I Can’t Believe I Did That #4

Editor’s Note: This is the fourth article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com.

Oklahoma – Where the Wind Turns Landing into a Nightmare

By Will Eifert

More than a year before I set foot in a cockpit, I moved to Oklahoma. I remember a friend of mine telling me, “If you don’t like the weather here, give it fifteen minutes and it will change.” It was a good joke at the time, but once I started flying, this statement would serve as a constant reminder every time I sat behind the controls.

Will Eifert warrior

The author standing next to the Warrior.

Ever since my dad drove me out to watch airplanes arrive and depart at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati, I’d been in love with all things aviation. I even worked on the ramp for Delta during college. I played a lot of Microsoft Flight Simulator, but until I was 24 I’d never actually tried to take lessons.

By October 2012, I had conquered my first solo. I had acquired just over 22 hours of total time, three of those in solo flight. The newness of flying was being replaced by that particular gusto student pilots develop with the confidence that they can fly without an instructor watching. In retrospect, I was ripe for a “Don’t get too big for your britches” moment.

On December 16, 2012, I was performing the pre-flight at Guthrie-Edmond Regional Airport on a Piper Warrior for another hour of solo practice. I was thrilled to get out of the traffic pattern and work on some maneuvers.

As far as I knew, the go or no-go decision for a student pilot was fairly simple. If the winds were too long or the visibility was too low, we’d wait for a better day. I’ll admit that throughout most of my early lessons, I simply waited for my CFI to tell me whether it looked good enough to get in the air.

This day was looking pretty good. ASOS told me that a 9 kt crosswind was blowing across the runway, and I was comfortable that I could manage it. Taxiing out to runway 16, I couldn’t help but crack a smile. Without an instructor, it was just me and the airplane. Yet I had no idea how firmly this day’s flight would cement that relationship.

I climbed out to the west of Guthrie and practiced my maneuvers–S-turn, turn about a point, rectangular pattern. The air seemed as smooth as glass. After about an hour, I was ready to turn back for the airport for some touch-and-go practice. Something was different. It seemed as though as soon as the thought crossed my mind to go back, the weather situation changed.

I remember first noticing the feeling that I just wasn’t going anywhere. It was as if I were hovering. The nose was pointed east, but the airplane seemed to be in suspension.

As the Warrior crawled eastward, I surveyed the landscape below. I could see whitecaps on the ponds. I tuned in to the ASOS at KGOK to learn what my gut was already telling me–bad news. Over the course of 60 minutes, the wind had changed from 9 kts to 16 kts gusting to 23 kts, ninety degrees to the runway.

By the time I reached the pattern, I felt like I had gone from training wheels to the Tour de France. The principles of flying that, to this point, seemed so simple were totally different. More startling, the confidence I’d had from the moment I arrived at the airport disappeared. This was a new game.

Of course I’d had training with my CFI on the principles of a crosswind landing, but we’d never encountered winds this strong.

On the downwind leg for 16, I had to fight just to keep from being blown miles away from the field. The base leg was another case of hovering, and I added a hefty amount of throttle to creep forward. But it was on final that I truly realized that the task of landing the airplane in this wind was one for which I was not prepared.

I put the Warrior into a slip and in what seemed like seconds I was far off the centerline. I announced a go around. From the wind conditions and the sound of my voice, my CFI realized what had developed. His voice over the UNICOM was reassuring.

windosck

Where did that nasty crosswind come from?

“The wind’s pretty strong down here,” he said. He spoke with the tone of somebody who had seen this happen before. “Just relax. You’ve got enough fuel to fly all day. Crab all the way down until you’re right over the runway.”

He’s a man of few words, but Glenn’s advice is one of the reasons I’m here to write this article. However, at the time I couldn’t help but become frustrated. With every minute I had less control of the airplane. It was so difficult to simply make turns in the pattern. The physics of flying in this wind seemed almost unnatural.

They say that an airplane is the worst classroom, and the next few passes proved that. Over the course of six go-arounds I taught myself to keep flying straight. Time and time again I muscled my way onto final only to get blown left of center. As badly as I wanted to be on the ground and as much as I asked God to cool it with the crosswinds, I knew that if I tried to force this landing I would end up hurt or worse.

By the time I made my final trip around the pattern, I felt like I understood what needed to be done to make the landing work.

I added in more power on base and purposefully overshot the final approach by just enough distance to allow me to put the aircraft into a crab and stay on center. The warrior must have been crabbed 30 to 40 degrees from the runway (I would later learn that in the time I’d been circling the pattern, the winds had increased to gusts of 27 kts).  For the first time I used the side window of the Warrior to gauge my final approach.

For as horrendous as my initial attempts to the Runway 16 had been, this one was spectacular as far as I could tell. I floated down over the threshold and as soon as I crossed concrete put the aircraft into an aggressive slip. The mains touched down and the nose followed quickly, right on the centerline. It was, by far, not the softest landing I had made. But this was one time that I was not content to float.

