The windsock was swinging lazily, almost limp, as I pulled into the parking lot of the airport under a deep blue sky dotted with the cotton-like fluff of summertime cumulus clouds. This was a day of triumph – I had passed my private pilot written exam that morning, and, having taken the whole day off, was planning to celebrate with some solo flight time in my 1965 Piper PA-28-140. I was endorsed to fly in the pattern at KCUB, as long as the winds were below seven knots, and it looked like an opportune time to get in some landings.
My flight training had been going well – now that I had my own airplane, I was able to schedule lessons whenever my instructor and I both had free time. It being summer, we were usually flying either from 7:00 to 8:00 in the morning, or from 7:00 to 8:00 in the evening, to avoid both the demanding office hours of my law firm, and the blistering heat of mid-day Columbia, S.C. We had recently been working on navigation and radio communications in preparation for my long cross-country solo training flight.
I did my customary pre-flight inspection, and wheeled the Cherokee out of the T-hangar. I wound the panel clock and set the time to 3:00 P.M. The engine sprang to life with a very welcome blast of air through the vents, and I taxied out to the runway with the door cracked open to allow the breeze to cool me off. After running through the final items on the checklist and checking for traffic, I made my final radio call before takeoff, lined up, and advanced the throttle.
Everything was perfectly normal as I allowed the plane to accelerate to rotation speed, and gently lifted off the runway. But as soon as I began the climb out, I began to suspect that I had made a major mistake. The little Cherokee, normally as docile as an old mare, was suddenly bucking and swaying like a wild bronco trying to throw me off! The airspeed indicator and inclinometer ball were bouncing around so as to be useless as I tried to keep the nose in a normal climb attitude and keep the wings level. My adrenaline level shot right through the roof. What had I gotten myself into? How could it be this turbulent when there was hardly any wind?
As I made a very strained position call and entered the crosswind turn, things smoothed out a little. “Ok, you’re ok, we can do this,” I told myself, as I took some deep breaths and turned for the downwind leg. The Cherokee was still bouncing and swaying around, but I was feeling somewhat better as I came abeam of the numbers, reduced power, and put in a notch of flaps. Now that I was descending into closer proximity to the ground, with the plane acting so skittish I was really worried about losing too much airspeed or overbanking, and the ASI continued to rise and fall with the bumpy air, so I kept more speed in than normal. I turned final and saw to my dismay that I was high, and the plane just wasn’t coming down like usual. At about 500 feet AGL, even though I wanted to be back on the ground with every fiber of my being, I advanced the throttle, retrimmed, and when I achieved a positive rate of climb I began to lower the Johnson-bar flaps.
Better to the on the ground wishing you were up there, than to be up there wishing you were on the ground.
These old words of wisdom briefly echoed through my thoughts as I turned crosswind again through the hot, turbulent air, but now I understood viscerally what they meant. I was not having fun. My shirt was soaked with sweat.
Back abeam the numbers. Reduce the power. One notch of flaps. Look for traffic. Turn base. Second notch of flaps. Look for traffic. Trim for speed. Turn final. Again, too high. With weary resignation I pushed in the throttle and reconfigured the airplane. This wasn’t working. Time for something else.
As I turned downwind again, I made a decision – it was time to take a break. I turned to the south to fly straight and level for a few minutes and think. I climbed to 2000 feet AGL, and it felt a little cooler, a little less bumpy. It felt safe up there. I had five hours of fuel, I reasoned, might as well take some pressure off.
After a couple minutes, I looked to my right and saw the large open expanse of Columbia Metropolitan Airport a few miles distant. A plan began to form in my mind, as I recalled my recent cross-country training, and I tuned the radio to the approach channel.
“Columbia Approach, Cherokee 6283W – I need a little help. I am a student pilot and I’m having trouble landing at CUB due to the winds. I have never landed at a towered airport, so can you guys just tell me what to do?”
“Cherokee 6283W, roger, no problem at all. Just fly heading 280 and plan to enter a right downwind for runway 11. Do you need any further assistance?”
“No, thanks, uh, 280, right downwind, runway 11. 83W.”
With a sense of relief at having a plan, I flew towards the big airport. Approach handed me over to the tower as I got to the pattern. They cleared me to land, and I configured the airplane for the approach.
As I turned final, a wave of relief washed over me as I saw the size of that runway! It looked enormous compared to the municipal strips we had encountered thus far in my training. The very nice guys in the tower gave me taxi instructions to the FBO, and after parking, with a sigh of relief, I pulled the mixture and watched the prop spin to a halt.
Sitting in the air-conditioned terminal waiting for my wife to pick me up, it occurred to me that I had just violated the restrictions on my solo endorsement. On the same day that I passed the written! Some hot-shot pilot I was. Sheepishly, I called my instructor to ‘fess up and discuss it. I expected him to be displeased at best, and possibly to yank my endorsement.
Much to my surprise, he was very supportive of my decisions: “As pilot-in-command, the FARs allow you to deviate from the rules as needed to ensure a safe flight. Your decision to divert to a more suitable airport, even though you weren’t authorized to make that flight under the rules, was absolutely the right call. You recognized that your original plan was not working, and you utilized the ATC system to get help when you needed it. Now, when we get together next time, let’s talk a little bit about convective turbulence, and what to expect when flying during summer afternoons, as compared to seven in the morning…”