Flying is one activity that I absolutely love to the core of my soul. When I am flying, it’s as if I already know what to do without any thought. “A natural” my flight instructor said. I was able to hold minimum controlled airspeed with the stall warning buzzer constantly ringing, maintain altitude, and make turns without any loss of control on my first attempt. This maneuver is required by the FAA as part of the flying checkout before a pilot license is issued. A second maneuver is turning about a point, looking down the wing keeping the end of the wing centered on a point while making a 360 degree turn, maintaining altitude and airspeed. I love flying. But, this isn’t about how much I enjoy and what it feels like to fly. This is a story about what an inexperienced pilot should never do, even if you’re a natural.
The day was clear in the morning when I arrived at the airport. I had just received my solo certificate and check-out for renting training aircraft on my own. I was flying a Piper Tomahawk, affectionately called a “traumahawk” by instructors (and students) for it’s abrupt stall and spin characteristics. One second you’re doing an approach to stall speed with heavy rudder, and the next the aircraft pulls hard over and you’re staring at the ground in a spin. I loved learning to fly in a Tomahawk – because it taught you good situational awareness.
I was using the same aircraft that I started training with, 915 Tango, because I had come to trust it’s flying capability even though the airfield’s flight base operations had three available to rent. 915T was my beast. I checked the weather in preflight, checked the logs on the aircraft, signed the log sheet and then headed out to the flight line. My preflight inspection was normal – checking around the aircraft, engine, tanks, propeller and mechanical linkages with the flight control surfaces. I was working as a student airframe and power plant mechanic at the airfield, so the FBO office and flight line personnel (ramp rats) knew me.
After finishing my walk around, I started the engine, taxied to the end of the active runway and completed my preflight checklist by running up the engine and checking magnetos and carb heat and running lean mixture to clean out the cylinders. (this is a trick I learned from the mechanics)
After finishing my checklist – I got on the radio and announced my intention for departure. I checked the wind sock – positioned myself centerline – gave full throttle and at 80 knots rotated the aircraft and took off. Today was a special day – as I planned to fly about 12 miles north and use my parents house as a target for practicing turns about a point. After successfully giving my mother heart failure – I turned to the east and headed to the official practice area to try my hand at coordinated turns, and traffic pattern simulations.
After an hour or so – I noticed that I had to crab the aircraft a full 45 degrees to track a heading. To make sure I wasn’t nuts – I turned into the wind and noticed that even though my indicated airspeed was around 100 knots, my ground speed was slower than the vehicle traffic beneath me on the ground. I turned to the airport. I offered my first prayer as a pilot and asked for protection and guidance. I knew I was in trouble. I remembered from my preflight weather check that winds would change to 12-15 knots, from 360 degrees. What I did not anticipate was that the weather forecast had been updated and actual speeds were 40 knots with gusts between 50 and 55 knots. I was fortunate that the direction of the wind remained on the runway heading of 360 – else I would be in a crosswind situation.
I approached the airfield and entered the traffic pattern. I announced my intention to make a simulated approach to the airfield. A voice came back on the radio asking if I was okay. It was my flight instructor. The airfield owner had called my instructor because he was concerned. I was a new pilot, in his aircraft, making an approach in a very dicey weather situation without any experience.
I followed my training – all the while having a discreet conversation with God and laughing at myself for putting myself in this situation. On the downwind leg of my approach, I looked out my window at another aircraft taking off from the airfield. His climb out was approximately 80 knots – the same as mine – but he was actually traveling backwards in ground speed until he reached my altitude.
I prayed some more – this time not laughing and with bit more of a serious tone.
On base leg, instead of putting out flaps as would normally be the case – I had a gut feeling that I shouldn’t add flaps until on final, and only one notch.
I turned on final approach and announced myself again – but this time indicated a full stop landing. I remember thinking “I do this now – or I don’t”
My instructor came on the radio again and asked if I was prepared. I knew what he meant. “Affirmative, 915 Tango on final – will be with you shortly”
I aligned the aircraft with the runway – did my final landing checklist, cross check on instruments, and was mentally thinking about the challenge in front of me. I added 10 knots or so to my approach speed due to the gusting nature of the winds, put down one notch of flaps, and made a mental note of my position and clearance between some electrical lines and residential homes that I needed to be aware of in case something went south – I didn’t want to hit those homes.
I settled in my seat.
“Okay God – you tell me what to do, and I’ll do it”
50 feet above the runway, I noticed that my ground speed was super slow. My indicated airspeed was nearly 65 knots. I continued the approach.
I didn’t touch the throttle. Just a feeling. I flew the aircraft down to the ground, rather than cutting power and trying to flare and stall the aircraft as I had been taught.
At first touch of the wheels hitting the deck, I cut the throttle and raised the flaps to reduce lift – I didn’t want a gust of wind to send me back in the air, and I applied hard breaks.
I successfully landed my aircraft to a complete stop in under 50 feet, when the normal stopping distance was nearly 500 feet.
Just then, I noticed my flight instructor standing at the end of the flight line.
I taxied to the ramp, did my post flight checklist, shut down the aircraft, set the parking break. My instructor had already tied down the wings for me.
“Well Spencer, what did you learn today?” – his knowing that I had just survived without incident a very dangerous situation.
“Always be cognizant of the weather even if you read the weather report, and always trust God to land your aircraft when you don’t think you can.”
He shook my hand and told me that I wasn’t alone in the air. Naturally, he felt that he had trained me well, but I was politely told that I should call him before going on a solo flight again to make sure that he was at the airfield.
I also learned to be humble, because even a cautious pilot needs help, regardless of his self-confidence in the air.
I then turned and watched a Beechcraft King Air take off from the same spot where I landed a few minutes earlier. His ground speed on climb out was only near 20 knots. My instructor and I looked at the ascending aircraft, and then at each other. He smiled, shook his head and said, “That’s enough excitement for today, let’s go inside.”