When I made my way into the terminal, I was met with a big grin from my CFI.

“You did good,” he said. “Some of my students make one approach and six landings. You just made six approaches and one good landing.”

I matured as a pilot that day. One lesson I will always remember is that as long as you keep calm and focus, you can beat surprise weather. When the weather turns on you, you have a weather problem. If you allow yourself to get unnerved by it, you have a weather problem and a pilot problem, and those two don’t mix well.

I’ve changed my approach to weather. The “feel” of how good or bad a day’s weather will be is a dangerous instinct to fly on. Become a student of the weather and you will be safe. Strive to learn why changes in weather take place and carefully study forecasts before you fly.

Pilots here say that if you can learn to fly in Oklahoma weather, you can fly anywhere. One thing’s for sure–I don’t trust the “feel” or “look” of the weather before I go up. I read the weather briefing like it’s my daily gospel, and keep in mind that no matter what’s on paper, I have to be ready if the weather decides to make our forecasts look stupid.

Will Eifert is a digital marketing professional in Oklahoma City. He is only some night and instrument training away from being ready for his Private Pilot check ride. After falling in love with aviation as a child watching takeoffs and landings at Lunken Airport in Cincinnati, Will is finally becoming active in the aviation community. Recently he helped found the Guthrie-Edmond Aviation Association in Guthrie, OK. Will studied Creative Writing for his BA at Thomas More College. He hopes to start an airline…someday.

21 Comments

  1. Mariano says:

    Congratulations on staying calm and landing the beast!

  2. Karen George says:

    Will, what an adventure. You describe it so well, I felt like I was there in cockpit with you.

  3. Don Eck says:

    “Takeoffs are optional; landings are mandatory.” Personal minimums are highly advisable, but they apply more to departure than arrivals, because while you have absolute decision making authority before you takeoff, once airborne, you’re at the mercy of whatever conditions exist at the time of landing. Saying “I’ll never fly in winds exceeding x knots, means “I won’t takeoff if the winds exceed x”. When you come in to land, you deal with whatever the winds are at that time. You can pick another runway, another airport, or even land on other than a runway, but you’re stuck with the wind, and any other conditions, at that time. A good reason why pilots capabilities should exceed their personal limitations, and not the other way around.

    • Will Eifert says:

      Thanks for the comment Don. I really enjoy the quote.

      Since that day, I use 20 kts. as a rule of thumb, at least while I’m still learning. If the winds are at, gusting, or forecast to blow at 20 kts. or above, I don’t takeoff. I think it’s a good rule of thumb, at least while I’m still learning.

      Luckily that day I had 6 hours of fuel on-board, and my instructor knew that. He assured me that if that was not the case he would have instructed me to fly to a nearby airport that had a crosswind runway.

      Thanks for stopping by!

  4. Dan Yost says:

    Heh, I hear on you the window. I’m just down the street from you over here in Stillwater. It’s gusting to 30 today! The only reason my CFI and I went out today is because my check ride is tomorrow (unless we get weathered out) and the wind was straight down runway 17. It was still a terrible time for practice, but helpful nonetheless for getting last-minute brush up.

    Where the wind comes sweeping down the plains!

    • Dan Yost says:

      Heh, I mean “wind,” not window.

      • Will Eifert says:

        Hi Dan! Yeah Oklahoma is definitely not always kind to pilots. Its either a strong consistent wind or, like yesterday, heavy on the gusts.

        Sometimes it CAN be helpful for practice though. Yesterday we worked on basic instruments with foggles, and it was so bumpy that I feel like it made conditions semi-realistic.

        • Dan Yost says:

          Good point. Indeed, we decided today that if I can do S-turns in 30 kts like today, I can do them in “just about anything.”

          (For the record, they were not pretty but were good practice).

  5. Chris Tarbell says:

    Nice Job Will!

    No shame in a go around! Good luck the rest of the way!

    • Will Eifert says:

      Thanks for the comment, Chris. I read your earlier “I can’t believe I did that” article and really enjoyed it. Becoming a better pilot seems like one of those learning experiences in which you often learn from mistakes. You just try not to make the big ones.

      It’s articles like yours and all on Air Facts that help us build a community of safer pilots, and I really appreciate that.

  6. John Rodkey says:

    Good description of the decision making and skills needed when encountering crosswinds. You did a great job of deciding to go around until it was manageable.

    I fly an Aeronca Chief, which is even more susceptible to crosswinds, being light and a taildragger. I’ve found that crabbing into the wind on each of the legs will give you a pretty good idea of what to expect on the ground. If you’re crabbing 15 degrees on final, you’ll need to transition to a pretty healthy slip before touchdown. Doing that transition as you get over the fence gives you more time to assess how much slip will be required to maintain your course when the tires hit the ground.

