Never Again

Ego in the cockpit

November 1, 2010

A chance encounter at a coffee shop introduced me to the world of general aviation. Chatting with a total stranger while we waited in line for overpriced lattes, he mentioned he was a pilot and owned an airplane. I was interested in flying, but never thought I’d get the chance to ride in a small airplane. I mentioned that if he ever needed some company…. He cut me off. “How about right now?” he said. So that morning, with lattes in hand, we drove to Apple Valley Airport and then flew his 1975 Piper Cherokee 180. Forty minutes later, we were having breakfast at Flabob Airport in Riverside, California, and I was hooked.

Over the following weeks, Steve phoned several times looking for a flying buddy, and I jumped at every opportunity. I took the controls from the right seat, and Steve suggested I get my own certificate. “You will not regret it,” he said. I made my way to the FBO office, signed up for ground school, and scheduled my first flying lesson. I was on my way to becoming a pilot.

After two lessons and a few ground school classes, Steve called with an offer to go flying. I rushed out to the airport to meet him and noticed the wind—23 knots with gusts around 28. In the high desert, pilots know to take special notice of wind conditions. Even highly experienced pilots avoid flying in the heavy afternoon winds, and flight instructors cancel lessons when the wind kicks up.

“How much wind is too much?” I asked.

“As long as it’s blowing down the runway, there can’t really be too much wind,” Steve replied. We hopped in his Piper and took off for nearby Barstow-Daggett Airport, where we planned to fly the pattern so I could experience flying in the wind. Steve made a couple of very successful landings on Runway 26, which was almost directly into the westerly wind. He let me take the controls from the right seat to make a landing attempt. The wind was strong and gusty, and without Steve’s help on the controls, it would have been impossible for me to land the airplane.

But we weren’t finished. Steve decided this was a good opportunity to show me what a crosswind landing looks like. Steve was a 400-hour pilot with a great deal of confidence, and he had landed in windy conditions many times. He entered the pattern for Runway 22 and got an update on the wind, which had strengthened to 27 knots gusting to 32.

Being a new student, I wasn’t yet familiar with “maximum demonstrated crosswind component” or other guidelines, and I had no idea of the risk we were taking.

Steve wasn’t deterred, crabbed hard into the wind on final, and struggled to keep the airplane on the extended runway centerline. Dropping, climbing, left, right—we were all over the sky. This would have been a great time to abort the landing attempt, but we kept descending. As we crossed the threshold and Steve began his flare, he struggled to keep the right wing low and into the wind, while holding the airplane straight with the left rudder.

The wing dipped up and down and we were moving drastically left to right just a few feet off the runway. This was our last opportunity to go around, but I don’t think aborting the landing attempt ever occurred to him. Just as the main gear touched the runway, we swerved hard to the left. We were still moving about 45 miles an hour on the ground and approaching the left side of the runway at about a 45-degree angle.

Steve slammed the throttle forward and tried to yank the airplane off the ground, but we didn’t have enough lift. We sped off the pavement, smashing our way across the open desert with the throttle still wide open. I could feel the landing gear striking small bushes, and it felt like we were in a horse-drawn carriage racing along a cobblestone street. Then the bumps stopped, and we were airborne again, a couple feet off the desert, climbing slowly.

The whole event lasted about six seconds, but those six seconds felt like six lifetimes. I took a deep breath and asked Steve how he was able to remain so calm when I was sure we were about to crash. He said, “I was focused on trying to save our lives.”

Once up to pattern altitude, Steve announced that he would go back and try landing on Runway 22 again. He seemed embarrassed that, with all of his flight experience, he wasn’t able to keep the airplane on the runway surface. I was stunned. We had just escaped a close call, and I didn’t want to repeat it. But Steve was determined to give it another try. Thankfully, about 15 feet off of the ground, he aborted the second attempt—the first good decision he’d made all day.

On the flight back to Apple Valley I told him how scared I had been, and he tried to assure me it wasn’t as bad as it looked, but I knew better. The fact that he had said he’d been “trying to save our lives” was proof that he had put us in a situation where our lives needed to be saved.

The next day, I had my third flight lesson. My instructor had a strange grin on his face when I walked into the FBO. “I wasn’t sure if you’d be back,” he told me. “I heard about your flight yesterday from Steve.”

The chain of events leading up to our near-accident was based on a series of bad decisions. First, with around 340 perfect flying days each year at my home airport, there was no good reason to fly in that kind of wind. Deciding not to fly would have been the safest choice. Second, choosing a runway where the crosswind exceeded the airplane’s maximum demonstrated crosswind component of 20 mph was foolish. Steve’s ego had led him to ignore the obvious fact that the crosswind was more than his airplane and skills could handle. And finally, making a second attempt after the first had failed was ridiculous.

In a later ground school lesson, I learned that pilots with about 500 hours of flying time are among the most dangerous because they willingly take chances that rookie pilots would avoid. I certainly hope my ego never inhibits me from making smart and safe decisions.

Breven Clark, AOPA 6534362, is a private pilot with 200 total flight hours.