Posted by: paywindow7 | September 4, 2011

Gravity

It’s interesting that intellectually we know that the natural laws of physics like gravitational forces are always there around us but they remain just outside of our everyday awareness. However when certain conditions manifest themselves those invisible forces will spring forward like a living thing to instantly suck the air out of your lungs and put your heart into your throat. My most vivid reminder of that occurred while I was flying up near the Red River. It was one of my first solo flights, years ago and the endorsement ink was still damp in my sparkly new log book.

The morning was clear and bright when I took off and the obligatory pre-flight weather check had indicated that flying would be OK in my little part of the world until early afternoon when a front would blow in from the north. So that gave me a little more than three hours to complete my approximately one hour flight.

After takeoff I climbed out to 3000’ into a clear sky with a slight chop but as I cruised along on a northerly heading the clear air ahead of me began to appear slightly grayish on the horizon. The farther I went the more it became obvious that the outflow from the approaching front was coming in sooner than predicted. Much sooner.

Now even though I was still a rookie pilot, I had already flown in some pretty heavy weather. It kind of goes with this part of the country, but a slight feeling that I might be in over my head began to set off some warnings in my brain. So to make sure that I avoided the situation of flying from an environment that only required visual flight rules into IMC I decided to turn around and head back to the hanger.
IMC (instrument meteorological conditions)  means that even though you may not be able to see glimpses of the ground or other airplanes or your propeller, you will probably still be able to hear yourself screaming. So the turn around was a no brainer.

I had just completed the turn when it hit. One second I’m cruising along fat, dumb and happy and the next the wind abruptly and rapidly turned lumpy and I felt the sink of what I was later told was wind shear. Hello to those gravitational forces. All of a sudden the view over the engine cowling changed from sky blue to Texas landscape brown and as the nose dropped I saw the altimeter spin down and indicate some major altitude lose. I pulled the nose back up close to where it was supposed to be and began wrestling the yoke to keep the wings and me level while standing on first one then the other rudder pedal in an attempt to keep the engine in the front. Then I remembered reading somewhere that in heavy turbulence you don’t try to muscle the thing to maintain a specific altitude and heading instead you moderate your speed and only put enough pressure on the controls to maintain a semi straight and level flying attitude and try not to become a gasoline powered yard dart. Not easy to do when the seat belt is the only thing keeping you inside the aircraft. So while the airplane and I continued our smack down it came to me that I was going to have to get this carnival ride back on the ground soon and the runway I was heading for was only 40’ wide and 3400’ long with tall trees on one end and a hill on the other. The situation had all of the ear marks of becoming ugly.

I was still wet behind the ears but I was savvy enough to be able to judge this kind of wind speed and direction from inside the cockpit so my guess was that I was going to have a crosswind of at least 20 knots with gusts of no telling what. Now that’s doable in a “have too situation” but those wind speeds were above what the airplane was designed for so I was as much afraid of getting on the ground by some chance and then having the plane blow over as I was trying to taxi back to the hanger as I was of crash landing.

So I decided to call for some radio advice in case anyone happened to be listening on the local radio frequency and you guessed it, no answer. Then while I was fishing around in my flight bag for the list of alternate frequencies, it occurred to me. Even if I find the frequency list in front of my face, the way I was getting bounced around I probably would not be able to change the radios anyway with my radio tuning hand waving around like an Aggie drum major. But wait a minute I thought, I’m communicating to the world on the Comm 1 radio while the other radio, Comm 2, was still set on a class D tower frequency that was close by that I had been monitoring before the wind shift. This airport had a FedEx depot and it had two big, beautiful runways each 150’ wide and about 8000’ long. That much cement could forgive and absorb a lot of student pilot mistakes and still have him home for supper. I could land and take off five times with that kind of room. They also had some state of the art fire trucks with genuine EMT’s on board with lots of band aids. Since their frequency was already in set in Comm 2 all I had to do was connect with a lucky swing to that button and it would switch my communication venue from Comm 1 to Comm 2 automatically and I would have them on the line. Brilliant!

