Baptism by air

A simple, clear day VFR flight can turn into a nightmare in a hurry, as I learned last recently when flying from Tucson (KTUS) to Palm Springs (KPSP). I was aware of the winds at KPSP, and the weather briefer advised me about 10 knot winds, gusting to 29. This should have been my first warning sign. The second was a winds aloft forecast en route at 3000 feet – 040 at 15. At 6000 feet, the winds were from the north. Light to moderate turbulence was forecast at 6000 feet.

I told the weather briefer that I would descend early before arriving at KPSP, to avoid the wind’s change in direction. I felt that the situation seemed challenging, but nothing that I could not handle. Having recently completed a Cirrus transition training with a very competent Cirrus Standardized Instructor Pilot, my confidence level was high. I thought I had nailed crosswind landings!

PSP airport with mountains
With that kind of terrain, it’s no wonder PSP often has some enthusiastic turbulence.

With just 300 hours in my logbook, along with an instrument rating, I am in the sweet spot (an unfortunate choice of words) of the Killing Zone, when the pilot’s self confidence exceeds his ability to handle complex situations. With only 30 hours in a Cirrus, I was very pleased with my ability to land the airplane, and felt good about the flight that lay ahead.

The initial leg of the 2-hour flight was uneventful. I had filed a flight plan at 6500 feet, and was talking to Albuquerque center, who later handed me off the SoCal approach. Just past Blythe (BLH), the situation became alarming with turbulence like I had never encountered before. I decided to slow the airplane down a little, and let the autopilot handle it, until the air became so choppy that I felt that I needed to turn off the autopilot and hand fly the airplane. I was approaching the appropriately named Thermal airport. And the situation was getting worse.

I decided to descend to 3000 feet, by cutting power and setting the nose down slightly. Suddenly all hell broke loose, and the airplane felt like it was being pushed by a force from above. My airspeed was approaching 160 kts with power pulled back. Not realizing that I was in a down draft, I thought I had strong tail winds. The ball in the inclinometer was pegged to the left. My iPad and kneeboard had fallen on the floor, as did my pilot bag that I had placed on the co-pilot’s seat. The airplane was in a steep descent, with the VSI needle pegged to the bottom of the gauge in my round dial SR20. My first thought was to tell myself verbally that I will pull the chute if the airplane became uncontrollable, but will wait until 2000 feet AGL to do so.

I applied full power, pulled the nose up, and was barely able to maintain control of the airplane. I was still descending. I told about the severe turbulence to SoCal approach, who were querying other pilots about turbulence. Pilots were reporting turbulence at all altitudes below 10,000 feet, so there was no safe place for me to be. I told approach that I was going to turn back and go to Phoenix. But then I thought, I have just been through the worst turbulence of my life in the last 30 minutes. Is going back a smart move? So I told ATC to scratch the last request, and please vector me to KPSP.

SoCal approach told me to descend and follow the freeway to KPSP. I was above UDD, and KPSP was in sight. I was now at 2500 feet, and the aircraft was manageable, if not entirely under control. I was transferred to KPSP tower and I requested vectors to the runway. They cleared me direct to runway 31L. Winds were 330 at 5, with gusts up to 20 kts. Then suddenly they asked me to turn to a heading of 350 to let in a commercial flight, and asked me to join right base to 31L. I followed directions, but was not aligned with the runway as I was being blown away sideways. I told them I was going around.

Parachute in Cirrus
Time to pull the handle?

At crosswind turn, the tower asked me if I wanted runway 13L, as winds had shifted to 060 at 5, with gusts. I said sure, and told them I will make a left teardrop turn to land on runway 13L.

Once the runway was lined up, I could feel variable winds. I had added an extra 10 kts to make sure the gusts didn’t get me. I touched down long and fast on one wheel, bounced slightly, and waited until the airplane settled down. Not my prettiest landing, but I was on ground!

As I taxied to the FBO, I thanked the tower for their help. Their last PIREP was gusts of 40 kts at 1500 feet, the pattern altitude. I may have been in the middle of it when I drifted trying to turn final. My heart was racing and my mind was buzzing in all directions. What if I had pulled the chute? I would hate to see myself on the evening news, but was happy to know I had the option. I was happy that I did not have a passenger. If my wife or my son had been with me, it would have been a totally different situation. I did think about the fact that maybe I should give up flying. After all, it is a hobby, not an occupation. I also thought about not buying a SR22, as had been my plan all along.

Next morning, I spoke with a fellow experienced Cirrus pilot. He has a whole lot more experience than me, and he assured me I did nothing wrong. He showed me how to check winds aloft forecasts and PIREPs on aviationweather.gov. A few days later, I spoke with my two trusted Cirrus instructors. They were happy to see me alive, as was my family.

