Never Again: Tumble in the desert

A wake turbulence wake-up

August 1, 2013

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never againMy private pilot training took place nearly 36 years ago in a Cessna 150 at Ryan Field near Tucson, Arizona. No one can exaggerate the benefits of training as a student pilot in the Arizona desert’s persistent severe-clear conditions. However, even the perfect training environment could not prevent a nearly disastrous event that occurred during one of my solo cross-country flights.

The folks at Ryan Field called Michael, my CFI, the preparation man because he demanded meticulous planning in all aspects of his private pilot curriculum. This was especially true with respect to cross-country flying, since GPS was a luxury available only to the military. Michael knew I loved cross-country navigation, so he agreed to a long, three-leg cross-country.

The preparation for this flight was significant. The vast Arizona desert does not lend itself to an abundance of airports, so Michael supervised all planning aspects of the flight. My route included a 96-mile first leg from Ryan Field to Scottsdale Airport north of Phoenix. There was no Bravo airspace around Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in 1977; it had more general aviation and business traffic than commercial flights. Leg two was a 140-mile flight from Scottsdale to Blythe, California, followed by 200-mile flight from Blythe back to Ryan Field.

The morning of my flight, Michael made sure I was properly prepared, even commenting that although Scottsdale Airport might be busy, Blythe would be a zero-traffic event. He had been to that nontowered airport many times and had never experienced any traffic concerns.

The first leg was awesome, with unlimited visibility and easy navigation. I was able to enjoy a clear view of snow-capped Humphreys Peak 120 miles north of Sky Harbor as I approached the Phoenix area. I kept thinking that if the two remaining legs were as good as this one, I was the luckiest student pilot in the world.

The flight from Scottsdale to Blythe Airport was uneventful. Great visibility allowed me to identify the airport from a distance, and my course put me on a convenient long final approach for Runway 26. During this extended final, I noticed a Lockheed P–3 Orion turning base to final. How cool, I thought, to share this uncontrolled airspace with such a large four-engine machine. Imagine my surprise when the P–3 performed a touch and go, just as I had practiced so many times. It never crossed my mind that this immense aircraft would leave behind tornadic wake vortices as it departed.

An airport advisory from the Blythe Flight Service Station made me feel even better about my mission thus far: light winds nearly straight down the runway. I became complacent about what I believed was going to be the perfect touchdown.

I noticed the P–3 entering a left crosswind when I was about one mile out. Plenty of time to execute a safe touchdown and clear the active, I thought. At about 300 feet agl, however, I encountered an uncomfortable turbulence. It was not severe, but choppy enough for me to abort the landing and initiate a go-around. Full throttle, bleed off the flaps, trim for best rate of climb, and fly a normal left pattern. I quickly disregarded this meteorological unrest as an anomaly of the region.

During the turn from crosswind to downwind, I noticed the P–3 ahead of me, still on downwind. This was perfect, or so I thought. The Orion, a much faster airplane, would complete its next touch-and-go ahead of my touchdown. I failed to consider that a Lockheed P–3 Orion does not fly the pattern like a Cessna 150. Before long, the Orion had extended its downwind much farther than I expected.

Michael emphasized a regimented way to know when to turn downwind to base. I would use the runway threshold as a reference between the left wing tip and the horizontal stabilizer. Unfortunately, I could not do this, unless I thought it wise to broadside the P–3, now on final. Instead, I also extended my downwind to compensate for the Orion’s pattern. But I also did not want to create my own excessively long and flat final approach.

In what I considered a smart compromise, I flew the remainder of the approach for a planned touchdown only a minute or so after the Orion’s touch and go. What the heck was I thinking?

Base to final, no problem. The P–3 had just finished its touch and go as I crossed the threshold of Runway 26. Then, as I began to flare, everything unraveled. The little Cessna pitched up violently and banked uncontrollably to the right at least 60 degrees. The airspeed dropped off rapidly as the stall warning horn and my screaming expletives filled the cabin. I knew I was going to crash. Hard opposite controls and quick power management corrected the upset, but I was now about 20 feet above the runway centerline with an airspeed needle winding rapidly counterclockwise. As my little craft sank toward the concrete, my only option was a hard pull on the yoke, which through some miracle of aerodynamics allowed me to settle perfectly onto Runway 26.

In retrospect, I found it quite interesting that my only concern while taxiing to the Blythe FSS for my logbook sign-off—other than finding the nearest bathroom—was whether anyone on the ramp observed my hair-raising landing. Thankfully, both the ramp and the bathroom were empty.

Leg three of the trip was great. Ryan Field greeted me with a pristine desert evening and Michael with his predictable, thorough debriefing. Although I did mention an unusual landing to Michael, I did not share the details. I am sure, however, that had he known of my wake turbulence wake-up, he would have agreed with my assessment. I became so comfortable with my “beautiful” trip that even the most basic safety rule—wake turbulence separation—got lost in the majesty and fun of everything else.


Richard P. Hassler is an instrument-rated pilot who lives in northeast Ohio. His latest book, The Tao of Flying, is available on Amazon Kindle.