    Also, think of the entire runway as available to you: land at a diagonal to reduce the crosswind component if need be.

    • Will Eifert says:

      Hi John,

      I agree 100% on using the legs of the pattern to get an idea of what will be needed over the field. As I’ve continued, I’ve learned that even the subtle drifts felt in the pattern legs can provide a lot of information about what will be needed to land.

      I appreciate the feeback!

  7. “…[A]s long as you keep calm and focus, you can beat surprise weather. When the weather turns on you, you have a weather problem. If you allow yourself to get unnerved by it, you have a weather problem and a pilot problem, and those two don’t mix well.”

    Outstanding. This is a lesson that many people never learn, unfortunately. Attitude is probably the hardest thing to teach, and you have exactly the right attitude already. Good job!

    Also, way to go on continuing to go around until you felt in control of the landing. Six tries takes a ton of discipline; more willpower than most people have, in fact. What too often happens is that by the third try, a person will try to force the plane on the ground because they’re losing either their calm, their patience, or both, and that’s when metal gets bent. Kudos to you for not falling into that trap, and even more kudos for keeping your focus and using those attempts as learning experiences. Keep up the good work!

    • Will Eifert says:

      Hi Larry,

      Thanks for the comment!

      The guys said I may have set a field record for go-arounds! They say that the airplane is a horrible classroom, but in this case I think it was the best. On the ground, learning about a crosswind so strong doesn’t do the condition justice. In this case, I was learning by feel, and going forward it has helped me even in lighter crosswind conditions.

      Thanks for the kind words.

  8. Andy Kopetzky says:

    Will, did you use partial or no flaps ?
    There are a variety of opinions on this and as a student I have been taught to use no flaps in conditions such as you encountered and come in about 10 knots faster (I fly a 172N). Recently at Van Nuys Ca wind was 12 G19 but only a slight x wind angle and I used 20 degrees of flaps and managed to wrestle it down. Keeping it on the ground became an issue as the airplane wanted to fly again !
    Thanks for the great article.

    • Will Eifert says:

      Hi Andy,

      I used partial flaps on all of my approaches.

      One of the biggest challenges I found during this landing was power management. I needed some extra power to help keep from being blown off-center. At the same time, however, I had to maintain a good approach angle(on several approaches I was just too high).

      I hear you about keeping it on the ground. The landing in question was pretty hard, but I really didn’t want to float!

      Thanks for your feedback!

  9. Hi Will,
    This was a great story, I’m touched because I’m in the same status of the third solo flight. When I came back from the other airport I was surprized with a gusty crosswind. As my Cessna touched the runway, it lifted the left main-wheel like a dog, cold sweat occured on my forehead but I managed it in one piece. It was a lesson for me as well. In November ’13 I will finish, let’s meet in St.Augustine Fl if you have time.
    It would be great to hear of you and keep always calm as you say.

    • Will Eifert says:

      Hi Rolf,

      Thanks for your comment. While normally I’ve enjoyed flying the 172 more than the Warrior, this was a day when I was glad to be flying a low-wing.

      Oklahoma is full of gusts. I’ve had several landings made rough by a gust trying to jolt the wing over. Sometimes I think it’s best to learn in less-than-favorable conditions. I’d rather be attuned to the worst case scenario so that it becomes less of a shock.

      I don’t know if I’ll be able to make St. Augustine in November, but I’d be happy to meet up.

  10. Gogona says:

    Once I got in the very similar situation, and had to perform six go-arounds and one landing as well. Not really soft, though.
    But honestly, after third unsuccessful attempt I nearly panicked, cause it’s really scary even to assume, that you CAN’T LAND. There was also a dark night outside, so I couldn’t divert to a safer place.
    And of course, you always remember – you MUST keep calm, otherwise you gonna get even more troubles, but… suddenly, it turns out to be impossible! You feel like a disabled person, who wanna run, but has no legs.
    So, it’s just easy to say “relax”… :)))

    As for winds, I never trusted my CFI when he was telling me I’m good to go. So I always double checked it myself. And there were at least seven times, when I was right, and he was wrong. Three times even dangerously wrong…

  11. Slav Inger says:

    Will, great to hear that you made it on the ground safely. As you gain experience you might look at your actions that day (and your CFI’s) in a different light. First of all, the more times a pilot tries to do something and fails, the more pressure there is to make it work, we subconsciously condition ourselves to this. Other options just evaporate from our minds. This is the reason why a hefty number of instrument pilots come to grief trying to make it into airports on 2-nd and 3-rd instrument approach, instead of calling it off and going to an alternate. In your case, having detected a problem with winds that are too much for you at that stage, you really should have thought about going to a different airport with a more favorable runway configuration. And in my opinion, your CFI had no business adding even more stress lulling you into a potential trap, I hope he doesn’t do this to someone else. Good job on landing the bird and walking away from it, and I hope you learned other not-so-obvious lessons from this as well.