So what did I learn from this? Never go to KPSP again? Not likely. I have set new personal minimums for wind. And I look forward to flying again. I also know there are no non-believers in the air. You have to believe in the awesome power of nature, the ability of your airplane, and most of all, in yourself.

24 Comments

  • All in all, Shyam, it sounds like you didn’t necessarily do anything wrong. But you do seem, however, to be very taken aback by the effects of winds aloft, even to the point of your wondering if you should give up flying light aircraft. Heavy winds certainly can be dangerous to light aircraft, but there are ways to mitigate the effects depending upon where you plan to fly. Winds aloft must always be accounted for in flight planning for trips in or near the mountains. Sounds like you could benefit from taking a mountain flying course.

    In your part of the county (the desert southwest), particularly in the spring time, it’s not uncommon to see strong westerlies at typical light piston aircraft cruising altitudes in the range of 30-50+ knots. Those aren’t good days to be flying over, or downwind of, the mountains due to the rotor effects that can easily overcome the climb performance of any light aircraft. In your case your track appeared to be mostly over low elevation desert valleys … but with reported northerlies you were likely encountering rotors from the mountains north of your track. Best to stay high, as well as to plan to stay at least 40 to 50 miles away from upwind mountain ranges on windy days! If you don’t have room to do that on your intended track, then don’t fly on windy days.

  • Ditto on recommendation on taking a mountain flying course. From the sounds of it, you flew through a mountain wave, a potentially dangerous phenomenon most common in the West and Southwest. Like water running over a boulder in a swift-moving stream, winds cresting over a mountain ridge roll down the back side and then push up into a wave or series of waves that often contain severe turbulence as well as large updrafts and downdrafts. (Remember Steve Fossett)

    Before flying, take a good look at the Prognostic Charts. If there’s an approaching front or the likelihood of strong winds aloft–watch out! If you do find yourself flying through one, there are a few things you can do (check out this site: http://www.mountainflying.com/pages/mountain-flying/mtn_wave.html), but to be completely safe and for the comfort your passengers the best choice is to stay on the ground.

  • Not to second guess you since that does sound like a hairy situation… but you said turbulence reports were below 10’000 – could you not have requested a climb to above that? Surely that wouldn’t be a problem for that Cirrus? Great job keeping your wits about you and flying the plane, and excellent article.

  • Good job. Good decision not to turn back into the worst of it. You’ve got your minimums for the chute, and you thought about it, and that’s good. But when it’s windy the chute will not provide a gentle letdown. I am not familiar with the system; Can it be jettisoned after landing? If not, it would give you a very dangerous ride along the ground in windy conditions… It’s another consideration in determining your weather minimums. I can recall a handful of days in the fighter business when we cancelled due to high winds, which were no big deal for the airplane but made ejection too ugly an option. In your case surface winds were not the problem. Hopefully you’ve now got a little more confidence in yourself and your airplane.

  • Shyam, hard to be critical when it I wasn’t there, but the one thing in your description that sounds like “you did actually do something wrong” – aside from perhaps not having a full appreciation for what flying in the mountains on a very windy day might entail – was where you said you had begun to encounter “turbulence like I had never encountered before” and decided to “let the autopilot handle it.” There is a list of recommended steps to take when encountering severe turbulence, and near the top of it is to turn off the autopilot. You said you subsequently decided to switch off the autopilot and hand-fly the airplane; not sure how much time passed between the two decisions, but it sounds like you are very lucky you didn’t do structural damage to the airplane. Indeed, you may want to have your A&P have a look at it just to be sure.

    • Michael – you bring up a good point about autopilot use in turbulence.

      Though in Shyam’s defense, he wrote that after encountering the strong turbulence “… I decided to slow the airplane down a little”. So how much was “a little”? What Shyam DIDN’T write was “I slowed down to maneuvering speed” for his aircraft. If he slowed to V sub A, then neither his autopilot nor his own manual control deflections could theoretically cause any structural damage to the airframe.

      There are of course other techniques for handling strong up and down drafts in turbulence that are taught in a good mountain flying course. One of which is to maintain enough altitude above terrain (a minimum of 2,000 feet above the ridgelines, but much more than that is much better) so that downdrafts don’t cause the aircraft to fly into the terrain.

      Another technique is to “ride the downdrafts down” rather than try to maintain altitude, because in a mountain wave or rotor scenario, the lateral distance across which the downdraft occurs is fixed, so that the time spent in the downdraft is reduced by not trying to maintain altitude. Instead, try to maintain airspeed to get out of the downdraft quicker. Of course, to ride the downdraft down til it ends, one has to have a lot of ground clearance to begin with.

