December 1, 2002
James Robert Ross
Although flying always fascinated me, as it did lots of us who grew up during World War II, it was not until about 1970 at age 36 that I finally had a chance to get serious about my childhood dream. I moved to Charleston, Illinois, only five miles from the Coles County Memorial. I signed up for a couple of lessons with the FBO, and then discovered that five men who had pooled their resources to purchase a Piper Colt had just started a flying club. One of the members had recently become a flight instructor and offered lessons to members of the club for $5 an hour. I can't remember how much the Colt cost — $11, or was it only $7 an hour wet? But I was in the air a couple of hours each week that fall and soloed well before winter.
With about 20 hours total time my experience with nasty weather, including gusty winds, was not extensive. However, one breezy day during a downwind taxi my instructor demonstrated the recommended use of ailerons and elevator in ground operations. He explained that the wind has a reverse effect on these controls when blowing from the rear, which pulling the control wheel back in my lap would present an upturned elevator surface to the wind that would tend to to hold the nose down, keeping the weight on the wheels. Frankly, the explanation left me a little confused — through no fault of the instructor's, I'm sure — but since it didn't seem terribly important at the time, and because I didn't want to look slow-witted, I mechanically followed his instructions and pretended to understand the procedure.
My first solo cross-country flight shortly thereafter took me to Terre Haute International-Hulman Field, just east of Terre Haute, Indiana, a trip I completed without a glitch. I returned to Coles County confident that I was finally a real pilot. I could not only take off and land without breaking the airplane or myself, but also I could actually use flying as a way to get from here to there and back again. I eagerly scheduled a second cross-country flight for a Saturday early in January to Sullivan, Indiana, where a friend would meet me for a cup of coffee.
The day before the trip a fierce cold front blew through central Illinois, leaving several inches of snow on the ground. Saturday morning dawned cold and clear with a strong west wind powered by a high-pressure ridge. When my instructor met me at the airport before the flight, I was concerned that he might cancel it because of snow or the wind. However, the runways at both airports had been cleared, and after debating more with himself than with me, I think, he decided that I could handle the wind.
With the temperature at something like 20 to 25 degrees Fahrenheit and a 15- to 20-knot wind on its nose, the Colt jumped off Runway 29. I could not wait to get on the ground at Sullivan and see my friend's face when he saw me taxi to the ramp. And because of that tailwind, perhaps 40 kt at 5,500 feet, the wait wasn't very long.
My preflight planning should have considered the fact that Sullivan had only one north-south runway, which would require a crosswind landing close to, if not exceeding, the capabilities of the Colt. Somehow or other this fact had not concerned my instructor or me until I was on the downwind for Runway 36. I then discovered just how much crab was required to maintain my track. Why the oversight? I figured that if my instructor thought I could handle the crosswind, I shouldn't worry about it. Ignorance is truly bliss.
Turning final from base I cross-controlled the Colt, lowering the left wing into the wind with enough right rudder to maintain the runway heading and with some extra speed to take care of wind gusts. It was a beautiful crosswind landing, a real greaser. No ATP had ever done it better than this low-time student pilot. No brag, just fact.
Because of the few patches of snow on the runway and the extra speed on the approach, the rollout took up the first half of the runway. But with the wheel pulled all the way back in my lap, that frisky little Colt slowed enough to permit a turn off the runway just abreast of the ramp where I could see my friend waiting. If my coat that day had buttons instead of a zipper, they would have popped.
As I turned toward the ramp on the east side of the runway, away from the strong westerly wind, still congratulating myself on my impressive landing, I kept the wheel pulled all the way back to the stops. Suddenly, I felt a strange sensation, something like Superman pressing my seat cushion straight up. The Colt tipped over, really quite gently, coming to rest on the prop and one wing tip. The elevator deflected fully up had allowed the tailwind to reach under the airplane's empennage and force the tail skyward. And there I hung, looking down at the pavement and at fuel leaking out of the fuel tank, running down the wing and onto the cowling covering the hot little four-banger.
My fantasy of dying in a fiery explosion was more than adequate motivation to promptly unbuckle and exit the aircraft, no longer a modern-day Red Baron, but a chastened student pilot who had learned the hard way how to taxi with a quartering tailwind.
I vowed to ask my instructor for clarification the next time I didn't understand a procedure, and to trust my instincts about weather and my capabilities to handle the howling wind.
James Robert Ross, AOPA 4068115, accumulated 920 hours in 14 years of flying. He is a family therapist and holds a commercial pilot certificate with an instrument rating.
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