Cheap lessons — the ones that scare the hell out of us but otherwise do no harm to pilot, passengers, or aircraft. With time, they become the dramatic "there I was" stories we laugh about with our friends. Underneath, however, we know these experiences aren't funny. They're serious and stay with us forever. Taken with the proper dose of humility, they make us better pilots.
My best "cheap lesson" happened a month after my private pilot checkride. Eager to use my new wings, I talked a law school buddy and his wife into flying with me to Chicago for another friend's wedding. They would be my first official passengers. I checked out in a reliable Cessna 172, and began preparing for the trip three weeks in advance.
My flight plan would take me from my home airport in Olathe, Kansas, to the Spirit of St. Louis Airport in Missouri to collect my passengers, then to Palwaukee Municipal Airport north of Chicago. Having studied diagrams of both airports, my only concern was runway length. My home airport where I had done nearly all of my landings has a single 4,100-foot runway. At my level of experience, I felt nervous about anything much shorter than that. Both destination airports had longer runways, but both had a shorter runway, too. I could always ask for one of the longer runways, I thought.
At St. Louis, the tower directed me to land on the 3,800-ft. Runway 8L rather than the much longer Runway 8R. Because Spirit of St. Louis Airport lies in a virtually obstructionless flood plain, I easily executed a long straight-in approach. The landing was disconcerting, however, because I floated and used a lot of runway. I hoped to draw one of the longer ones in Chicago.
After refueling and loading my passengers, we launched for Chicago. As we approached Palwaukee, the tower cleared us to land on Runway 24, the field's shortest runway at 3,650 feet. I briefly considered requesting the 6,100-ft Runway 16, but I hesitated, worrying that the tower would refuse. Instead, I accepted the assigned runway and resolved to hit the numbers. With my nervousness about shorter runways, and with my landing in St. Louis still fresh in my mind, I didn't want to waste any runway.
On downwind I was surprised to see trees off the approach end of our assigned runway. Turning base, I became genuinely concerned. The tree line seemed to end only yards from the threshold. This was an unwelcome complication to my plan to use the whole runway.
Thinking quickly, I reasoned that I could stay slightly high over the trees and still nail the numbers by executing a forward slip just after clearing the tree line. I had practiced a few forward slips in training and thought I could pull one off here, but I was unable to completely quell my building apprehension.
As the trees disappeared under the nose, I simultaneously yawed right and banked left, dropping as planned toward the targeted white "24." Over the threshold, I rolled out of the slip and tried to flare. The airplane still wanted to fly, however, so we streaked over the runway in ground effect. Well past the numbers, I felt an urgent need to get down.
Like a ricocheting bullet, we glanced off the runway. Surprised, and even more worried that we would overrun the end, I tried to hold the plane down. An instant later, we smacked down again, nosewheel first this time. Again, we bounded upward — and downward again, nosewheel first, in an undulating porpoise routine, each cycle more pronounced than the one before.
"I'm outta here!" I told myself as I jammed the throttle open to go around. Just then, another shock. Power lines adorned the end of Runway 24 like a spider web waiting to snag its winged prey. My heart sank. It was already too late to do anything but climb. Though I still had the flaps set at 20 degrees, our lower weight — a result of the en route fuel burn — helped to steepen our climb angle. My pulse returned when it became quickly apparent that we would clear the lines.
Upon turning crosswind, I sheepishly called the tower and asked to land on Runway 16. I now found it attractive for its treeless approach in addition to its length. The controller quickly approved my request. I swore I heard laughter in the background as he spoke. I was embarrassed and pretty badly shaken, but I managed to make a passable landing on the next try.
What was the cheap lesson? First and foremost, if it looks bad, it probably is bad. I should never have tried to land on the shorter runway after seeing the trees and having doubts. I could easily have pled unfamiliarity with the airport and landed without incident on the longer runway. Unfamiliar airport or not, however, don't try any maneuver without complete confidence that you can safely complete it.
Second, don't get cute. I had practiced slips to landings before, but not in that plane, at that weight, or under those circumstances. I also did not fully understand the aerodynamics involved. In short, I had no business attempting a slip in that situation. When combined with my too-high, too-fast approach (a product of my preoccupation with the trees and "short" runway), the slip only led me to force the plane onto the runway. Had I concentrated on my approach speed and kept things simple, I would have remained in total control of the aircraft and landed safely despite my uncertainty.
Finally, go-arounds are a good thing. This was the one right move I made, though nearly too late. Had I continued to force my porpoising plane to land, I might have crashed or at least damaged the nosewheel or prop. Had I not aborted when I did, I might have flown into the power lines that briefly darkened my windshield as I began the go-around.
Mark A. Lynch, AOPA 1037590, is a health-care attorney from Overland Park, Kansas. He has accumulated 350 hours of flight time and has an instrument rating.
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