Country lanes and little planes

Landing an aircraft on a county road can be risky business. Crop Dusters use them all of the time so they are closer to their work and less ferry time but it adds another element of risk to an already high risk business. They can make a nice emergency landing strip if you run out of gas and not a few pilots have opted for a road rather than the desert or range land grass. Its not always easy to spot hidden dangers in tall grass and actually tall grass is another problem as it adds additional drag to the aircraft and can flip it over on its back.

So why would you land an aircraft, a small plane, on a country road? Well maybe just to say “Hi” to mom and dad.

I was looking for a photo taken of my dad and I standing next to a geared Thrush that’s parked with it’s tail setting on mom’s front lawn. It’s a tail dragger so the 3rd wheel is attached to the back of the fuselage just under the vertical and horizontal. I couldn’t find it but it was taken one spring in the early 90’s as I was on my way back to Mountain Home after helping our sister business in Rupert get caught up on their flying.

This is the S2R 600 Thrush, although not a geared Thrush pretty much the aircraft I landed on a county road to say ‘hello’ to my folks.

My folks place was at 700 north and 300 west and the road west of that intersection made a nice airstrip. My approach was over Bert and Mary Fiels house as the road had a slight curve to it and touch down east bound where the road straightened out going into the intersection, roughly about a quarter of a mile for a landing zone. Piece of cake in many ways.

The only time I stopped there in the Thrush it was pretty calm. After a short visit I took off heading west and found my brother in a tractor working a field about 7 miles west of my folks place.

There was a 2 track running north and south on the west end of the field and I landed there and visited with him for a few minutes then headed on home; I looked the 2 track over thoroughly before deciding it was a go.  The problem was that I had made it look too easy. My dad pointed that out to me a few years later when one of my older brothers decided to fly for a living. Flying for a living was cool but to do it you need to get started early in life. I was 33 when I started flying full time, actually full time seasonal and I was nearly too old but I crossed paths with some mentors that were outstanding and set me on a good path for a successful career. I actually covered that in a previous blog, Davenport Washington, February of 1984.

By the time this story took  place I had several thousand hours of flight time in tail draggers and specifically Ag Aircraft. I had flown the M18 Dromader briefly that spring in Eastern Washington, it is half again as big as the Thrush and most of my take off and landings in the Dromader were off of county roads. All of that experience did not put me in the ‘no risk factor’ but it made for a good bet that I could do it and I actually never questioned that I could but I eliminated as many risks as possible.

High winds, tail winds or cross winds would have cancelled my stop to say hello. I’m crazy but I’m not stupid.

The featured aircraft is an M18 Dromader with me standing on top of the hopper with part of my ground crew standing by the wing. I am 5 foot 10 inches tall so that gives you some idea as to the size of the Dromader; plenty big to be using a county road for a runway.

That picture was taken on Saylor Creek road south and west of Glenns ferry Idaho. There is a huge farming project there that we flew thousands of pounds or rather tons of fertilizer on the crops.

If practice makes perfect how much practice do you need to use a county road for an airstrip?

To be current for normal VFR flight you have to do 3 take off and landings in a given amount of time. I’ve been out of the flying world for over a dozen years so I don’t know how much the rules have changed but let’s say that those 3 take off and landings have to be in the last 90 days; sounds reasonable.

Applying dry fertilizer with and Aircraft is tough work. You will do an unusual amount of take offs and landings in a day; for example.

The most dry fertilizer that I flew on crops in a day was 170,000 pounds. Divide that by 3500 pounds, the average weight per load for the Dromader and you have 48 and 1/2 take offs. Since there is no such thing as 1/2 of a take off, unless you abort one, you have 50 take offs; which also equals 50 landings. Since the Thrush is smaller you therefore have more take off and landings. I believe that I had right at 70 take off and landings in the Thrush in a single day. So if you do 7 days of dry fertilizer with and average of 40 take offs and landings you do 280 take offs and landings in a week.

Also to be efficient you are landing towards your loading area and taking off going away from the loading area no matter which direction the wind is. You are either landing with a tail wind and taking off with a head wind or landing with a head wind and taking off with a tail wind; pick your poison basically. When the wind exceeds yours and the aircraft’s cross wind capability you call it quits for the day and hit it again tomorrow. You get good at take offs and landings or you get another job.

The 3 point landing is the preferred landing configuration verses a wheel landing as it’s slower and more stable. In high cross winds some pilots prefer the wheel landing then let the tail settle down. The more experience I gained flying tail wheel or Conventional geared aircraft the more i preferred the 3 point landing; high winds or no winds.

All tail draggers have a tail wheel lock, the bigger aircraft such as 602, 802 Air Tractors and the M18 Dromader are manual and the pilot locks the tail wheel prior to take off as he lines up with the center line of the runway. Smaller tail draggers such as the Super Cub and Aeronca Champ have an automatic lock when you move the stick into the 3 point position. When taxiing the smaller aircraft you push the stick forward to unlock the tail wheel so you can make sharp turns. This tail wheel lock is a critical piece of equipment for a tail dragger, without it you have no control over the tail of the aircraft as soon as  the rudder loses its directional control due to lack of air flow. The rudder is actually a wing with an airfoil and the airfoil is what gives the rudder its response to the axis of the aircraft in flight.

I know of several mishaps from pilots landing aircraft on county roads but the one that I’m going to use here represents them all very well.

I was crop dusting for an operator in north central Montana and we were using both Ag Husky’s and Cessna Ag Wagons. Basically the same aircraft but the Husky was turbo charged so it could carry a bigger load. I had flown both models in the past.

I took my first load out of the main airport and was to reload off of a county road where the operator and his regular pilot would be flying from.

As I was finishing my load I heard on the radio that his regular pilot had run his airplane off of the road and damaged it. Not sure what exactly the cause was but like I said its high risk even under the best of conditions.

Heading back after finishing my load I called my boss on the radio and suggested that I fly back to the main airport and reload out of there. He was thrilled with that idea; so was I.

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