Never Again: A loud bang

Bravado can't compensate for skill

November 1, 2012

a loud bang

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One day, I flew my school’s Cessna Cardinal to Hagerstown, Maryland. The radios were inoperative, so I telephoned the tower before takeoff, agreeing to an estimated time to destination, an ETA, and to obey light signals.

The flight unfolded uneventfully, save for a borrowed, ailing handheld. On short final for Runway 2, I had a green light and, finally, verbal clearance. I taxied to the radio shop. Parking outside, I thanked the tower for their help, and they thanked me for my telephone call.

Later I flew the Cardinal’s owner, Dave, in our Piper Cherokee to pick up his aircraft. He rarely flew at all. He would bring her home.

At some point, the Cherokee sustained an electrical failure, precluding communication. I considered my options—only one: Land elsewhere, telephone the tower.

Not long before this event, I was flying some flight instructors back to our home field. Although neither was my instructor, I suffered an automatic tendency then to defer to another pilot’s authority. Other pilots have more experience, I thought, so they must know better. I had set up the landing perfectly. On short final, one suddenly ordered, “Go around! We need to land the other direction, into the wind!” I obeyed, circling around for the reciprocal. On short final again, I realized we were now approaching this short strip with a tailwind, but managed to land her anyway. As we slowed, he said, “We had a tailwind; we should have landed the other direction.”

I looked at him, saying indignantly, “That’s what I was trying to do, but you said to go around.” He didn’t respond. I filed that experience away, angry that I’d let myself get talked into something I knew wasn’t right.

Now with Dave in the ailing Cherokee, he said, “We’ll have to have the guys at the shop fix it.”

I said, “We can’t land at Hagerstown. It’s Class Delta, we need comm with tower.” (I erroneously thought we would have to land elsewhere, and then telephone the controllers.)

He became insistent, even aggressive. “It’s OK, use this runway. We have to land.” Landing was his goal—not electrical problems, not procedure, not FAA regulations or safety, not even my certificate.

Under his pressure, I folded, simply chose a runway, entered downwind, and flew the pattern to a safe landing, taxiing to the radio shop. Greeting me inside was my personal invitation to telephone the tower. The tower manager arrived in person to inform me we’d passed within 500 feet of a scheduled airliner.

I knew I’d done wrong and tried to explain. He recommended I meet with the local FSDO. I agreed. In my embarrassment and defense, I reminded him that it was I who’d painstakingly telephoned that day several weeks earlier to arrange passage for the Cardinal in the first place. I explained that, in this case, not only should I have known better, but I did know better.

I’d never done anything so foolish, but my pilot passenger kept pushing me.

The manager said, “Is he an instructor?”

I said, “No, but he’s the owner of the airplane.”

He made a beeline to confront Dave. “Come on,” he said, “you’re both up there together. You had a problem and instead of working together to resolve it, one of you had another agenda. You’re both pilots. You need to work together to resolve the problem!” Dave seemed unconcerned with the matter, fiddling with something inside the cockpit.

Scolding Dave, the manager said sternly, “Alright, I’m going to let this go, but this is the last time. This keeps happening by other pilots, but no more. This is it.”

I shook his hand firmly and thanked him. Then he left, back to his tower.

As I tried to soothe my frazzled nerves, I thought back through the events. I knew how to do it properly. Deferring to someone who gave the illusion of authority could have cost me my certificate.

Dave further angered the tower manager by repeated efforts at communication using the Cardinal’s still-dysfunctional radios.

Somehow, I got the radios working. After that, I coached him at every turn as to what to say to this now-furious controller, but Dave muddled through in his own indifferent way.

Finally, we were cleared to the active, then for takeoff, Dave stumbling through communications the entire way. Airborne, we climbed southward, back toward Washington, D.C. Not 10 minutes passed. Suddenly there was a loud bang; the Cardinal’s nose pitched violently skyward and I was pressed hard into my seat.

Dave struggled to get her back to level. He relaxed his grip; again the nose pitched up. As though we needed anymore problems that day, we’d now lost our elevator trim.

Anxious for me to get a sense of what happened, he quickly handed control to me. After a moment, still suffering from that inhibition, I handed the yoke back to him. Seconds later, it was back in my hands, this time for good. Having had an epiphany, never again did I suffer from that paralyzing force.

It was I who flew the rest of the trip home to Hyde Field, down through the VFR corridor—that convenient, no-longer-accessible passage between Ronald Reagan Washington National and Washington Dulles International airports. Dave admitted he wanted me “to fly and land because you have more experience in this airplane than I do.”

My experience, my knowledge, and my attitude are what gave me the calm and the focus to learn to fly the Cardinal all over again. Flying was hands-on all the time. No trim. Straight and level meant constant, firm pressure. Climbing involved releasing pressure; descending, even with a power reduction, meant pressing harder. Landing, coming in its own time—as landings always do—called for varying degrees of adding, then releasing pressure to level off, bleed speed, then touch down.

Also markedly different was Dave’s attitude. No longer was he insufferably impatient or controlling, casual or desperate about his agenda. He now was open to dialogue.

The 45 minutes home I practiced this unique piloting technique. I realized I’d better land on the first try since the full power of a go-around might make handling difficult. As Hyde Field hove into view, I prepared for landing. With each application of flaps, back-pressure increased. Powering back, easing pressure, I leveled off, easing off more and more as we slowed. In the perfect attitude, she chirped onto the tarmac. As I taxied, Dave finally confessed his fear.

Apart from illustrating the importance of far exceeding minimum currency, the moral I finally accepted as a direct result of this experience is to trust myself—never again to let my assumptions of someone’s authority, skill, or experience, or especially his bravado, cause me to doubt myself, and what I know to be right.

This attitude doesn’t imply arrogance on my part—that what someone older, maybe wiser, possibly more experienced or well-intentioned says is or is not the truth. It simply means consciously, intelligently, and assertively assessing the source of that information and comparing what I’m hearing to what I already know, and what I know to be reasonable.

Doren K. Weston of Alexandria, Virginia, has been a pilot since 1974. He worked at a Virginia flight school until 2007, when he was disabled in a car accident.