When breaking the rules is the safest thing to do

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.

Hot airport ramp
All that heat rising off the runways can make the air quite turbulent.

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.

Windsock
A little wind and a few bumps can change everything.

“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…”

6 Comments

  • From the way this reads, the author didn’t make a conscious decision to break the rules. That’s an issue for some; I’ve spoken to pilots who made very dangerous decisions in order to avoid breaking the rules. The solution is to realize, as the author’s CFI explained, no action you take is breaking the rules if in your opinion as PIC it’s necessary to complete the flight safely. That doesn’t mean you won’t have some ‘splainin’ to do if you act contrary to guidance, it just means if you can justify your action(s) then you shouldn’t run afoul of your friendly FAA enforcer.

  • Tyler,

    Your experience is an object lesson in the CFI’s dilemma – how to balance training in stable air where learning is optimal against training in thermal turbulence where the student is stressed and little technique can be learned. Students should experience both environments before striking out on their own.

    Your response, and the flight’s successful conclusion, speaks for itself.

    As an aside, I recall, during the 90s, that the tower controllers at Columbia were often hostile to pilots unfamiliar with controlled airspace. I’m pleased to see that has changed.

  • Safety is the FIRST priority when you have a problem… especially when flying!… and that is what to did! Good job Tyler…. NO! GREAT job Tyler. After flying for ~60 years , and having made some of those tough decisions….. and commenting to a person after I got on the ground safely… “….Well I am here and alive now, and no-one got hurt….. that’s ALL that is important…”

  • Landing immediately in marginal conditions while the adrenaline level is high is pushing your luck.

    Very, very smart to stop repeating what was not working and get to an undemanding flight regime where you can decompress, settle down and make a plan.

  • Those are the flights one learns from. Tedious repetitive touch and goes in zero wind does little, other than build time.

  • Good job Tyler! I had a similar but different experience as a student pilot past solo. I was up practicing stalls in a C150 on a hot turbulent day in the Midwest, even at 3500 ft MSL. After several good no power and power on stalls, I tried an accelerated stall. You guess it, the plane broke off in one direction (don’t remember which way) and rotated about 1/2 turn as I was recovering. Talk about sweat pouring out. I decided I had enough and went back and made a halfway decent landing. Talked with my CFI during the next lesson, and we went out and practiced some of those stalls, him teaching me that what probably happened was, the ball was not centered at the stall break. I learned a valuable lesson that day 43 years ago. We all have learned these types of lessons. As long as we learn from our mistakes and no one gets hurt, all is good. Keep at it!

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