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: [email protected].
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.
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.
“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.