The Most Dangerous Thing in the Cockpit

Free flight.


Many years ago, I owned a Grumman Yankee that I bought from the local FBO when they were closing up shop. I was about two years out of college, living in a one-bedroom apartment, eating 29-cent chicken pot pies and spending all of my time learning the space business. But when I had a few extra dollars, I was renting this little yellow airplane an hour at a time to build skills. It turns out I was the only person renting it and when the FBO owners (neighborhood friends of mine) decided to seek honest work and get out of the aviation business, they offered it to me for $4900—$1000 down and the rest “whenever you can afford it.”

It turns out that I spent a heck of a lot of money on that airplane over the years, incorporating just about every STC I could find for the model. Over time, I made a fun and useful airplane out of it. It was my pride and joy—big engine, full IFR, extended-range tanks and a new paint job and interior. I owned that airplane (along with a share of a J-3 Cub) for over 20 years and couldn’t imagine selling it. But the day I took my newly finished RV-8 up for its first flight, I advertised the Yankee for sale and it was gone in a week. Performance counts!

But the story I want to talk about occurred one nice weekday afternoon when I didn’t have to go to work until evening. I was out flying the little hot rod over the salt-flat prairie of the Texas Gulf Coast, just about 20 miles from home base and maybe 6 miles from Galveston. I was at something like 6000 feet, yanking and banking, when I suddenly noticed the oil pressure light come on. I looked down at the oil pressure gauge and did a double take—it was reading zero! The engine was running fine, but it was clear to me that something was wrong. The light and gauge were independent. This was a real oil pressure loss.

I knew I didn’t have the altitude to make Galveston dead stick and underneath me was flat terrain—but I also knew I had to be at work that evening and if I put the airplane down in a pasture, how was I going to get home, how was I going to recover the airplane, what would it all cost? These questions went through a young pilot/owner’s head in a fraction of a second. While this was happening, I was pointing the airplane directly at Galveston’s Scholes Field. Thirty seconds after I first noticed the problem, I had closed the gap enough that I knew I could make the runway with no power, so I idled it back and set up for best glide, dialing in the frequency and declaring a straight-in with a loss of oil pressure. I made it onto the numbers with a little slip to kill the extra energy I had been holding in reserve, rolled off the runway onto the ramp and shut down.

The puddle of oil underneath the cowling told me that I’d been right—it was not an instrumentation problem. An old oil line to the cooler had ruptured and all the oil had gone down and out under the bottom of the cowl. Nothing appeared on the windshield. The short story is that there was an A&P who I knew on the field and we were able to build a new hose, check the compression and check the screens, and I flew the airplane home that afternoon and made it to work.

But the real story I want to tell is the lesson I learned from this little incident, one that I have often repeated in the years since. That is that the most dangerous thing to have in the cockpit during an emergency is the owner of the airplane. You see, from the position I was in when the oil line let go, I had plenty of smooth, easy landing spots beneath me. Galveston’s Runway 13 was where I landed without trouble—but I had to cross 2 miles of water to get there. What if I’d guessed wrong on the winds?

You see, we all like to think that the decisions we make as a pilot are based on pure and simple risk management and logic. It is often said that “once the airplane has a failure, it belongs to the insurance company.” While that might be true, there are all sorts of considerations—other than the simple value of the plane and potential cost of repairs—that can go into your decision making. These are factors that have nothing to do with safely getting on the ground. The simple fact that you don’t want to damage the airplane in an off-field landing has driven people to stall just short of a runway. An owner’s thought process can easily be tainted by these factors. As a pilot, you have to put those things out of your mind—but you have to have a certain ability to compartmentalize and detach yourself from other considerations to do that.

The fact that an owner wants to protect their airplane—either because it is a financial investment or because it has become very important to them due to the time they have invested in it—is something to consider for first flights of homebuilts. It is one of the reasons that some folks cite in hiring someone else to do the first flight—the owner wants to detach themselves from the emotions of being in the cockpit and figures a disinterested party will make better decisions should things go sideways. There is a lot to be said for that argument, especially if the owner knows their own psychology and reactions to stress well.

This is also a consideration when planning to use the Additional Pilot Program, whereby a less experienced pilot/owner can enlist the aid of an experienced pilot to go along during Phase I flight testing. It is one of the reasons that I personally choose not to use the program for first flights, even though I strongly support the concept for the rest of Phase I flying. There is so much emotional entanglement possible for the owner of a homebuilt on its first flight that things in the cockpit could get fuzzy if the engine stumbles on takeoff and the experienced pilot determines the best thing to do is head for the fence, whereas the owner wants to try to turn back to the runway.

Airplane ownership is a double-edged sword. We are free to make whatever choices we wish as owner and pilot in command, a freedom that we cherish and is inherent in the entire idea of personal aviation. But we have to temper that freedom with the responsibility we have to ourselves and, potentially, others to take the smartest course of action, even when it might not be the most convenient.

So forget about all those sharp corners, the quantity of fuel aboard and the fire extinguisher you threw in the baggage compartment without tying it down. It is always important to at least consider the fact that the most dangerous thing to have in the cockpit when things go wrong is the owner of the airplane.

Previous articleDon Wall BD-5J
Next articleTarget Fixation Taught by Trees
Paul Dye
Paul Dye, KITPLANES® Editor at Large, retired as a Lead Flight Director for NASA’s Human Space Flight program, with 40 years of aerospace experience on everything from Cubs to the Space Shuttle. An avid homebuilder, he began flying and working on airplanes as a teen and has experience with a wide range of construction techniques and materials. He flies an RV-8 and SubSonex jet that he built, an RV-3 that he built with his pilot wife, as well as a Dream Tundra and an electric Xenos motorglider they completed. Currently, they are building an F1 Rocket. A commercially licensed pilot, he has logged over 6000 hours in many different types of aircraft and is an A&P, FAA DAR, EAA Tech Counselor and Flight Advisor; he was formerly a member of the Homebuilder’s Council. He consults and collaborates in aerospace operations and flight-testing projects across the country.


  1. You did it again Paul. Excellent article based on personal experience. Practicing the 5 “Ps” as I like to call it saved my bacon when the air became eerily silent in the Comanche 260 at 5500 feet back in “92. We 3 walked away after dead sticking into a clear-cut field and hitting a stump. My primary instructor drilled me about always looking for a place to land. I always try and fly with the thought of not taking away all my “options”.
    Thanks again for reminding us.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.