I learn something new almost every time I fly, even if I set out to learn something else altogether.
I was taking a 10-day, continuous, written and practical IFR training course in Manhattan, Kansas, in my Mooney M20C. The training center had a saying stenciled over a doorway: "Learn from the mistakes of others, you won't live long enough to make them all yourself." I hope telling this not-so-flattering-to-me story will help keep another pilot from making the same mistakes.
We were departing on one of our first IFR training trips to Topeka, and we had taxied to the shorter and lesser-used Runway 31, which was lined up almost directly into the wind. The automated weather system reported winds around 13 knots gusting to around 18 knots. Upon contact with the tower the controller responded that she could not clear us for an IFR departure on Runway 31 because of the restricted military area R-2602B, which was active immediately to the west of the airfield. As winds seldom favored Runway 31, my instructor — who had been working with the training facility for approximately six months — had never encountered this limitation, nor noticed it in the takeoff minimums section of the U.S. Terminal Procedures Publication, which includes instrument approach and departure procedures.
The tower controller, however, said she could give us a clearance for an IFR departure on the much longer and predominantly used Runway 3. I wasn't at all thrilled to take off in such a strong crosswind. I considered the wind speed and knew the wind direction would be almost 90 degrees to the runway, but I told my instructor that I was OK with taking off in these wind conditions as I had previously experienced similar conditions during takeoff. I reported to the tower that I would accept a takeoff from Runway 3, and I taxied to the run-up area. Once I received my clearance I lined up on the runway to begin what would become the most interesting takeoff I've had yet.
The airplane had rolled only about a hundred yards or so and had just passed 48 knots when it simply levitated about three or four feet above the surface. As soon as the aircraft stopped ascending, it suddenly weathervaned into the wind, which was almost perpendicular to the runway. I remember hearing the stall warning squealing just as the nose pitched up. Very shortly after this the right main bounced once on the runway surface. I was fully expecting to hear the knee-high runway lights — which I saw passing under me in front of the right wing — impacting the landing gear, and I could not remember anything in my training that could tell me what to do in this situation. I decided to keep the airplane's nose pushed down and pointed into the wind using ground effect, and to just go wherever the airplane wanted to go — as long as it kept flying. We slowly gained airspeed and flew away completely unscathed, much to our surprise.
When I finally pulled my right hand from the throttle after I had become aware of some discomfort, I could see a nice, red, circular imprint the size of the throttle knob in my palm. I realized I had not been aware even of trying to shove it through the dash — instinctively making sure I had full power.
After arriving in Topeka a bit rattled but trying our best to appear calm, my instructor and I agreed it was time to go in the FBO to take a break and compose ourselves. When we finally believed we had settled enough to fly again, we set off on our return to Manhattan.
As we re-established communication with Manhattan Tower, we learned that during our takeoff the tower's wind speed indicator had indicated the wind gusting to a little over 30 knots, at times sustaining that speed, at 90 degrees to the runway. The wind speed had apparently increased rapidly during our run-up, and had reached this velocity as we began our rollout.
The tower controller said everyone in the tower got pretty excited and tense during our unusual departure, and she suggested we call on a land line after we park for discussion. Once on the land line, the controller gave us a tip: We could have taken off VFR on Runway 31 and obtained our IFR clearance airborne, or we could have requested to copy our clearance before takeoff and then activate it once airborne. She simply could not authorize an IFR departure on Runway 31, even though conditions were VFR, because of regulations. Either option would have assured us an opportunity for a much less interesting takeoff.
The lessons that I, thankfully, walked away with from that experience are:
Any time there are gusting wind conditions, even moderate, get a wind check from the tower or Unicom or better yet, look at the windsock yourself prior to departing any runway.
Read all available take off and departure information for any unfamiliar airport you intend to use, even for a VFR flight.
Ask controllers questions if you are unsure about the reason for their instructions and make sure you have exhausted all options before you agree to depart from a runway that isn't your first choice.
Keep your head and fly the airplane no matter how difficult or even impossible a situation may appear.
Stick with your gut, ask questions, and request a new clearance that you can live with. Literally.
Bill Keathley, AOPA 1148315, is an instrument-rated pilot with approximately 780 hours of flight time obtained over the course of 14 years. He currently owns a PA 32RT-300 Piper Lance.
You can find additional information about coping with strong wind conditions at the following links:
Look for the latest installment of "Never Again" in the February issue of AOPA Pilot. The pilot of a twin-engine airplane has to deal with an unexpected problem, one not covered in the operating handbook.
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