Never Again

Wind minimums

February 1, 2004

I awoke that cold and blustery February morning anticipating my upcoming flight in an airplane in which I had just been checked out. Only a few months earlier I had earned my private pilot certificate in a Piper Warrior. Until this point, all of my flying had been done in that make and model of aircraft. I decided it would be fun to fly something else, so when a Cessna 172 became available at the flight school I jumped at the chance to get checked out in it.

This flight would be my second hop in the Cessna, so I was still getting familiar with the layout of the cockpit and the handling characteristics of the airplane. I made a quick phone call to the airport before leaving the house and found that the winds were blowing at a brisk 17 knots. With only 70 hours in my logbook, this should have been a red flag to me, since my crosswind landing skills at this point were only marginal. However, I had been looking forward to this flight for a couple of weeks, so I discounted the winds and headed for Marshfield Municipal Airport.

When I arrived at the airport I was a little surprised to see how much snow there was near the edges of the runway and taxiway. I guess I should not have been, though, since we had endured a winter with more than the average snowfall. In fact, just a few days earlier we had received several inches of fresh powder. As I stepped out of my car and walked toward the FBO I heard a little voice in my head trying to convince me that this was a day I should leave to more experienced pilots. However, I was determined to fly, so I pressed on with my plans.

Inside the FBO, I contacted flight service for a standard briefing. Everything sounded great except for the gusty winds and possible moderate turbulence. Again, that little voice kept saying to me that this was not the best day for me to be flying and that I should probably wait and go another day. Perhaps, I thought, I should check to see if an instructor was available for some crosswind landing practice. I walked to the front desk to inquire about the availability of an instructor. All of the flight school's pilots were busy. Just at that moment, the owner of the flight school walked by and I casually mentioned to him my concern about the winds. He, being a much more experienced pilot than I, said they were not bad and I should have no problem with them. Well, not bad to him and not bad to me were two different things. I should have realized that, but I was determined to launch and his encouragement was all it took for me to keep my plans on track.

Trying to ignore that persistent little voice in my head, I walked out the back of the FBO toward the Cessna for the preflight. The winds were definitely brisk, and throughout the preflight I had a sinking feeling I should call off the flight. Why didn't I just stop and head back to the FBO? I think part of the reason was that I didn't want to look like a wimp. After all, I was a certificated private pilot. Surely, I could handle it. Taxiing from the ramp to the runway I took a good look at how close the snow banks were to the edge of the runway and concluded that today was not a day when one could let the plane drift much off the centerline during landing.

The wings of the 172 dipped left and right as I went through the checklist during the runup. After completing the runup, I took one last look around the cockpit to try to familiarize myself again with the layout.

Everything was fine until the airplane leapt into the air. The second the wheels left terra firma I knew I should have stayed home that day. The air was so turbulent I nearly smacked my head on the ceiling, even though I had my lap belt and shoulder harness fastened. Once I was at a safe altitude, I tried to gather my wits and come up with a plan of action. I decided to climb to a higher altitude in search of calmer air so I could think through the situation and become a little more familiar with the airplane.

Unfortunately for me, I couldn't find smoother air. No matter where I flew, the turbulent air bumped and jostled the little 172 over and over again. In a mild panic, I turned the airplane toward the airport and tried to remember all the correct speeds.

I turned downwind and tried to fly as close to the pattern altitude as I could. Everything seemed to be happening so fast. When I was abeam the numbers I reached between the seats to lower the flaps. Then I remembered the flap switch was somewhere on the panel. I reached for the switch and just as I grabbed it the plane lurched up and the flaps went to 40 degrees. The nose shot up and I struggled to keep the plane under control. I immediately retracted them to 10 degrees; however, the turbulence made the task difficult. I had a roaring tailwind on base and if I had been planning ahead a little better I would have anticipated the turn to final a lot sooner than I did. By the time I rolled out, I was lined up perfectly for the grocery store parking lot instead of my intended landing spot, Runway 23. I should have immediately decided to go around and try the approach again.

I wanted to get back on the ground so bad I didn't do what I had been trained to do. So, instead, I struggled to get the airplane back on the extended centerline. By the time I had done that I was over the threshold, very fast and very high. Of course during all of the excitement, I had neglected to lower the flaps beyond 10 degrees. As I bounced in the air over the runway, I dumped the flaps and pushed the nose over. My crosswind correction was, well, not very correct, and the airplane drifted perilously close to the snowdrifts on the edge of the runway. I forced it on the ground well above the normal touchdown speed. Skipping and bumping, the airplane slowed until a gust of wind lifted the wings and I was back in the air once more. Again, the airplane drifted closer to the edge of the runway. Running through my head was a picture of the airplane striking the snow bank and flipping over.

I was able to gain control of the airplane after the second touchdown. I was really grateful all of this happened at the end of the runway that was blocked by hangars — I don't think anyone saw what happened. This experience early in my flying career taught me a valuable lesson about listening to your inner voice. If you are not comfortable with something before a flight, examine the reasons why. Most of the time there is justification for the uneasiness. Know your abilities and know when to say no.

Patrick J. Timmerman, AOPA 1168926, is a commercial pilot and flight instructor with almost 600 hours. He now instructs in the Chesapeake, Virginia, area.

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