Terror In The Flare

Even when everything seems to be going fine, is it really?

Like life, flying delivers roiling mixtures of expectations vs. outcomes that drive and nurture learning, improving, failing, winning, hoping, striving, spiced all too rarely with exhilaratingly triumphant moments. And some of those triumphant moments, while unfolding, can pass through terrifying on their way to exhilarating.

During my first year flying Part 135 charter in King Airs, our daily missions took off out of Washington’s two airports, IAD Dulles and DCA Reagan. I was settling into the rhythm of the job and lifestyle—a close and discreet servant to the rich and famous—all the while busy working to earn the acceptance and respect of fellow pilots.

Our passengers—mostly VIPs, such as senators, congressmen and congresswomen, Cabinet members, national TV press and media celebrities, Secret Service, FBI and Washington powerbrokers—made the otherwise routine aerial taxi service a profoundly interesting job. Bomb-sniffing dogs were a regular preflight line item on at least 50 percent of the trips we took. They were good doggies, never having (unlike some passengers) one accident on the plane.

A lot of our trips were über-confidential. Flying in and out of DCA—particularly the river approach to RWY18—was fun, too.

PHOTO: “King Air – RIAT 2010” by Airwolfhound – CC BY-SA 2.0/Flickr

But I digress. The event in question, the one for which this piece is titled, began as a routine deadhead, if not lackluster milk run, from DCA to Philly International. We were to pick up some Pentagon brass and return them to D.C. My colleague on the flight deck and the senior pilot was Dale, a USAF Vietnam veteran F4 fighter jock who freelanced with us on an as-needed basis.

I was intimidated by his background, but we had, over several prior flights, developed a solid connection and mutual respect—probably facilitated by our underdeveloped levels of maturity in certain life quadrants. We had fun at work, shared the giddy exhilaration of flight while maintaining an easy professionalism and attentiveness of dedicated aviators on the job.

So, early on a late spring morning, with weather cool and visibility unlimited, we flipped for first leg, and I won. It was a glorious, calm early morning. With the sun still painting the landscape with soft, rich, golden light, in air smooth as a baby’s bum, we made Philly in short order, contacted approach, asked for and got the visual to RWY27R.

If there is one maneuver, one single metric that labels a pilot’s competency and background, it is the landing. Regular, but semi-controlled, hard landings suggest a background in naval aviation; the Air Force lands hot, long and rolls out forever, while the Army tends to land short in a touch-and-go-like mode while somehow managing to offload a platoon of grunts. Student pilots bounce.

Charter/corporate pilots are expected to deliver an all-inclusive, smooth trip for the GIB (Guy/Gal In Back).

Set up on a stable approach, I wanted to make this landing a good one. I had a witness. This landing was part of my ongoing initiation.

There is a split second in any hand-eye coordination event when the brain is on auto, when there is no time for conscious intent; that split-second instant that defines a miss or a hit, hook or slice. It’s how a batter hits a fastball traveling so impossibly fast that it’s barely visible; it’s that pinpoint aim in pool that makes impossible combo shots; it’s a golf hole in one—no grass contact, directly from the air into the hole. It is perfection, attaining the impossibly possible.

And so it began with the flare and power reduced and back pressure increased. The King Air settled gently toward Runway 27. And it settled. And settled…and settled. In milliseconds, somewhere in the back of my mind, the alarm klaxon hammer cocked, ready to sound the alarm. All while we settled some more. A burgeoning seed of terror began to blossom—a chill blooming in my chest. Any millisecond now I would feel the machine gun ting, ting, ting of props slapping the asphalt. THE LANDING GEAR! I must have forgotten the GEAR!

But the tings never happened. The terror died before it was born. With no chirp, no bump, not even the softest jiggle, we were on the ground rolling on the mains, nosewheel still high. Better let it down now while the elevator authority was still somewhat crisp.

My ego sprung forth and commanded, “For goodness sake, act normal. DO NOT LOOK at Dale. This is business as usual. Ha! Just make the high-speed turn-off, contact ground and act nonchalant.”

I tried, but he knew this moment. He smiled. And then so did I.

Lou Churchville is a commercial pilot, writer and marketing communications professional. He holds single- and multi-engine land, instrument, glider and Certified Flight Instructor ratings.

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