I never should have left the ground

On October, 2014, I took a family friend, Shelby, for her first flight in a small airplane. It was a Beechcraft Sundowner I’d owned for the last 18 months, and I was getting back into flying after a 28-year layoff. “It’ll be fun,” I said. It was a beautiful day, still and calm at 1 pm. There was a forecast for afternoon winds after 3 pm. “Should hold for a while,” I thought, “enough for a 30-minute sightseeing tour of the area, and back.”

My last airplane was a 1946 Aeronca Champ I kept at Stead in the 1980s. Now, I had an airplane with radios and a starter. And an intercom. No more yelling over your shoulder to the passenger in the back seat! Flying out of the Reno area starts at 4400 feet elevation, with density altitudes exceeding 7500 feet or more on a hot summer day. So, 180 hp beats 65 hp any day. Sorry, Aeronca.

Airliner landing
When the big boys are struggling, it may be a clue that the wind has picked up.

I fly out of Reno (KRNO) because it’s closer to home, and I like a controlled airport. Stead (KRTS, home of the Reno Air Races) can be like a Wild West rodeo on the weekends. I taxied out to the assigned active, 16 Left. 16R/34L was closed for maintenance. Great. I did my run-up and called the tower.

“Reno Tower, Sundowner 74 Whiskey ready for takeoff.” I noted a slight rocking of the airplane. Hmmm.

“74 Whiskey, hold short for traffic landing 34 Right.”

Huh? I looked south. Sure enough, two Navy F-18s, probably from Top Gun school at Fallon Naval Air Station, were on final approach.

Tower: “Mustang Flight, cleared to land 34 Right, winds 190 at 22 knots, gusting to 33.” Huh? He’s landing on 34, with the wind! And where did that wind come from?

First one came in a bit hot… yeah, it’s a tailwind, buddy. He touched down, and I think his flight suit got a bit bunched in the seat as he declared, “Mustang One, missed approach” and firewalled the throttle. He blasted past, less than 30 feet in front of us, making my little airplane shake as he struggled to climb. I thought to myself, “Please don’t hit the Nugget Casino!” Mustang Two managed to keep it on the ground, despite the downwind landing.

Mustang One whipped it around in what I thought was a rather aggressive turn for controlled airspace, in front of a Southwest 737 on a five-mile final, then landed into the wind. As he passed us, he was struggling just a bit with the gusty winds, and touched down. Good boy! You stayed on the ground. Tower asked him to expedite clearing the runway for incoming traffic (you know, the 737 you turned in front of?).

My Hobbs was still ticking as I burned avgas at idle; another gust rocked my little Sundowner again. Hmm. What did the tower say the wind was?

The Southwest 737, now on final, asks, “Tower, WHAT was that wind again?”

“Southwest 1529, winds 190 at 25 gusting 35 knots”.

“Reno Tower, your ATIS says winds CALM?”

Tower: “Uh, we had… a… bit of a wind shift…”

I looked at Shelby. I was thinking to myself, “Did I hear that correctly?” She smiled at me, completely relaxed and trusting. I felt like I was approaching the limit of my personal comfort zone, here… Southwest 1529 was turning off the runway.

Maybe this isn’t a good idea, I thought. If a couple of fighter jocks and a 737 are having trouble with the wind, what am I doing here? Maybe, I should…

Tower: “74 Whiskey, cleared for takeoff, caution, wake turbulence.”

Lenticular cloud
Mother Nature’s clues…

I felt I needed to expedite, because there was another Southwest 737 eyeballing me from across the runway, also holding short, and waiting for the little puddle jumper to get out of his way, so they could depart. I rolled out on the runway, and went to full throttle… and with a lot of right aileron and rudder. We lifted off and WHAM, we were 30 degrees to the runway. Yeah, I’d say there was a bit of wind shift!

“Reno Tower, 74 Whiskey, request go-around and land.”

“74 Whiskey, do you need assistance?” As a retired firefighter from a local department, that would be embarrassing: my friends from Reno Airport Fire Department sitting on the ramp in their crash trucks as I land.

“Negative, Tower… just don’t like the wind. Landing, full stop.”

Tower: “74 Whiskey, left downwind, cleared to land, 16 Left.” You could hear her snicker over the radio as she acknowledged me.

They say the wind in Nevada doesn’t blow, it sucks; and if you don’t like the weather in Nevada, wait 15 minutes – it’ll change. There was a time when a couple of the airlines used Reno for a training airport, due to mountains, local winds and other factors, including “the Sierra Wave,” a wind phenomenon well known and loved by sailplane pilots from Bishop to Susanville, but not much appreciated by everyone else. Lenticular clouds always form on the lee side of the Sierras when there are winds aloft. When you see those, you know the wind will surface in a few hours, with strong downslope winds along the Sierra Front, and pretty turbulent, strong winds elsewhere. Lenticulars were already forming by noon.

I came around the pattern, and it was pretty bumpy on the downwind. No, this was NOT fun. I turned to final and came in a bit fast. I kind of bounced, jostled, and floated, until I finally got it on the ground, then turned off at Taxiway Juliette. I was sure glad I had bought a solid airplane like a Beechcraft. Almost fireman-proof.

My throat was dry, but I managed to croak out “Reno Ground, 74 Whiskey, taxi to tie-down.”

“74 Whiskey, taxi via Juliette and Charlie, to GA East.”

I hustled back to the tie-down, my hands shaking. I learned a new maneuver that day: the U-turn, and taxi back. You can always say no to a clearance for takeoff. I never should have left the ground.

I gave a sideling glance over at Shelby. “Well, that wasn’t one of my better landings,” I said.

She smiled and said, “I thought it was pretty good!” Ah, dear Shelby, you are so sweet. Next flight, I promise you something a little more… boring.

4 Comments

  • Sandy,

    Good story! Goes to show that “you need to know when to fold them, know when to show them, know when to walk away …” I’ve had some instruction in some gusty crosswinds when I was glad my CFI was in the other seat. Crosswinds are something I really need to work on. I’m coming out of a 2 yrs plus flying hiatus, and recently bought into a 15 member flying club with a nice C150. Definitely need help getting the landings down, but excited to be back in the saddle. Enjoy your Sundowner. That young lady is a gem!

  • Sounds like one time I went flying in my Luscombe a couple years ago. It was a beautiful day, calm and clear, I decided to go flying, but I hadn’t checked the forecast. About 15 minutes into the flight I see thunderstorms rolling in from the north, I immediately turned back to the airport. I listened to the weather, 10 gusting to 15 direct cross wind. I called up the tower and got a clearance to land. The entire way back to the airport they kept giving me wind updates, the last one was 16 gusting to 24 90 degrees to the runway. I landed on the right side of the runway and fought to slow down the airplane all the way to the left side of the runway… I finally got it slowed down about 10 feet away from the runway edge lights. Now I always check the weather before flying.

  • So you took off, realized it was somewhat windy and turbulent and decided to come back, landing safely on the first try. Is that all?

  • Sandy, we’ve all made the decision to bow to mother nature a time or two. The best part of the story is that we are here to tell the story without a mark on the logbook. Clear skies, Jeff

Leave a Reply

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