Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, June 7, 2011

Mysteries Of Landing

No, this isn’t the 11,398th story on how to land an airplane

Bush Mods
And finally, the most impressive landing I've seen, was, predictably, in Alaska. I was sent to Kenai, outside Anchorage, in late April 1988 to pick up a Mooney 252 and bring it back to Long Beach, Calif., for eventual ferry to Glasgow, Scotland. The airplane had been sitting in the snow for three months, and while I was waiting for it to be cleaned up and have the battery charged, the owner of the FBO asked if I was up for a quick trip across the Cook Inlet to one of his hunting cabins.

We jumped into an unlikely looking Cessna 152 converted to a tailwheel, and mounted on two of the biggest balloon tires I'd ever seen on such a little airplane. The interior was mostly stripped out, but there were two seats in the cabin and a surprising 180 hp Lycoming O-360 engine out front to lift the load. We flew the 20 miles across the inlet to a beautiful little stream running strong with the spring breakup. The pilot, Ray Bristol, pointed out his cabin adjacent to a small sandbar, but nowhere near any road or bush strip that I could find.

When I asked Bristol where we were going to land, he smiled and said, "You'll see," and set up an approach to the creek itself. He levered in full flaps (in this case, about 60 degrees), slowed to a speed off the bottom of the airspeed indicator, and touched down in the shallow water just short of the sandbar. The oversized bush tires served as huge, circular pontoons as we powered across the water for 50 feet until we reached the sandbar. Then, Bristol chopped power, dropped the tailwheel to the dirt, and jolted to a stop in a few feet.

After a cup of coffee in his cabin, we turned the airplane around, fired back up, firewalled the throttle out onto the creek bed, and lifted off from the water. The experience was a revelation for me, but this tough old bush pilot had been doing this sort of thing for years, and accepted it as normal.

The next morning, as I filed my flight plan at the FAA office for the Mooney's first leg down to Sitka, the briefer asked casually if I was the one who had been flying with Ray Bristol the day before. I said yes, and started to tell him about the flight, but he cut me off and said he didn't want to hear anything about the airplane. He explained that everyone around the airport knew the 152 was totally adlibbed, with at least a half-dozen illegal mods, but Bristol had been flying it that way for years, and no one seemed to mind as long as "he didn't make anyone fill out any paperwork."

In retrospect, I'm not sure how many lessons these experiences have taught me. If nothing else, however, they've convinced me that no landing is a slam dunk, no matter how many times you may have done it before at the same airport and in the same airplane.


Add Comment