By this time my home airport was dead ahead and only about 5 minutes away so I decided go there first to do a fly over and try and see if the wind sock had been blown off the pole. If it looked bad there, then I could wimp out and head for the class D airport with all of that beautiful concrete that was just a few minutes further down the pike. As I came across my home runway just above pattern altitude I saw the sock standing straight out from the pole.

It was blowing big alright. But then I almost laughed out loud. The wind was blowing straight down the runway. There would be little or no crosswind at all. Wait a minute, I thought, I can do this.

So I set up in the pattern with one eye on the sock to make sure the wind direction was holding steady and that it wasn’t squirreling around. It looked OK so I went rocketing down the downwind leg with all that gale wind on my tail but when I turned base all that air blasted me on the left side and almost blew me out of the pattern. When I managed to turn left again on final approach the business end of the runway was way off in the distance. I didn’t care how it looked I wanted down and besides there was no one else in the pattern but me. Every one else had more sense than to be up on a day like this.

So here I go inbound trying to stay aligned with the runway with my eyes glued on the runway numbers at the threshold and even though the wind is straight into my windshield I’m all over the sky. As I came over the numbers I glanced at my airspeed indicator one last time and instead of reading 65 like it should have it says 100 mph and I’m coming in on a 3400 foot runway with a hill beckoning to me from the far end.

I’m gonna die.

I couldn’t remember how to do a slip so I pulled the nose up to slow down but I went too far and heard the first chirp of the stall warning. By then I was too slow and too low with too much of the runway behind me. This ain’t how it looked in the training videos. Then from somewhere in my head I hear “Go Around ” and without looking or knowing that I had even reached for it I felt the throttle knob in my right hand and I jammed it all the way forward to the instrument panel to join up with the mixture knob that was full on. Now I was headed straight for the hill at the north end of the runway as the gutsy little Continental engine roared back to full power. That rocky hillside seemed to fill the windshield. I knew I had to build speed before I started pulling back on the yoke to gain altitude because I was afraid the aircraft would stall. So I held it wings level and flew straight for that hill fighting myself to keep my hand off the flap switch. The hillside was getting closer and closer as we gained speed and lift and I guess all that head wind coming down the runway was helping then I realized that if I did not start pulling the nose up I was going to slam into the hillside either way so I hogged back on the yoke then skimmed over the hill top blowing off bean pods and flushing birds out of the Mesquite trees.

Then I’m clear of the hill and climbing out and my flight training really began.

It’s amazing how fast you can learn under stress but that was what happened. I remembered what was going on and what I did to lose track of my airspeed on the previous pattern circuit and I started to focus on what to change on this lap. It wasn’t perfect but as I neared short final again my glide angle and speed were in much better shape than before and I set it down with only one bounce…but I was down and not on fire.

While I was pulling off the runway onto the taxiway back to the hanger my flight instructor, who had just pulled into the airport parking lot had not seen me land, called me on her hand held radio to tell me to come back from wherever I was and that if this airport looked too bad that she wanted me to head to that Class D with all the runways, declare an emergency and they would talk me in. Then she would come pick me up in the car and we would leave the airplane there over night.

OK, I said, I’ll go look it over. About two seconds later I taxied around the end of the hanger and when she saw me she knew where I had been when I told I would “look it over” so she put her hands on her hips, scowled then flipped me off.

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Responses

  1. Okay… no coddling….WRITE!!!! This stuff is too good to be stored up in your memories! I was right there with ya! And uhhumpphhh I keep seeing these signs of how God is not finished with you yet! :0 😉 😉 😉

    • I’m really glad you liked “Gravity”. If anybody knows what it’s like to fly it’s you. To me the most interesting part of flying was feeling those physical forces of nature at work on the airborne cluster of scrap iron you happen to be driving. Piloting is the work required to keep those forces balanced and yourself up and out of the weeds. Thanks for the comment.
      I’ve given everything over to God. He points I fetch.


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