She told me, flat out. She flatly stated "You have no idea what the hell you are doing", but I never heard her. Maybe it was the noise of the engine; maybe it was my unwarranted sense of pilot bravado, I don’t know. But yesterday Mother Nature was definitely telling me to stay on the ground and I didn’t listen. Shame on me.
There’s an old saying in aviation that goes “it’s better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground”. Yesterday I got a sense of that that truly means. What could be the cause of my harrowing experience, you ask? Thunderstorm? Icing? Engine failure? Had to pee really bad? Nope. Just a little windy. A lot windy.
Yesterday was to be the day I show Brenda the new plane, and maybe go for a short fall foliage flight. The morning clouds disappeared by noon, but the blue sky was accompanied by a stiff fall breeze. We headed for the airport anyway, thinking that even if it was too bad to fly, at least Brenda could see the plane. The windsock at the airport confirmed that the trees were waving around for a reason. The sock was pointing straight out, and, for the first time since bringing my plane here, directly perpendicular to the runway. A direct crosswind. Lovely.
After getting the cover off the plane and sitting inside, I really wanted to go up for a couple of trips around the pattern. Brenda knew it would be bumpy and unpleasant, so she opted out and said she’d hang out in the car if I wanted to go up. About then I noticed that my friend John, who helped me buy this plane & gave me some pointers on flying it the other week, was attempting some landings here today with a student. Their approaches were wobbly and wild, so I knew the wind was playing games, but for some reason I thought because I have a grand total of four hours in my new plane that I was Sky King. I fire up.
As I’m waiting for the plane to warm up, John taxis over with his student, stops about twenty feet from my parking spot, and stares at me in disbelief. We have a brief chat over the radio, for all to hear:
“You’re going up in this?”
“Yeah, I guess so.”
“You planning to LAND anytime soon?”
“Ha ha, John. How bad is it up there, really?”
“uh, it’s pretty bad…”
“Well, I’ll just go up and once around, just to see.”
I reply, not by saying “OK”, but by simply clicking my mike button a couple times, because that’s so cool and pilotish. What a moron I am.
Now, I should tell you that my new plane weighs just over a thousand pounds empty. It’s like a big aluminum kite. And while my 200lbs is nothing to sneeze at on the bathroom scale, it doesn’t go a long way toward stabilizing a Cessna 150 in a strong breeze. But no matter, for I am Sky King today—at least, that’s what I think.
I watch John & his student depart ahead of me; their plane (a slightly larger Cessna 172) is tossed around a bit, but nothing too scary. After completing the engine check and other pre-departure tasks, I roll into position, apply power, and away I go. I did everything by the book, holding it on the ground for a few extra knots so I could yank it away from the ground with authority. I quickly & smoothly applied control corrections, and pointed myself into the wind so that I could maintain a ground track along the runway’s centerline. The AMOUNT of correction required was considerable and changing constantly, indicating a wind that was blowing hard one second and softly the next, but I was away from the ground, and in command. Sky King lives.
Climbing up to altitude the plane is subjected to continual slaps and pokes by an ever-changing wind. In short, I’m getting the crap knocked out of me. “This is going to be interesting”, I thought.
Abeam the runway threshold, I began the approach. Ride along with me, won’t you?
Carb heat on, power back to 1700. Flaps ten. (bam!) Roll in some trim, slow to 85, check fon the descent progress. We’re not descending. In fact, we’re CLIMBING. (whoosh) OK, now we’re descending really quickly, and I haven’t touched anything. (bam) Boy, this is really bump- (bam!) bumpy up here. OK, let’s turn base, get in twenty degrees of flap since we’re barely below pattern altitude. Lose the power too, ok, this is nice (whoosh), turn final…
And here’s where I get creative; the pilots in the audience will get a kick out of this, especially the ones who can land a 150 with style in a stiff gusty crosswind. Back to the action:
Hmmm, with all this wind, I think I wanna add a little speed on final, maybe leave those flaps right where they are at twenty, for more rudder authority. Yeah, rudder authority. (bam, whoosh) Man, this is bump- (BAM) BUMPY! Ah, maybe more flap, put in 25-ish. OK, here come the numbers, whoa, 95MPH is a little too much speed there Sky King, OK we’re over the runway, this isn’t too bad, (whoosh) whoa, we’re climbing, that’s the wrong way dummy, we’re drifting too, a little power, (whoosh) straighten it out, looking good, (whoosh) dammit, OK, that’s ok, (WHOOSH) now I’m too high, now I’m too slow, now I’m all screwed up, I’m outta here, I’m goin’ around. Full power! Throttle all the way in, get those flaps out, (BAM) (WHOOSH) whoa, how’d I get so steep? (The stall warning horn is now whistling, telling me the plane would like to stop flying soon, and we’re fifty feet above the runway) Concentrate, get that pitch angle just right; remember what John said:
“these 150s are pitch sensitive & underpowered; too much angle of attack, it won’t climb, but too little angle of attack and it won’t climb either!”
Concentrate, null out all this wind, extract all the performance you can outta this bird, don’t waste it. “Central Jersey traffic, Cessna’s going around…” That looks nice out the window now, airspeed’s 75, but we seem to be just trolling along at the same altitude. Why won’t it climb? Nurse it, man, nurse it… Dammit, the flaps! They’re still at 20! Get them out, NOW. That’s better, but 100 feet per minute ain’t gonna do it, Sky King. The treeline approaches, while I put on a low-altitude aerobatics display all the way down the runway. Why won’t she climb? Carb heat! You still have carb heat on! You idiot!
Right about then, I hear John’s voice on the radio: “Told ya.” Uh huh, you & Ma Nature, both; you can both go to hell. Pressing in the carb heat control, the engine roars to life—with as great a roar as a Continental O-200 can muster—and the plane acted like a plane, and began to climb. “Shaddap, John..”
Then John, again: “I hope you have a lot of gas” -- the idea being that it might take me several more tries and the better part of the afternoon to get this thing back on the ground in one piece. With the trees that had been approaching in the windscreen now sliding under the wheels, I laughed heartily at John’s statement, probably more out of relief that I hadn’t broken anything yet. But the fact remained, at some point I had to broker a deal with the wind, overpower it, or just plain outsmart it, before I could taxi home and shut her down. And you know what? That’s what’s so damned interesting about flying. Once you start that magic carpet ride, you are in control of your own destiny. There are no time outs, and no mulligans.
A deep breath on downwind, and I’m ready for another go at things. Coming around again, I tried exercising a little bit better speed control, more flaps, and basically just doing things The Way I Was Taught. This time I negotiated with the wind a little better, and got 93F on the ground. Even made the second turnoff. But I’m no dummy (a moron, but no dummy), I knew I was having a bad day on a very bad flying day. No need to tempt fate; I won the battle, screw the war. I was done for today.
Now that I have probably scared off half of my friends and family from ever flying with me, let me say that, first, I am not a dangerous pilot—indeed, the whole reason for going up yesterday was to test my skills; second, flying is really a lot of fun, it’s just that on some days the weather likes to have the upper hand; and third, I promise to not take you up in weather like that!