began to overtake me that we were going to have to go “downtown.”
One officer was particularly upset and emphatic that we were in big trouble. He repeatedly asked, “How high were you flying?”
Of course, I knew the correct answer to that question was “501 feet, Officer!”
just as I know the correct answer to “How fast were you going?” was “249 knots, Officer!” If I remembered nothing else from Part 91,1 remembered the answers to both those questions.
Anyway, this guy finally identified himself as the WSP Air Patrol pilot and insisted that our altitude was 150 feet AGL. For crying out loud, we’ve got trees around here taller than that!
One of the few things I remember from driver’s ed. is that you never argue with the officer (or you won’t get a key chain), so I asked Terry to verify our altitude. You know, I really believe in mental telepathy, because my mother used it very effectively on me when I was a kid. She gave me “The Look,” and I knew exactly what she meant.
Well, I tried it on Terry, and I think he got the message.
“Terry, how high were we flying?” I asked. My brain was desperately transmitting through my eyes: “Say 500 feet or you’ll be heading up the new S-H rock breaking division!” Terry gave the correct answer, which seemed to increase the Air Patrol officer’s blood pressure by several points.
You know, it’s funny how recall works.
Now that I think about this event (after 15 years), I don’t remember anybody coming out of the building to rescue us.
Where was Bob at my hour of greatest need? His office faced the taxiway where our inquisitors were tormenting us, but we never saw hide nor hair of him. I’ll bet we could still find the smudge mark on the bottom of the window from his nose as he peeked over the window sill!
And all those faithful employees? Well, I guess that’s stretching it to expect them to rescue the boss. In fact, today they’d be busy video taping the episode for a future edition of “America’s Funniest Home Videos” (or the other one, which I think is called “America’s Dumbest Criminals”). Come to think of it, this occurred right after we’d decided to stop buying donuts for the company meetings. Those cost-cutting measures always seem to come back and bite you.
I sure could have used a dozen donuts right then, I’ll tell you.
Before long, another State Patrol car pulled up. The officer who got out of it identified himself as the captain. He talked privately to a few of the other officers while the Air Patrol guy continued to gnaw on our ears. Finally, the captain chased the rest of them back to work and even told Terry that he could go inside while he had a talk with me… alone. Gulp!
He was a big guy, and the Smokey Bear hat made him all the more imposing.
He put his hand on my shoulder and walked me out away from the plane toward the runway. We stopped at the edge of the taxiway and he turned me toward him.
“Tell me, Ted, were you honestly at 500 feet?” he asked in a brotherly tone. Again this goes back to being a kid with a mother who was strict but fair: I somehow knew this was the right time to ‘fess up.
“It may have been closer to 400 feet, Sir, but we had to do it because… ” I blurted out the whole story in one breathless rush.
“I understand it was urgent for you, Son, but don’t you think it was kinda poor judgment to rip the shingles off everyone’s home from here to Marysville?” he asked. “Do you know that our switchboard operators said they got more calls on this by far than on any other single event ever? They were buried in reports about some kamikaze pilot on the loose.” At this point, his grip on my shoulder tightened just a little bit, and he said, “I could get you in real trouble with the FAA on this, but I’m going to give you a warning …”
I don’t remember much else that he said because when I heard that magic word “warning,” a flood of relief came over me that just about caused my knees to buckle!
Before leaving, the captain took a real close look at the plane and said we should pick a new flight test area, because if he ever heard another report of a little white airplane low over I-5 between Arlington and Marysville, the pilot’s name wouldn’t be mud. It would be Ted Setzer!