Never Again Online: Sand landing

April 1, 2010

Aviation was flourishing in the late 1970s and I was a young sales representative for Van Dusen Aircraft Supply. G.B. Van Dusen derived the idea in 1940 of sending flying salesmen to call on airport operators in the small towns across Minnesota, and later, the nation. He started his aircraft parts business with a borrowed $300 in the basement of what is now the Minneapolis-St. Paul International Airport and eventually had offices at 24 locations with his main offices in the Twin Cities. At the company zenith, Van Dusen had a fleet of 25 Cessna 172s and a couple of 182s. My ride was a C-172XP and I conducted sales calls on customers which included maintenance facilities, crop dusters and FBOs in a territory that included northern Louisiana, and vast areas of north and west Texas.

Many blunders have a root cause in a previous experience in which the outcome was good, and questionable practices come to seem normal and totally acceptable. The seed of my future error was planted in a dry year in the mid 1970s. I was a lineman at an FBO at the Dallas Redbird Airport. A fellow brilliant coworker—he was PIC—and I flew to Lake Whitney between Dallas and Waco and landed a rented Cessna 172 on the dry lake shore. We built a fire, cooked dinner, spent the night, and departed the next morning. This was an adventure that had a good outcome with no misfortune or close calls. Looking back at my foolishness, I now realize that we were in a precarious position. Insurance wouldn’t have covered us if we had had an incident or accident caused by an intentional off-airport landing. But at the time I thought it was great.

So it was in the hot summer of 1981, when lakes surrounding the Dallas-Ft. Worth area were drying up and water levels were far below average, and I decided to make another off-airport landing. On a sales trip to Wichita Falls, Texas, I looked down and beheld the extremely low water level at Lake Bridgeport reservoir northwest of Fort Worth. The water had receded about a half mile from the high water mark all the way around the lake, and I could see tracks from cars and trucks that had been doing some off-road driving up and down the shoreline. With the memory of my previous beach landing firmly in mind, I decided to land on the lake shore on the return trip.

Later that day, on the flight back to Dallas, I overflew the lake and noted the wind and set up a landing pattern using car tracks as my runway. I used a soft-field technique in which I tested the firmness of the ground by touching down on the main landing gear and, just before the nose touched, added full power and I went around. The ground felt firm enough to support the full weight of my aircraft, and I was sure I was doing everything just right. It was time for a full-stop landing.

I repeated the process, touched down on the mains, let the nosewheel come down—and suddenly I felt the airplane decelerate in a hurry. The nosewheel was digging into the soft sand! I added full power and up elevator in an attempt to go around, but it was no use. The airplane came to a stop under full power.

This was my moment of regret. I shut down, exited the airplane to find the nosewheel almost buried under sand with the prop only inches from a prop strike. I did not have a shovel and I could only imagine having to take the wings off and trailer the airplane out. I knew I’d be fired from my job for bad judgment. To make things worse, my unexpected landing was directly between the lake and a church youth camp. Kids came rushing out to ask if I did that on purpose. All I could think was that I had a pretty good customer in Bridgeport, and I’d call him and tell him what happened.

“Jerry, you’re not going to believe this,” I said, “but here goes…”

He had a good laugh and tried to make me feel better by saying he had landed a Piper Cub on the lake shore a few days before, tundra tires and all, which didn’t make me feel any better. Jerry told me to wait there and he would arrive shortly. Well, not having any place else to go, I hung out. When he arrived, Jerry parked his pickup a hundred yards away, and brought a rope and shovel. Jerry said, “Let’s dig the nose out and see if we can turn it into the wind.” I tied the rope to the rear tie down ring and pulled down while he dug and we both turned the airplane into the wind. Then he said, “You get in, start it up and I’ll sit on the tail to hold the nose up and out of the sand. Go full power and when you can, hold the nose off with elevator, and I’ll slide off.”

I got in the left seat, started the engine, set 10 degrees of flaps and gave it full power with the yoke in my gut. For the longest time the airplane just sat there with Jerry getting sandblasted on the tail. But inch by inch the Cessna started to move and sure enough I held back on the elevator and Jerry slid off the tail.

I couldn’t believe it—I lifted off the ground! I flew directly to Bridgeport to meet Jerry at his shop. The landing on a paved runway was like heaven. He charged me for his labor, and I was home in time for dinner.

I’ve never been remotely tempted to make another off-airport landing.