Safety Publications/Articles


After more than 20 years as a flight instructor, perusing my old logbooks reminds me of faces, places, and events. Those faded entries energize memory circuits, and incidents that were forgotten are recalled with astonishing clarity and detail. Some experiences are so powerful they stay close to the forefront of my mind, and it doesn't take a trip down nostalgia lane to recall them.

In the 1970s I instructed at a small field in northern Virginia not far from Washington, D.C. We had a short runway (2,200 feet) complicated by obstructions at both ends, so touch and goes were not permitted. Students cleared the runway and taxied back on a parallel taxiway to the departure end. As they passed their flight instructor they'd get a signal to continue or to stop for a chat with the CFI.

One July afternoon the weather was hot, humid, and nearly opaque. Optimists would put the visibility at three miles, but in reality it was closer to two - insufficient for cross-country flight but adequate for pattern work. I was supervising solo takeoff and landing practice by one of my students who was flying a Piper Tomahawk.

The student was doing well, and from my position midway down the runway I waved him on for another go. Shortly after he passed, a feeling of dread came over me, but I had no idea what its genesis was. I sensed that something very bad was about to happen if I didn't do something to prevent it. Cognizant of the fact that it's difficult to prevent something if you don't know what it is you're trying to prevent, I found myself running after the airplane. I wasn't nearly fast enough to catch my student, but luckily he was waiting for an arrival to clear before taxiing onto the runway. I bounded up on the wing, scaring the student in the process, opened the door, and sat down in the airplane. "What's wrong?" he asked. "Oh, nothing," I equivocated. "You're doing great with the normal takeoffs and landings, so I thought we'd finish up the lesson with a couple of the short-field variety." "OK," said the student. I buckled up, and he made a creditable short-field takeoff.

Once I was in the airplane the foreboding eased - that is, until I spotted the rain shaft from the thunderstorm off the approach end of the runway. The visibility was sufficiently poor to render the cumulus cloud above the rain shaft invisible. So that's what I was worried about, I thought. Pointing out the rain shaft to my student, I told him to make a short approach. Our airport was about to become untenable and, with the poor visibility, I didn't want to navigate to an alternate through thunderstorm weather.

The student was right on target, and we arrived over the end of the runway with precisely 60 knots of airspeed. The problem was; our ground speed was closer to 100 kt than 60. At that rate we'd chew up most of the runway before we touched down. Better go around. Full power from the mighty Lycoming O-235 was barely enough to get ahead of the gust front from the approaching storm. A quick turn over the trees at the far end of the runway and we were on final into the wind. The turbulence was impressive but just manageable, and our ground speed was such that I added power to keep the airplane moving forward. Luckily, the wind was right down the runway, and we landed with an astoundingly short ground roll. We rode out the rest of the gust front on the runway then carefully taxied to the ramp. Sitting there in the airplane as the rain tapered off, the student said, "That was very interesting, but it happened so fast I couldn't appreciate what you were doing. I'd like to try that again sometime when I'm a little further along in my training." Pointing to a trembling knee I said, "I don't know about you, but I'm sitting here because I don't think my legs will support me. I don't think there's enough money to pay me to do that again."

It is said that judgment is learned through experience. Unfortunately, memorable experiences are often the result of poor judgment. Luckily there was sufficient skill and airplane performance to cope with the conditions that day, but the margins were such that, 20 years later, I wouldn't be willing to repeat the experience.

Thunderstorms are to be expected on sultry summer days, and they're easy to avoid if you can see them. Poor visibility is a factor in most weather accidents, and when we elect to fly in reduced visibility we need to know about obscured weather challenges. Happily, technology has improved in that 20-year period, and there's more weather informa- tion available today than we dreamed possible then. Most flight schools have computer access to weather. A quick look at the radar imagery on AOPA Online ( ) will show any convective activity in the area. It will also help you to plan for a local alternate if the home field is compromised. Two caveats: Always be sure to check the time of the radar observation, because sometimes old pictures can remain in the system. And be aware that weather isn't the only obstacle. Obstructions such as towers and trees must also be avoided. Pilots still have to do that for themselves.

By John Steuernagle

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