For every action, there is an equal and opposite reaction. – Newton’s Third Law
During my time as a professional pilot, I was amazed how frequently Newton’s third law of physics was proven. And just how often Newton’s “ghost” revealed itself in the aviation world. I found that the compound effect of that particular theory mixed with the element of time can either take the form of a welcomed blessing or an unwanted curse. Hence, things in motion can be subject to unexpected and devilish cause and effect. Here is a case in point.
After several years working for Beechcraft, I had elevated my status to Demonstration Captain and Regional Sales Director. In those days, I was covering five Midwest states (in which I spoke four of the five languages). It was a dynamic and incredible ride. But make no mistake, simultaneously flying and selling demands extreme professionalism as they are two very different responsibilities.
Selling required product knowledge, personality, honesty and relationship building. While performing pilot duties required training, discipline and intense check rides. But once you passed this gauntlet, the ability to perform both roles was especially useful in two cases: when single pilot operations were necessary, and when demoing an owner-operator. It also presented a great opportunity for customer bonding as long as you kept it safe and used good judgement. The following is a true “Newton ghost story” that took place many years ago when the King Air B200GT was first introduced to the market.
The mission was simple: depart Wichita (ICT) at 6:30 a.m. CST; arrive Centennial Denver (APA) 7:30 a.m. MST for an 8:30 a.m. owner-flown pilot demo. The demo would be followed by a client meeting then I would return to Wichita by early afternoon. The weather was clear and calm, however, there had been forest fires near Colorado Springs which had died down overnight.
I put “Mr. Customer” in the captain’s chair and he did a nice job of flying, only requiring some finger pointing to switches and knobs. After departure, we climbed to FL290 on a westbound round robin IFR flight plan. Everything was SOP until our return to the airport. During our descent out of FL210, ATC changed the gate and unknowingly put us on a vector to hell. We soon saw in our path what appeared to be a developing lonely cumulus cloud but nothing showed on the radar. Cleared to FL170, we rammed the cloud at our assigned speed of 200 knots IAS. Then came the rodeo.
It was not a cloud, but the top of one of the forest fires that had re-ignited and was rapidly growing as it ravaged the forest below. The sudden turbulence made us tighten our belts and slow to maneuvering speed. This is where it gets weird. The aircraft felt as if we were balancing on the tip of a needle oscillating on the aircraft’s center of gravity. Meanwhile, a heavy smell of smoke filled the cabin and we noticed that the outside air temperature (OAT) had instantaneously increased from -15 degrees Celsius to +40 degrees Celsius. We quickly made the call to ATC to request an immediate left or right vector out of the smoke cloud as well as reported the forest fire’s position.
Fortunately, Denver Center handled the request expertly. The vector was granted and everyone following our path was turned as well. Less than a minute later, we were back in smooth, clear air with the only evidence of the mishap being white ash on our de-ice boots. With no apparent damage or engine disruption, we landed back at APA without incident. Once on the ground, we took a long look at the airplane and engines and still only saw white ash residue on the leading edge flight surfaces. So, once the customer and I finished our discussion, I prepared for the next leg of my day: the mission to home base.
First, I called our maintenance gurus with concern regarding the ingestion of the smoke, soot and ash in the engine. They then called Pratt & Whitney. No serious concern was expressed other than recommending an optional compressor wash to clean the aircraft when I got back to Wichita. (Note: A volcano plume would have been a whole different story due to the corrosive pumas in the ash that will certainly damage engine parts and ground the aircraft).
By this point, I was running late and stretching duty time. And heightening the urgency was the fact that the aircraft needed to return to Wichita for maintenance and then be dispatched on another mission later that day. So, I skipped lunch, quickly put on a bag of gas (i.e. jet fuel), filed and launched back to Wichita. A routine run-up, departure and climb to FL290 were executed with no issues. Once at cruise and out of DIA airspace, I engaged the autopilot on the Proline 21 avionics. Enjoying a 75-knot tailwind, I was cooking at 380 kts groundspeed. It was less than an hour to ICT from the top of climb. Little did I know, Newton’s “ghost” had other ideas.
With hunger pains panging, I quickly grabbed a pack of peanuts out of the cabinet behind the copilot seat and proceeded to choke down some nourishment. And then it happened. I was actually choking. I couldn’t breathe. My windpipe was clogged.
In desperation, I doubled my fists and thrust them as hard as I could into my solar plexus to attempt a self-inflicted Heimlich Maneuver. After several punches, I exploded with a loud noise (that I’m sure ATC heard) while evacuating peanuts and spittle all over the glass cockpit screens. It was like a shotgun blast. But I was alive and breathing. Using my sunglasses’ cleaning cloth and some water, I then delicately cleaned the screens in an attempt to erase the trace of the inflight debacle as I cruised on to home base without any more issues.
Here is the moral of the story. In aviation, on every flight, there are many speeds we have to deal with: V speeds, relative wind speeds, barber pole Mach barriers, electrons moving through systems at the speed of light…you get the picture. And then there is the fastest of them all – the “Speed of Stupid.” Had I choked to death, single-pilot, titanic tailwind, on autopilot, no passengers, 6+ hours of gas remaining, I could have had an unconscious range of over 2,200 nm. It would have been a burial at sea. Certainly, something that would have disappointed my wife and kids and positively confused the NTSB investigation. (Unless of course, I was shot down earlier by homeland security after being branded a terrorist).
Take it from me; when flying single-pilot, eat pudding not peanuts. Newton’s third law of physics can potentially ruin your life if you don’t pay attention to the cause and effect of the simplest things. Even something as tiny as a peanut.
Side note: I deliberated on rather I should to tell this story to anyone until I realized just how many meals we as pilots ate en route, single pilot. So finally, at one of our annual safety stand down meetings (aka “The Day the Earth Stood Still”), I told this story to the group of 300 company pilots. Many laughed, all saw the stupidity and the maintenance guys even said “so you’re the guy” as they had found some remaining peanut fodder. But later, I was awarded the never before issued, prestigious “Banana Pudding Cup Award” for my valor and ability to survive my stupidity.