Don’t be tempted to fly irresponsibly. If bravado starts to come over you, stop and think about what could wrong.
Back in the early ’70s, I was in the habit of taking two weeks off at Christmas and flying from California to Venice, Fla., to visit my Mom. My wife worked for Douglas Aircraft at the time, and she’d usually file for whatever vacation time she needed to turn what was nearly a nine- or 10-day holiday into two full weeks. I was a freelance journalist, so I worked pretty much 24/7, or as some people believed, I didn’t work at all.
In about ’73, we loaded up our Bellanca Cruisemaster, a wonderful-handling, wood-and-fabric, four-seat taildragger and pointed the nose east. As usual, we got off late, stopped in Albuquerque for fuel and decided to make a short second leg over to Amarillo for the night.
West Texas was living up to its reputation as one of the windiest places on the trip, with frigid winds gusting to 25 from whatever direction was least convenient. I had about 1,000 hours in the Bellanca, and I was unjustifiably confident I could handle whatever was happening ahead.
We arrived over Amarillo just at sunset with the wind blowing a strong left crosswind. Shouldn’t be a problem, I reasoned, with more bravado than brains, as I set up for the landing. Amarillo has wide, comfortable runways, and I was confident I could handle the wind.
About a quarter mile out on final with the light failing fast, the tower cleared me to land and commented, “We’ve had reports of black ice on the runway.”
I should have been forewarned, but the message didn’t get through. Doesn’t sound too tough, I reasoned, as I cross-controlled to maintain the centerline. I touched down 700 feet past the threshold, and in a matter of a second or two, the Bellanca began to weathercock to the left. I tried to correct with full opposite rudder, and eventually, hard right brake, but my efforts at directional control seemed to have no effect. Nothing seemed to be working as the airplane gradually turned a full 180 degrees to the left of its own accord, and I basically just hung on. My wife and I were mere passengers in the West Texas wind.
When we finally came to a stop, we were still on the centerline but facing the opposite direction, with nothing damaged except my pride. The runway was so slick that there had been no side stresses on the airplane. The controller had watched my performance and commented, sarcastically, with a typical Texas drawl, “Bellanca 85N, are you in need of assistance?”
I had landed on an asphalt runway covered with black ice. Nothing was broken or even bent, but it required three airport workers and me manipulating brakes and throttle to steer a broken path, and finally move the airplane to the ramp and get it tucked into a hangar. The lesson: “Don’t mess with black ice unless you really know what you’re doing.” Obviously, I didn’t.
Perhaps ironically, the next example of dumb behavior occurred the following year on the same 2000 nm trip to Florida. I had just had the airplane painted and decided I needed to show it off with a low pass on arrival at Venice.
This time, we got past Lubbock without incident on the first day and stopped at Austin for the night. The following day, I skirted the Gulf Coast to Cross City, Fla., turned south along the coast on one of those Chamber of Commerce days and rode happy tailwinds down to Sarasota. Hoping not to do something dumb in front of my Mom, I called Venice Unicom eight miles out to determine the active runway and check for traffic. I turned west out over the Gulf, then arced back east and lined up for the low pass.
I leveled at 100 feet as I approached the threshold near the beach. There was no one on the radio, and there appeared to be no one in the pattern as I flashed across the numbers.
…except for a red and white Cherokee departing in the opposite direction. He was just lifting off when I saw him. I pulled up hard and broke right. I had a fleeting glimpse of two very surprised Cherokee drivers as I flew by above them.
My immediate reaction was that the Cherokee pilot was an idiot. Then, I realized there were at least two idiots flying at Venice that afternoon. Yes, he had departed on the wrong runway without a radio call, but I had lived in Venice briefly back in the ’60s, flown in and out of the airport many times, and I should have remembered there were many NORDO airplanes on the field. Even granted that, I didn’t overfly the airport at altitude and make a visual check for traffic before entering the pattern. Not smart.
Fortunately, Mom was late and missed my bird-brain buzz job, so my wife was the only witness to my stupid pilot trick.
I’d like to hope I learned something from both experiences. In the first instance, I was simply too arrogant to admit crosswinds, failing light and black ice might be too much for me to handle. In the second, the whole idea was ill-advised from start to finish.
I promised never to make those same mistakes twice. I’ll just have to find some new ones.