March 25, 2013
To say I was a newly minted pilot at the time of this story would be putting it mildly. Having just passed my practical on Wednesday, on Friday I flew the 300+ miles to Georgia to help a friend move into her dorm. After dinner on Saturday, I asked if she would like to take a little flight to see what the campus looked like from the night sky.
There had been a thunderstorm through the area a couple hours before - we had gotten wet running in to the restaurant from the car before dinner - but by the time we got out to the airport near campus the sky looked much better. There was no moon out, but there were stars visible.
Talking with the FBO manager when I had arrived, I had found out that a flight service station was located on the field, so in lieu of calling for a briefing, I went and knocked on their door. They weren't busy and one of the briefers showed us around their facility. While we talked I asked him about making a little sight seeing jaunt and he told me that the thunderstorms had moved on and that I should be fine.
So after a thorough pre-flight and familiarizing my passenger with the aircraft, we took off into warm muggy air. We had been just puttering about from place to place at about 1500 agl for about twenty minutes, looking at the town and the campus, when suddenly there was a very hard bump. "What in the world?", I wondered as I snapped my attention from the ground to the sky. At that moment a flash of lightning blinded me. "Goodness, that's not terribly promising!" I said aloud. Another hard bump and then I felt the 172 drop out from under me. By the time I recovered from the flash, I saw we had lost over 500 feet. I said, "I think we should head back now".
She said "OK. That was fun".
"It's not over yet", I quoted Princess Leia to myself. I pushed the throttle in and started a climbing turn to the east to put my tail to the storm. Luckily the airport is east of town and even though I had not been really keeping track of where we were in relation to it, my turn away from the storm aligned us on about a 5 mile final with the primary. I called the tower and told them where we were and that we were coming in. The controller couldn't have helped noticing the lightning popping off in our direction, because he cleared us straight in - even though this actually meant landing downwind. I knew the airport's 8000 X 100 feet was more than enough to get a 172 down on, even flying it down to the deck with some power still in for safety margin and a gusty tailwind. The rain caught up to us at about 50 feet over the threshold. I figured I had it made, so I put out the power. It's a good thing the folks at Cessna make strong landing gear legs, because moments later a downdraft slammed us into the concrete mid-flare. It was a strong enough burst to keep us pinned there without bouncing at all. I tried to remember which way to orient the controls in gusty wind as we taxied slowly back to the ramp in a real gully-washing rain. It was raining too hard to find a parking spot, so I just stopped in the general neighborhood, swung it around to face into the gusts, pushed the yoke to the panel and stood on the brakes until the rain let up about 10 minutes later.
Looking back on the incident, the main thing I had going for us was that in spite of my low number of total hours, I was very current and very connected with this particular aircraft's performance. I had logged some 10 hours of intensive practice flying in the previous 2 weeks leading up to taking my practical and all of those hours were in that airplane. Power landings, emergency procedures, staying oriented at night, stalls and steep turns - all that sort of thing were fresh in my skill set. That said, luck was probably just as important however. Had we been more than 5 miles away from the field, if the storm approached from anything besides directly the opposite direction from our path back to the airport, or even if I had tried to fly a regular pattern, the outcome may well have been much different.
The rain finally let up enough for me to move the plane to a parking space and get it tied down. Walking back to the car, my passenger's only negative comment about the flight was that the landing seemed much harder than in an airliner. I took the blame for the sloppy landing. Sometimes ignorance is indeed bliss.
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