The Taj Mahal is an Indian architectural marvel constructed in the 17th century as a mausoleum and mosque. It was nearly destroyed during WWII by an American pilot, Ernest Gann, who was in command of a C-87 transport. From his seminal novel, "Fate is the Hunter" (truly, if you're in aviation and haven't read this book, you're doing it wrong):
After a suitable interval of hoof-pawing I release the brakes and goad the C-87 down the runway at full throttle. It is a ponderous, dreamlike business at first, but this is always so. There is time to think of Gainer back on AM-21 [an old air mail route from the 1930s - Hugo] who once said in his wonderful way, "I told Orville Wright and Glenn Curtiss, I told both them fellers their danged things would never fly."
Such thoughts are fleeting because I already sense something is wrong. We are halfway down the runway and have only achieved sixty miles per hour. I glance quickly all around - at the instruments, the engines, and the remainder of the runway. Appreciation through habit is nearly instantaneous, but understanding is not. What the hell is wrong now? Even this C-87 has never behaved in such a leisurely fashion.
Yet all is apparently in order. These are the moments of truth in a pilot's life when he must decide within seconds whether he should abandon take-off and jump the brakes or fully commit his airplane to flight. There is still room for choice. Finding nothing amiss, I hold forward. There is the cremating heat to blame.
Eighty miles per hour. We need one hundred and twenty and I should prefer one hundred and thirty. The trees dance toward us, wavering in the sun. Ninety. The choice is gone, other than a certain plunging through the trees.
One hundred. I haul back tentatively on the elevator controls seeking response. Very mushy. A glance at the engine head temperatures and a quick resolve not to look again. With their task less than half done the engines are already far beyond the allowable heat. A flash of memory of Tetterton moving steel girders in the night ... of Johnson and myself shoving on the controls. How many times can a man --
One hundred and ten at last. I can raise the nose wheel a little, but not yet enough. We just cannot clear those trees. But we must try.
There is no time to be afraid and besides I will not admit fear ever again ....
... I haul back on the controls. The C-87 leaves the ground, sinks back, bounces a wheel, then staggers aloft in a mushing half stall.
The trees are no longer there but here.
We clear them. I can count the leaves. A flock of buzzards explodes before us. We sink back toward the trees and are going to hit.
The trees are a thin fringe along the river. Our tail is just past them as we sink below their tops. We are for an instant in the clear, over the river. Full power. Air speed one hundred and thirty and sinking.
Now, a new obstruction, dead ahead. The Taj Mahal. They are making repairs. Much of it is covered with scaffolding and I can see the workman moving about. I can see the folds in their turbans. I can see their mouths open as we approach. I cannot see any beauty.
The quickest and surest way to finalize a semi-stall in an airplane is to turn it. Pressure on the rudder, a trifling bank of the wings, subtract those few critical miles of speed which keep it flying. But I must turn or they will have much more repair work to do on the Taj Mahal.
There is one crazy hope. It is not written in any book of aerodynamics. Park told me about it long ago. But I have never tried it, nor has anyone else on a C-87.
"Franko! Full flaps!"
He slams down the lever. The C-87 collides with a soft invisible wall. The air speed falls off and everything shudders. But we balloon upwars a hundred feet almost instantly - barely enough to clear the spike of the first minaret ... we swoop down beyond it and with agonized slowness begin picking up enough speed for a halting climb....
Hugo: the reason for Gann's lack of performance was that his C-87 transport weighed too much. The weight of the cargo was unknown, the logisticians simply filling the cargo compartment until it was full (a practice that survives into the 21st century, much to my Afghanistan lament). The ground crew had also ignored Gann's instructions and filled his fuel tanks until they were full, though he needed much less to reach his destination. The excessive weight of his plane combined with the heat nearly resulted in the destruction of a worldly icon, which proves that the same thing that binds a successful human relationship can also keep one from getting killed in aviation: It's communication, people!