Flaps ans Slats

Ultra high resolution iPhone 3 photo of the B-17 well beyond the 8' fence.

I had pulled up to a parking space at the west end of the airport to watch for the return of a neighborhood B17 that had taken off a half hour before. It came back a short while later as I expected it would. Of course, it might have been a different B17, because I didn't make a point of reading its tag number, and although B17s are rare these days, there are bound to be more than one still in flying condition. But I knew that one had just come to town to give rides to the populous at $450 per head, so it was most likely that one going around in circles. Having only about $23 in my wallet, I decided to just sit in my car and watch.

The Flying Fortress had taken off again into a slight north breeze. This was at the small airplane section of the international airport. It's where business jets and tweezy commuter planes and Cessna 152's and B-17's takeoff and land. A sort of kiddie pool in the corner. The truly big planes - the airliner jets - have their own, longer runway. Two of 'em in fact; a north-south runway and an east-west one. In Oklahoma, the north-south runways are used the majority of the time, because winds from other directions here are about as common as tax reductions.

There was in existence around this time however, a kind of road construction project going forth on the main runway at the Tulsa International Airport. I don't know how it is in other states, but in Oklahoma, road construction projects are timed in decades. Thus all the big airplanes were faced with no alternative but to use the east-west runway and fight the crosswinds and like it, because it had been going on now for who knows how long and would likely continue until who knows when.

Just minutes before the return of the B17 took my full attention, I noticed straight ahead a bit of black smoke rising from the area I knew to be the east-west runway. Not the kind of black smoke one associates with fires and crashes and Ford Pintos, but the general haze that can be seen coming from a jet engine when viewed from the front or rear. In the next second a silver nose appeared from over the horizon, and I realized that I was viewing the haze from the front. In the next second the full carcass of a McDonald Douglas Super 80 could be seen lifting off what looked like the very last three feet of the runway, and it was climbing at an angle calculated to clear the eight-foot fence in front of me but not much more.

Now I had been parked in this position before, and I can say with certainty that the average airliner gets off the ground long before the last three feet of the runway and instantly begins climbing at an angle suggesting that it is in a contest to be the first airliner to the moon. Modern air show attendees are often treated to a spectacle in which an F-15 takes off and immediately turns on its tail and climbs straight up to an altitude of about 269 nautical miles before stopping to catch its breath, and airline pilots have undoubtedly been influenced by this performance. One gets the impression that these guys are an impatient bunch and simply cannot wait until cruising altitude is reached and the drinks are served.

Consequently, I sat watching this Super 80 making a beeline for the top of the fence and began casting my mind back to a TV show I had watched the previous week. It was a program about air disasters in which the thirty seconds or so that it takes the typical airliner to have a start to finish disaster experience is stretched into a full half-hour episode, giving the editor plenty of time to dwell on the gruesome details and the narrator plenty of time to kick around various theories as to why it happened. In this particular episode, a McDonald Douglas Super 80 took off in a rainstorm, experienced a brief moment of floundering around, then slammed into the runway and plowed across the street and into a bridge. The problem, the narrator went on to explain, was that the pilots got redirected to Runway Charlie Left smack in the middle of the taxi checklist and, what with one thing and then another, got sidetracked and never finished the list. The result was that they omitted to deploy their flaps and slats, and when they rotated and climbed aloft, they weren't doing more than a knot or two above stall speed, and a stall occurred soon thereafter on account of the absurd climb rate these fellows think they have to accomplish right out of the box.

Shifting my attention back to the real-life Super 80 just ahead, I wondered if, despite there being no rain and no alternative runway to be redirected to, the pilots of this aircraft had omitted the flaps and slats. It was unlikely, because there is no end to the number of alarm bells and computerized female voices telling one to abort in such a situation. But it would not be a good scenario for me if they indeed had done so. Being tangled up in a fiery crash with a Super 80 would not be wholesome, family entertainment. Neither would it be one of those times when one simply walks away complaining about airbag rash.

But then another thought occurred to me. Uncle Doyle, when flying the old 172 off Runway One Seven at Perry International Airport, always used to tell me to level off, once airborne, and let the airspeed come up before continuing to climb. It seemed like sound advice, and as I watched the Super 80 fly overhead at what seemed like about six feet and felt the exhaust from its engines scorching the paint off the top of my car, I considered that were a pilot and his or her co- to make the mistake of taking off without flaps and slats, due possibly to another form of distraction such as, for example, a blasted Flying Fortress patrolling the vicinity, upon realization of this fact, the day might yet be won by following Uncle Doyle's advice and leveling off a bit to achieve the needed increase in airspeed before continuing the climb. (In the event that the reader is failing to make the connection between flaps and slats and takeoff speed and so forth, the flaps and slats increase the aircraft's lift enabling it to climb at the relatively slow takeoff speed.)

Moments later the B-17 came rumbling down the adjacent runway at what appeared to be about 25 MPH and slowly lumbered into the air. It did not enter into one of those death-defying high-angle climbs either. No, it performed another one of the fence-scraping variety that Uncle Doyle would have approved of. Presumably they picked it up a bit before crossing the street, because the trees grow unbridled in Mohawk Park, and there are at least two giraffes in the Tulsa Zoo.