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!
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.
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.