Learning the hard way (almost) at Jackson

It was August of 1996. I had just received my private pilot certificate in June and was excited to continue my training and get an instrument rating. I had all of 80 hours total flight time and wanted to get some hood time so when I had enough hours, I could start my training. I found a safety pilot, who was willing to trade hood time with me. She had about 40 hours more time than I had so we were both pretty green.

We decided to fly a cross country from KSLC, where we would rent N9656Q, a 1975 Cessna 172 with the 150 HP Lycoming O-320, to KJAC. I would be the pilot in command for the flight and would get close to four hours hood time! Excellent!

JAC airport
JAC has a long runway, but it’s not always pointed into the wind.

We left early in the morning, co-pilot, wife, and young daughter with me. Each detail of the flight was checked and double-checked and with full fuel we were just under gross by a few pounds. The flight to KJAC was smooth and uneventful. After arriving at Jackson we made our way into the historic town of Jackson Hole, Wyoming. A fair in the town square quickly drew our attention so we enjoyed the morning walking through the different booths and enjoying the beautiful surroundings. In the early afternoon I noticed some clouds building and suggested that we should begin our journey to the airport and home to Salt Lake City. By the time we got to the airport, storms were coming in from the west over the Tetons. I looked at our options and it seemed we could get out to the South and cut through the canyon over to Alpine. My co-pilot agreed.

We loaded up and taxied out to the runway.

I should mention that on this day, August 18, 1996, President Clinton was finishing his vacation time at Jackson and the airport would close in roughly 45 minutes. There were a number of C-130s and crews along with Secret Service agents and other support vehicles and planes. Marine One was there to shuttle the President over to KIDA where Air Force One was parked.

It was a warm afternoon. JAC is located at 6451 feet MSL and the runway is 6300 feet long. At gross weight the little Cessna used about two thirds of the runway to get airborne and I distinctly remember holding the speed at Vy, eking out about 200 to 300 feet per minute climb rate. As we continued south, all of the previously good corridors for flight seemed to just close up with clouds. I had only one option and that was to return to KJAC.

The runway at Jackson is oriented 01-19. The thunderstorm that had been hovering over the Tetons was quickly moving across the valley, headed straight towards the airport. There was visible lightning, which created a significant hazard and the airport was scheduled to close in fifteen minutes for the presidential TFR. I checked AWOS and the winds had changed dramatically. 280 at 22kts, gusting to 35kts. Almost a direct crosswind way higher than the capability of the 172.

I talked things over with my friend and safety pilot. We decided to try the approach and see if we could get on the ground. Our only other option was to set down in a field close to the airport. We entered the pattern and I remember as I turned base I was blown well past the final approach course. I adjusted and came back on to final. I had never ever been in such an extreme crab angle. At about 100 feet AGL I decided to go around and attempt one more try.

As a side note, my co-pilot had told my wife and daughter that we would probably be making an off airport landing at this time. I was unaware of this as I had not yet made that determination. I did, however, hear some prayers and singing from the back seat as I proceeded to go around for another try.

Jackson storms
Storms can pop up quickly and blow hard in Jackson Hole.

While on downwind, and being told that the airport would close in 5 minutes, I watched a twin Cessna struggle to land and I talked with him a little after he was successful. He had a tough time with the landing so I was not encouraged. I turned base and continued on to final as to not get blown too far to the east. I held the crab angle in, then at 150 feet I had to take the crab out. The wind socks went limp, I straightened up and landed normally, and taxied to the ramp. Just as I shut down the wind picked up and the rain began to fall.

We sat there for a few minutes and got out and tied down. When I got back in to the FBO the military pilots were all settling wagers that they had on me getting back on the ground in one piece! They told me they had watched my take off and thought I had used most of the runway to get off the ground. After joking with the awesome men of the Air Force, I went out to find my wife. She was outside by a stooped over Secret Service agent, lying on the ramp with binoculars looking under the airplanes trying to get a glimpse of President Clinton. Looking closer, the binoculars were still around the neck of the Agent! I was wondering why he was leaning over so oddly. We still laugh about that!

We found a hotel in Jackson and headed there for the night. We were awakened by sirens going past at about 11:30 pm. Later in the morning, as we got out to the airport, we learned what had happened. One of the crews of a C-130 that I had joked with the day before was gone. They had flown into one of the surrounding mountains. Eight crew members and one Secret Service agent, now deceased. It was a tragic and sobering time for each of us. We don’t know if it was the agent with the binoculars or not. This hit us pretty hard. It seems that when you make a connection with people any such tragedy holds more weight and we felt that grief as we finally continued to our destination.

We flew uneventfully home but as I often reflect on this flight and the valuable lessons that it taught me, I know that I am a better pilot, a blessed pilot, and even if there is such a thing, a lucky pilot to have come through this flight.

8 Comments

  • That’s a great, and very sobering, story. I well remember that C-130 crash. When I was teaching new captains at a regional airline during the 80’s, I used to tell them that the most important knowledge they could acquire was provided by two celebrities…Clint Eastwood, for his world famous Dirty Harry line, “A man’s got to know his limitations”., and Kenny Rogers, for the refrain in his song The Gambler, “You got to know when to hold ’em, know when to fold ’em, know when to walk away, and know when to run.” And that first go around was a very wise choice under tremendous pressure. Opening the option of an off-airport landing was good airmanship as well. We could argue that you shouldn’t have gotten into that situation to begin with, but your inexperience makes that moot. Once in it, you both handled it rather well.

  • Good job, sir. One side note for some of the lesser experienced flyers out there. In strong crosswind situations where you’re attempting to land on wide runways, you don’t necessarily have to shoot for and follow the runway centerline. Approach and land from one corner of the threshold at an angle (variable) into the wind toward the opposite side of the runway giving yourself an effective runway length that is variable depending on your judgment at the time. As you slow you can make the shallow turn to follow the runway heading. You’ll still have some crosswind, but not at such deprecating angle. Also, if needed you can land on a taxiway or a closed runway that’s oriented more into the wind – even a service road in a pinch (emergency).

    • Nice comment and useful. Sometimes though, the wind is just too strong for any type of adjustment. I think I just happened to hit the literal “calm before the storm” but I’m not discounting help from a higher power.

      • I’d say you’re right; there is a limit wind velocity for every pilot/airplane. I’d say, too, that we’ve all received Heavenly help at various times – even if we never knew it. Peace to you and yours, my brother.

  • Steve, what a great story. En-route from a scenic flight from Hamilton Montana over to Yellowstone National Park, we turned south and completed a nice smooth landing at Jackson Hole for fuel. Our intent was to depart after a few minutes in the FBO and a weather brief. Walking back to the aircraft for a VFR departure, I was surprised by how quickly billowing storm clouds were brewing to the west over the Tetons. A potential thunderstorm was on our doorstep. We departed northeast to the Dunoir VOR and then turned southeast on V330 for a overnight in Scotts Bluff. We leveled out a 11,500ft to clear the Rockies on the east side of Jackson. We missed the storm by minutes.

  • Thanks for the excellent story Steve. That last minute break from winds was devine help from above! Keep writing! I love reading. Keeps me away from the boob tube!

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