March 25, 2013
This happened while I was a student pilot. I had long since soloed and done cross-country, but due to finances I had not been able to finish up. I kept in good standing with my FBO, so I was able to rent a plane and fly the pattern every now and then so as not to get too far behind.
On this particular day there was a crosswind of about 8kts from 200 degrees. The runway was 16. The sky was clear except for some non-threatening cumulus activity. We get a lot of that in the Puget Sound area. After 3 or 4 touch-n-go's I noticed that a line of small squalls was moving in from the southwest. They were separated by several minutes and looked to pass the south end of the airport. I decided, after having a look at them, while on final, that I could get one more touch and go in before they would be on me. I had made the last landing a full stop and was about to take the active when a helicopter called a straight in for the taxiway. No problem, but as I looked up to check final before going, I saw a helicopter passing the north end of the airport going west at about 1,000 AGL less than a mile out. I decided to call the helicopter on final and verify that he was indeed behind me headed for the taxiway. He confirmed and then the second helicopter announced his intentions, which were to continue west.
So, without a second thought I throttled up and headed down the runway. Right into the teeth of the squall, but not until I was beyond aborting. Wind shear started to kick the plane around pretty good, and I worked at getting altitude while keeping up a good airspeed. That turned out to be a pretty good trick in a 152 trainer. I turned downwind as soon as I was sure I had altitude and airspeed. I was just at the leading edge of the rain.
To make things worse, during my loss of attention before takeoff the second squall had joined the first. I was looking for an alternative to the airport which I felt was going to disappear into the rain and clouds any minute. Looking out to the west, I saw a small clearing between my squall and one that was passing from the west to beyond the north end of the airport. It was like a golden beacon. Sunlight was shining off the water that lies beyond the plateau that Seatac is built on. It looked especially inviting next to the heavy black and gray clouds that framed it narrowly. Waking up to the reality that it probably wouldn't be there when I arrived, I decided to try getting back down on my own runway.
My decision was, as long as I could see the runway I would continue to land. If at any time the visual range got to low I would turn and run before the storm. All this occurred on the downwind, which was run at record speed because of a vigorous tailwind. As I got to the base turn the approach end of the runway was just barely visible so I went right to final. The crosswind helped make this maneuver not only successful but also necessary. At this point I could barely make out the runway save for the VASI. Still, I was determined to get out of this unpleasant situation, so I continued, going to twenty degrees of flaps and keeping the airspeed at around sixty-five kts.
I got it on the ground, on the centerline, near the numbers at about fifty kts and was expecting just a normal roll out. That is when the wind decided that I was not through flying yet. The plane was lifted off the runway and herded toward the ditch at the edge of it. I put in more crosswind correction and got it back down, but with the airspeed indicator indicating nothing, we went up again. I wrestled it back down again just shy of the ditch and tried to get back to the middle of the runway. The wind still had one more for me though, and I was put to within a couple of feet of the ditch. I might have been doing ten mph ground speed when that happened. Finally thinking to get the flaps retracted we stayed on the ground for good.
It has been my observation over the span of my life that nothing has meaning to an individual until it becomes personal. From this statement you might guess that I am going to say something about learning from your own mistakes if they don't kill you first. That wouldn't be inappropriate, but it isn't what I really learned. What I learned is the value of mental checklists, and the necessity of using them to ground yourself in the here and now. I was in the past after I dealt with the helicopter traffic. I will never again just give it throttle and go. When your sequence has been interrupted, stop and start over again. Search your mind for what you might have lost track of, for what might turn you into a test pilot as I was that day when I landed that 152 in an estimated 18-25kt crosswind. Maybe it is a record, but it is not one I am proud of.
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