Technique: My worst landing

Pilots tell stories they'd rather forget

July 1, 2012

Confessions aren’t always good for the soul. In fact, most of us—myself included—involved in these landings would rather forget them, but they are shared here to help others. A special thanks to the members who stepped up after I posted a request in the “I was wondering” section of the AOPA Forum. It is only fair that I go first.

Training in a Waco UPF–7 biplane at Owatonna, Minnesota, had been scheduled for the entire day, since a cold front was approaching. It would be too windy to fly the following day. That was the first link in the accident chain back in 2002. Training started in the morning using a Champion Citabria and progressed to the Waco in the afternoon. By then I had a dozen landings. The instructor asked if I was tired, and I said no, which was not true. (The accident chain now had two links: pressure to train all day, and fatigue.) It was the twenty-third landing of the day that got me.

Landings in the Waco began on grass, where I did well. Winds that had been calm in the morning were now up to nine knots when operations were moved to the paved runway. Only the first one went well. The second was a bounce and go-around. By the time I was lined up for the third, the NTSB report (yes, there was one) said the winds had reached 14 knots, gusting to 18, and angled 60 degrees to the runway. Wind became the final link in the chain.

The landing was a combination of porpoising, bouncing, and an attempt to recover to level flight at full power. The airplane sank, left the runway, clipped a newly repaired visual approach slope indicator, and quickly found a ditch. The landing gear caught on the ditch and flipped the airplane to its nose. In slow motion, the airplane continued the somersault, landing upside down on the vertical stabilizer. Damage was repairable, and the Waco is flying today.

Maybe I should have followed the advice of Ward Holbrook, up next in the confessional.

Ward holbrook’s epic tale occurred in a Learjet 35 at Grinnell, Iowa, about 20 years ago. “We used to fly there a lot and it was always a chop-and-plop in the Lear. It’s just that one night there was much more plop than usual.”

The boss, who had been riding in the back, later asked if Holbrook wanted to “go practice that some more?” Rubber marks where the main gear touched down were visible for nearly four years afterward.

“However, I am very happy to report that since that evening 20 years ago, I have finally discovered the secret to making perfect landings every time,” Holbrook says. “In the beginning, I figured that it had to do with maintaining a stabilized approach and proper airspeed control; but obviously that wasn’t it. I then worked up a theory that involved planetary alignment and moon phases. I was getting closer. I finally put it all together when I figured out how to hold my mouth—you have to hold it just right—and the planets have to be in proper alignment, and the moon has to be in the proper phase, in addition to flying a nice, smooth, stabilized approach and exercising proper airspeed control. If you get a greaser other than when you’re doing all of that, you’re just lucky.”

Ed Holcombe was a new private pilot in 1972 when he took his brother for a ride in a Cessna 150. He was landing at Huntsville, Alabama, on a long, wide runway with 90-degree crosswinds at 25 knots, plus gusts.

The first touchdown was on the centerline, but there were many more to follow. The second through the sixth were progressively downwind of the centerline. He ended up with the left main wheel almost in the grass 75 feet left of the centerline. There was no damage. “Thank you, Mr. Cessna, for your leaf-spring landing gear,” Holcombe said. “It was more than 20 years later when my brother and I finally discussed the incident. I’ve thought about that landing many times since and, thankfully, have never repeated the multiple errors that led to that event.”

Patrick Reilly of Chino, California, found himself in a hornets’ nest of big aircraft as he reached San Diego International Airport. Controllers sequenced his Cessna 172 between a landing Airbus and a Boeing 757 on final. He had been circling as directed some 800 feet above the traffic pattern altitude and needed to quickly descend 1,400 feet when the call came to enter the base leg.

Gaining airspeed in the descent, he was able to slow only enough to reach the safe airspeed for the first few degrees of flaps. Reilly found himself at 90 knots just above the runway with partial flaps in an airplane that wanted to fly. The 757 was on his tail.

“I forced it to touch down at about 90 knots, bounced really high, floated some to bleed airspeed off, and tried to land again. I was still way too fast and bounced high again. Then I awoke from my stupor and told myself this is ridiculous—risking my life and others because of landing traffic—and to just fly the airplane.” He allowed airspeed to bleed off, made a normal touchdown, and cleared the runway. Next time, he said, he plans to refuse the slam-dunk approach, or go around when he sees it isn’t working.

Dave Eastty of Indianapolis had been up 19 hours as he and his instructor returned from a night flight to Kalamazoo, Michigan. As it turned out, the instructor had also been up 19 hours. While at Kalamazoo there had been 10 night landings in preparation for Eastty’s commercial certificate.

“It was after midnight as we approached our home field, and fatigue had really set in. The approach went well, and the touchdown seemed OK. Suddenly I became aware of a strong vibration coming from the landing gear. The entire aircraft shook. I struggled to understand what was happening when my instructor offered a suggestion rather loudly, ‘Get back on the runway!’”

Neither of the crew had noticed the airplane departing the runway. “We taxied to the parking ramp in silence. We couldn’t believe what just happened and how close we had come to causing serious damage.” Next time, Eastty plans to either get some rest before the flight or reschedule to a day when he doesn’t have to work.

Hai Longworth recalls an incident from her student pilot days when she asked an instructor to go with her for crosswind practice. She guided the Cessna 150 to a safe landing on her first two attempts in 10-knot winds, but the winds changed. “At midfield, I glanced at the windsock to see that it was slapping around like a mad cat, tail perpendicular to the runway!”

She turned fully into the wind on final, added a slip, but was still drifting toward the edge of the runway. She was now above the halfway point of the runway, about to touch down.

“I told the instructor that I was going around while pushing everything forward. He grabbed the throttle over my hand, pulling it back, and said, ‘I think you can land now.’ The plane sank, and I could feel the right landing gear brushing the grasses. I firmly said, ‘No, I am going around.’” (She asked that the name of the airport be withheld to protect the instructor.)

On the next approach the wind had died down, and the landing was uneventful. “The instructor was quiet the whole time we taxied back to the ramp, with a dozen or so spectators lining up along the taxiway saluting us! It was the last time that I flew with that instructor.”

Email the author at alton.marsh@aopa.org.