      In any case, mountain flying on windy days – even just downwind of the mountains, if not directly over them – requires specialized training that generally isn’t provided in primary flight training courses.

      • Let me add one qualification to the “ride the downdraft down” technique … that only works when the aircraft is flying more or less perpendicular to the downdraft. Or in other words, it works when the aircraft is flying perpendicular to the mountain ridge that caused the wave or rotor to develop. If, however, the pilot flies in parallel with the ridge and thus along the axis of the mountain wave, the aircraft will likely just end up flying into the ground eventually.

        That’s why pilots flying anywhere within 50 miles of any mountain ranges on windy days needs to be knowledgeable of both the terrain and of the wind direction in relation to the alignment of the predominant mountain ridges. That knowledge can come from study of the weather and sectionals … better yet it’s gained from being personally familiar with the area and conditions, or getting pre-flight advice from “locals” who know the local flying conditions.

  • The cirrus chute has limits lower than airframe vne. Closing your eyes and hoping the chute will save you is not a recipe for longevity…and there are cirrus mishaps to prove it. Suggest you learn to fly your aircraft to its limits before encountering environments that will put you there involuntarily. Sorry I am not as kind as others, but you owe it to your family and passengers…and this isn’t just cirrus drivers failing to learn to fly to limits, your experience just highlighted it.

  • Mountain flying can be very dangerous if not well trained. It looks to me that your preflight planning was not thorough. Strong winds over moutanous terrain is an accident waiting to happen. Becoming familiar with weather for any flight is vital to your safety. There are times that we should not fly, and learning to say no go will allow us to become old pilots like me.

    • I very much appreciate the lively discussion my article has generated. Clearly, had I known what lay ahead, I would not have started on this perilous journey. I shared my experience so that others may learn from it.

      I have decided to go to the earliest mountain flying course I can sign on, to learn the proper skills, and more importantly, when to stay on the ground.

      Hindsight is 20/20. and it is easy to be a Monday morning quarterback. Bear in mind that there was no adverse weather forecast, except for wind gusts, and that too later in the afternoon when I got the pre-flight weather briefing. I started early in the morning, hoping to beat the forecast winds, something that did not play out so well.

      The Cirrus chute is a tremendous safety net. There have been 63 safe pulls of the Cirrus chute with no fatalities, when pulled above 500 feet AGL. We are taught at Cirrus Transition Training to keep the chute in the front of one’s mind as a safety measure. Even though the POH maximum chute pull speed is 133 knots, it has been successfully pulled at 180 knots.

      Fly safely, and have fun!

  • …counting on an out of the envelope chute save…in a perfectly sound airplane? please brief that plan to your CFI.

  • Concerning mountain waves and rotors, although associated with one another, they are two distinctly different entities. Tom’s response implies they are equally turbulent and evil. Rotors lie beneath the wave and are in fact a maelstrom of evil, turbulent nastiness. Once in the wave itself the air, although rising or descending thousands of feet per minute, is as smooth as glass. Having a knowledge, or mental picture, of how the rotor relates to the wave can be used to great advantage in avoiding the rotor.
    In reviewing your flight, Shyam, I would guess that, flying East to West,you may have unknowingly entered the extreme eastern edge of a moderate standing wave generated by the mountains just West of PSR. Had you been hand flying the plane you would probably have become aware of this as the Cirrus magically went up a thousand feet a minute (or more) and then down again, smoothly and repeatedly. On auto pilot with altitude hold this would have been masked considerably unless you were paying particular attention to airspeed indications.
    If you don’t want to remain a 300 hour pilot with 1000 or 3000 or 5000 hours in your log book, I would respectfully suggest you learn and explore this vast ocean of air we fly in. It ain’t no highway in the sky. We can never know it all, as I’m sure Steve Fosset an Sparky Imesonwould be happy to tell us if they could. Relying on automation, ATC, and BRS to excuse us from the hard work of studying and logging Meaningful hours is probably not our best option.

  • I fly this area often while traveling from SBA to the Phoenix area in an SR22. I cross the high desert (PMD Victorville) rather than the Banning Pass because when the winds aloft are strong the Banning Pass is like a blender. That said when rounding the corner at Big Bear and heading for Blythe the plane will cycle from 10 degrees nose up to 10 degrees nose down and air speed cycles from a low of 110 / 120 to a high of 180 / 190 while riding the up and down drafts. I usually have to stay 10-20 miles away from the mountains to avoid teeth rattling turbulence. It can be challenging in that area. It’s not unusual to have 50-60 knot winds in the winter. Fly safe.

