So I went flying today...
By Nick Moore
It was late January in Kansas and for the first time in a while, the weather felt like it was late March. The sun was shining and the wind was not howling. On this day I decided to do something that I have done every winter since I passed my Private Pilot Checkride. I decided to reserve a Cessna 172 from my flying club and go fly to knock the rust off and regain “currency”. This term “currency” is one that pilots use to describe the requirements set forth in the Federal Aviation Regulations (specifically 14 CFR Part 61). To paraphrase, you must have logged three takeoffs and three landings in the preceding 90 days in order to act as the Pilot-in-Command of an aircraft carrying passengers.
You see, I had not flown as Pilot-in-Command of an aircraft since July of 2017. In fact, I had only flown twice the entire year. With kids, work, and all the other things that come with trying to be a “grown-up,” I just had not made the time to fly. This has always happened to me during the winter; I wouldn’t fly for a couple months and then get back into it during the spring. Somehow, 2017 did not follow suit for me. Time got away from me and the longer I went without flying, the more I did not feel safe getting in an airplane.
When I looked at the forecast for this particular day, I felt the conditions were perfect for getting my confidence back; light winds and cool, smooth air would be the ideal “why didn’t I do this sooner?” weather. My plan was to go up by myself, fly around the local area, and then return to the airport to bang out a few touch-and-goes. After rocking the pattern I planned to taxi in, shut down the plane, and feel like Bob Hoover taking off his straw hat… or would I? More on that in a minute.
I recognized that I was not as sharp with everything as I would like to be so I took my sweet time with my pre-flight. I even sat in the cockpit for a few extra minutes rehearsing my panel flow. Finally, after feeling a little more comfortable, it was time for the fun part to begin:
Mixture full rich
Two shots of primer
Crack the throttle
Open the window and yell “Clear Prop!”
Turn the key to engage the starter
A single coughing sputter was felt and then the Lycoming O-320 came to life as the plane noticeably rocked forward onto the nosewheel.
“Let’s do this!”
Taxiing to the runup area was very uneventful. I listened to the current weather on the AWOS (Automated Weather Observing System) while I was taxiing. The forecasted light wind was still light but one slight change did have my attention. The wind was no longer straight down the runway. A light crosswind was not anything new for me but was not the perfect wind condition I was hoping for. Once I arrived at the runup area, I had one last time to run through all my procedures before getting off the ground.
Directional Gyro Set
Throttle to 1700RPM
Power to idle
I taxied to the Hold Line, checked for traffic, made my radio call and then taxied into position.
Firewall the throttle
As usual during the winter, the Skyhawk leapt off the ground and that amazing, free feeling came right back to me. I continued to track the centerline while I climbed out. The further I got from the runway, the more I felt like the airplane was starting to get out in front of me. This was also not helped by the fact that a Citation departed behind me and I had the fear that they were going to run right through the back of me while my slow Skyhawk struggled to gain altitude. This was not a good feeling 2 minutes into a flight. It was important to see that my mission here was to fly around El Dorado Lake, return to base, and get "current" with a minimum of three landings. This was not exactly an instrument approach or a test flight profile. This was simple stuff that I have done many times in the last nine years. Something just felt different with this flight. The air that I expected would be crisp and solid was hazy and somewhat turbulent. The lake below that so many times in my flying career had been peaceful and serene was instead choppy. After one 360-degree left turn I felt like it was time to head back to the airport to get in my three touch-and-goes that I just knew would get my confidence back.
As I set my course direct to midfield of Jabara Airport, I tried to mentally prepare myself for what lay ahead, just as I had done so many times in the past. The traffic showing up on the GTN750 seemed to be multiplying. A couple planes departed Stearman Field (likely with full bellies after eating breakfast at the restaurant there) off to my left and were headed in my general direction. There was also traffic departing from Beech Field further to the south. The light traffic day that I had hoped for was starting to fall apart for me. This day was very cool and dry but the cockpit was starting to feel very humid to me.
I flipped back over to the AWOS for a wind check. The wind had picked up a bit while I was out and was now a direct crosswind of 9 knots.
The closer I got to the airport, the more I got fixated on the traffic all converging to the airport at the same time. The direct crosswind created some confusion. One person landing decided to land on runway 18; the person directly behind the first made radio calls to land on runway 36; and to add insult to injury a third aircraft announced a straight-in three mile final. At this point I was starting to feel overwhelmed and uncomfortable with both confusing traffic and the crosswind that I was about to deal with. Fortunately, by the time I got to midfield the person landing on 36 had either landed or changed their mind and person on the straight-in three mile final had gone missed approach leaving just myself and the other pilot in the pattern.
At this point it really didn’t matter. I was flat-out flustered and no longer had the confidence that I had when I got in the aircraft. The old saying of “Its better to be on the ground wishing you were up there than to be up there wishing you were on the ground” was starting to seem very profound. Regardless, I knew that I needed to pull myself together and execute not only one safe landing, but three in total. When it was time, I entered the pattern on a right downwind leg. It was time to get the plane slowed down.
Carb heat on
G: Gear… no that’s not right… Gas - Fuel set to both
U: Undercarriage – Gear is fixed
M: Mixture – Forward
P: Prop – Prop is fixed
S: S…. What is S?... Seatbelts, that’s it – Still fastened
By the time I got through all of that I was abeam the numbers.
Power back to 1600RPM
First notch of flaps
Pitch for 85kts
The crosswind had already blown me away from the runway a bit and made my pattern no longer rectangular. I made my radio call and turned to base.
Second notch of flaps
Pitch for 75kts
The crosswind had not only blown me away from the runway but it also made my base leg extended because I was flying directly into the wind at this point. By the time I was ready to turn final, I was below my desired glidepath. Fortunate for me the engine in this particular Skyhawk was still functioning just fine and I just needed to apply some additional power to get back on the desired glidepath. It was time for one more radio call and a turn to final.
Add a bit of power
Final notch of flaps
Pitch for 65kts
Find the centerline and track it down to the pavement
There are really three methods to performing a crosswind landing: crab, sideslip, and a hybrid of the two where you crab the plane down the glidepath and transition to the sideslip just prior to landing. In the “crab” you let the aircraft weathervane into the wind while tracking the centerline and at the last moment before touching the tires to the pavement, you apply opposite rudder as required to point the nose of the plane right down the runway, thus removing any side load on the landing gear. This is a perfectly acceptable method for a crosswind landing but it is not one that I have ever really used. Instead, I utilize the “sideslip” method. In this method you bank the plane into the prevailing wind with the ailerons and apply opposite rudder to track directly down the runway centerline. When landing, the upwind wheel should touch first followed by the downwind wheel. This method has always worked for me. I always likened it to riding a bike with one hand; it always came back to me but it took me a second or two to get comfortable. On this particular day, it felt more like trying to hula-hoop while eating salad; neither of which I am very good at.
Keep tracking the centerline
Watch your airspeed! 65kts
You are drifting!
More opposite rudder
You are over the numbers so pull the power back
You are drifting again!
More opposite rudder
More backpressure on the yoke to start the flare
Keep the upwind wing down
Bleed that airspeed off and hear the stall horn before touching down
As the left main gear was about to touch down, I finally heard the stall warning horn quickly followed by the chirp of the tire hitting the pavement. The right main tire chirp occurred immediately thereafter. As soon as both of the mains were down I relaxed for a millisecond and didn’t keep the necessary control inputs in. Instead of holding the nose gear off the ground and utilizing the aerodynamic braking, I let it plant right after the mains and then the plane started to weathervane into the wind and was veering off to the left.
Hard right rudder
Hard left aileron
What are you doing?!?
Fortunately for me, I was landing on a 100-foot wide runway and never came close to running off the runway. As the plane slowed down I got it back over to the centerline and started to get ready for another time around the pattern.
Carb heat in
Trim for takeoff
As I was about to push the throttle forward for another lap I could not help but to think of my family. I don’t know why it all became so clear for me at that moment but I asked myself, “Would you have taken your family in the plane if you were flying like you just did?” My resounding answer was, “No.” Then I thought to myself, “Is two more times around the pattern going to change your answer to the first question?” This was also a big “NO.” I then applied the throttle, but only enough to taxi off the runway.
I taxied back to my parking spot and shut the engine down. Part of me heard Fred Sanford say, “You big dummy!” and another part of me heard “Great decision.” I sat there quietly for a moment and then started to run through the checklist for stowing the aircraft. I packed up my headphones and started to get out. The first thing that I noticed on this cool day as soon as my feet hit the ground was that my shirt was covered in sweat. The stress of just not feeling comfortable behind the controls had taken its toll on me.
On this day, nothing bad happened. No regulations were violated. No metal was bent. All that being said, there was nothing about this day that made me feel proficient. Had I made two more bad landings, I would have been “current” in the eyes of the Federal Government. But I was not safer at the controls than when I started earlier in the day. Every safety seminar I have ever attended made it very clear that aviation accidents are rarely caused by one single mistake, but rather a chain of bad decisions or events. With all that in mind, I made a conscious decision before I locked the airplane that I would ground myself until I had received adequate remedial training with a Certified Flight Instructor (CFI). I also made a promise to myself that I would fly enough in the future to stay proficient in the process. You see, I love flying, and I really look forward to utilizing this mode of transportation for my family in the future. But I never want to get in the air and feel like I did on this day again.
I hope that my experience might help any other pilot out there feeling too proud to seek additional training. There is no shame in becoming a more capable pilot, and it really does not take long for a little bit of “rust” to turn into a situation that could get you into trouble.