I knew it was windy, but it wasn’t that bad. I mean 15 gusting to 25 isn’t even close to the top of the sphincter-tension scale in my little airplane. In fact, it’s so good in a crosswind that to a certain extent, those of us who fly the type tend to ignore crosswinds. Or at least pooh-pooh anything under 20 to 25 knots. My record, which I mention constantly, is 38 gusting to 50, 60 through 90 degrees to the runway. And therein lies the difference. At 90 degrees, I’m flying one airplane. At 120 degrees, as it was Sunday, it’s something quite different, and I knew it. Still, I didn’t have a doubt in my little airplane. We could handle it.
There it is, “We can handle it.” That might have been my ego talking. It might have been supreme self-confidence. It might have been that I wasn’t listening closely enough to the little voice that said, “Be careful. This one is different.” I caught the “be careful” part, but missed the part about it being different. I just didn’t analyze the situation carefully enough.
I suppose my first clue should have been when we were sitting in the run-up area and watched how the corporate jets were getting absolutely trampled. In fact, a Gulfstream struggled down, kissed one tire and powered up as it sashayed off the runway in a wing-down, skidding departure. The pilot was no fool. The fool was the one watching. For whatever reason, I was fixated on the strength of the wind and was ignoring the direction. It was consistently 20 to 30 degrees behind the wingtip, which is a never-to-be-violated no-no in a tailwheel airplane. Where was my head? Looking back, I should have broken out my rectal-cranial crowbar.
As we were coming back in from the practice area and getting the snot kicked out of us by the turbulence, we heard a young voice in a C-172 making approach after approach. Each time, his voice went up a couple of notes. As we were on downwind, I watched one of his approaches and thought “Oh, no, he’s run off into the rocks and they’ll strand us up here when they close the runway.” Miraculously, he staggered into the air, his voice an octave higher and his jaws so tight he could barely speak. I advised him to fly across town to one of the two runways in town that run north and south. I didn’t hear what he decided to do because I was setting up my own approach.
I wasn’t worried, although my caution meter was close to being pegged. I’d flown in much, much worse winds, and my experience had bred a form of confidence that was about to take a licking.
As we came around onto centerline, I fixated on the little triangles on both sides of the nose where I could see the runway. I knew the drill: Don’t let it drift even an inch and keep the tail exactly in line with the nose. It’s just that simple. If you do that, regardless of what else happens, eventually you’ll wind up on the runway rolling straight.
As we worked our way down through ground effect, each gust doing its best to balloon us back up or blow us off centerline, I could tell intuitively that the velocity of the wind wasn’t falling off as we neared the pavement. It was one of those rare winds that, rather than decreasing as it gets closer to the ground, was just as strong at one foot as it was at 10 feet, and that can make it a dangerous creature—the kind that eats airplanes.
I sneaked a quick peak at the windsock and made a really stupid decision. I clearly saw that all of the gusts were coming from at least 20 degrees behind the wing, and, rather than going around and requesting an approach from the other direction, I went ahead and did something I tell my students never to do: I made a landing that I knew I shouldn’t be making. It was exactly the kind of situation that I tell my students to avoid at all costs. But I decided to land anyway. Not one of my more brilliant decisions.
We touched down on the upwind wheel, perfectly straight and with only a small bounce. We came back down on the same wheel, and instantly a gust slammed the other wing down, that wheel decided to rebound and the airplane crow hopped back to the other wheel. Then back to the first one. And again to the other one. The airplane was violently leaping from one wheel to the other while I doggedly kept the wing down so the airplane wouldn’t start drifting left.
As it started into the third crow hop, I remember a voice inside my head literally screaming, “Keep this sucker straight and kill the drift, no matter what. No matter what! Gravity will sort it out.” Another, somewhat amazed voice said, “I can’t believe it! It has done three crow hops of exactly the same size! When is the energy ever going to bleed off?” It did one more identical hop and instantly settled down onto the runway, leaving me with nothing to do but keep it from weather-vaning into the wind. Piece of cake compared to what I’d just witnessed. And that’s what I felt like, a witness, a spectator, because, while it was in progress, all I could do was sit there and wait until that bucking bronco tired out. Which seemed to take a lifetime.
As we were rolling out, I couldn’t imagine what the episode had looked like from the outside. It must have been spectacular! I would love to see a tape of it so I could analyze what actually happened.
There’s a lesson to be learned here, and I hope I’ve learned it. Give yourself advice as if you’re someone else and pay heed to it. Although the crow hops were an odd combination of circumstances, I knew better than to accept that runway, but my displaced self-confidence did it anyway. Next time, I’ll know better. They say experience is the best teacher, but that’s only if you listen to it.
Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & CFIA, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his website at www.airbum.com.