  • 1. Glad both are ok. 2. Glad they did not land on an innocent family in a minivan. 3. “engine sputtered to a stop”, after out/in flight, just short of destination, no mention of catastrophic engine mechanical issues (noise, vibe, smoke)…really hope it wasn’t for lack of another 5 gallons. When the news coverage is of a “rich pilot” killing innocent bystanders due to poor planning the villagers will be out with their torches looking for blood…and rightly so. It is our individual and community responsibility to police attitudes that do not respect the challenge of PIC, and assist in their identification and removal from our pilot ranks regardless of aircraft type if they fail to evolve. Welcome to the community.

    • Boy, you sure have an axe to grind. I do not know what you fly, or if you are even a pilot, but I sure hope when you have an in-flight emergency, people will have a bit more sympathy than you exhibit. Plus you will not have a chute, so good luck dead sticking your plane.

      Please! Get an attitude check. No point ranting about the rich guys flying their Cirruses and killing people on the ground. There has never been a casualty on the ground from a Cirrus chute pull. Enough said.

      Show your credentials before you post. Easy to be a bitter critic resenting others. Very hard to make a positive contribution in the aviation community.

  • Inflight emergencies due to unforeseeable circumstances, much sympathy, as a result of carelessness, no mercy. No determination on this mishap, investigation will bin which category.

    No objection to folks saving their own with a chute pull, unless their carelessness put them there and they hurt others. Same way I’d feel about a Cessna killing someone during a dead stick due to self-induced emergency.

    Since you asked…retired USN NATOPS Instructor, Mission Commander, Strike Lead, in ejection seat aircraft, off carriers in combat. Now flying aerobatics with card sitting on a parachute, use of briefed to pax as for exit if tired of burning or aircraft no longer controllable. In my previous world, buffoonery was self-correcting or drummed out, whichever came first. Harsh, yes.

    Fly often, train hard, take PIC seriously for you, your passengers and those around you. Do that and you or anyone has my respect… and understanding in case of error, none of us are perfect.

    • The NTSB found valve strikes on all cylinders. The engine had failed. Before you judge others, please let the facts emerge.

      NTSB Identification: ERA16LA124
      14 CFR Part 91: General Aviation
      Accident occurred Saturday, March 05, 2016 in Hauppauge, NY
      Aircraft: CIRRUS DESIGN CORP SR22, registration: N295AR
      Injuries: 2 Uninjured.

      This is preliminary information, subject to change, and may contain errors. Any errors in this report will be corrected when the final report has been completed. NTSB investigators may not have traveled in support of this investigation and used data provided by various sources to prepare this aircraft accident report.
      On March 5, 2016, about 1508 eastern standard time, a Cirrus Design Corporation SR22, N295AR, was substantially damaged following a total loss of engine power and forced landing at Hauppauge, New York. The pilot and one passenger were not injured. The airplane was registered to Advance Wellness and was operated by the pilot under the provisions of Title 14 Code of Federal Regulations Part 91 as a personal flight. Day, visual meteorological conditions prevailed, and no flight plan was filed. The flight from Groton, Connecticut (GON) to Farmingdale, New York (FRG) originated about 1430.

      According to the pilot, during cruise flight, the engine sputtered twice, then went quiet. The fuel selector was on the left tank, so he switched to the right tank and attempted a restart. The engine would not restart, so he elected to activate the Cirrus Airplane Parachute System (CAPS). The CAPS deployed normally and the airplane landed in a lawn adjacent to an industrial complex near Hauppauge. The pilot and passenger exited the cockpit and first responders arrived to assist.

      An inspector with the Federal Aviation Administration responded to the accident site and examined the wreckage. Structural damage to fuselage was evident. The wing fuel tanks contained fuel. An initial inspection of the engine revealed physical evidence of valve strikes to the top surfaces of all six pistons.

  • A little more cutting and pasting: “No determination on this mishap, investigation will bin which category.” From my post above. Out.

  • Hmmm… someone with the name Rich posted the following:
    1. Glad both are ok. 2. Glad they did not land on an innocent family in a minivan. 3. “engine sputtered to a stop”, after out/in flight, just short of destination, no mention of catastrophic engine mechanical issues (noise, vibe, smoke)…really hope it wasn’t for lack of another 5 gallons. When the news coverage is of a “rich pilot” killing innocent bystanders due to poor planning the villagers will be out with their torches looking for blood…and rightly so. It is our individual and community responsibility to police attitudes that do not respect the challenge of PIC, and assist in their identification and removal from our pilot ranks regardless of aircraft type if they fail to evolve. Welcome to the community.

    Judge much?

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *