Lake Placid: anything but

It was mid-spring of 2017, and I had about three months on my shiny new fixed-wing license. I’d been flying Apache attack helicopters for the Army for 16 years and had finally gotten off my butt that spring and gotten my fixed-wing ratings. Up until that time, my flying had been purely for work and the thought of “flying for fun” was a bit of a novelty.

Stationed at Fort Drum, New York, I had conducted many training flights out to the Adirondacks, fueling at Saranac Lake (SLK) and often flying over Lake Placid (LKP). We never landed there as the runway would not support the 17,500 lb Apache, nor did they have jet fuel. I always wanted to stop there, though. The little bowl that the airport and town of Lake Placid sits in is beautiful and the town is within walking distance of the airport.

On a free weekend, with beautiful weather (sunny, warm, with a steady 15-20 knots out of the WSW) I called up two of my friends from work, Laura and Amanda, and offered a trip out to Lake Placid for the afternoon. Both of them are also Apache pilots, and we had all just returned from a deployment together that winter. They both eagerly agreed and we met up at the Watertown International Airport (ART). Despite being the about size of a McDonald’s, Watertown does have flights from Canada so they wear the “international” moniker. This would be my first flight ever that had no specific training/mission objective (civilian or military). Simply recreational.

I arranged for one of the two 172s available for rent on the field and off we merry three went. We made good time eastbound towards the mountains. Despite the wind, the air was stable and smooth even at the 1000 ft “sight-seeing” altitude I held along the way. (Mind you, for three attack helicopter pilots, anything above about 1000 feet above the ground seems rather unnecessary.)

Author by Apache
After 16 years of flying attack helicopters, what could possibly go wrong in a Cessna 172?

And it’s worth noting at this point that that little Cessna now contained the collective experience of over 30 years of aviation, almost 10,000 hours of helicopter time, over ten years of combat deployments and less collective airplane hours than we had years on this earth.

As we got into the lower Adirondacks, we found a few bumps being generated by the terrain, but still a very comfortable ride. I swung the flight north to line up for a low pass over the Saranac Lake (Adirondack Regional) runway 23, as it had an ILS and I wanted to test my new handheld radio that had an ILS function. Test complete: Success! Departing 23, we turned left, direct for Lake Placid making calls on Unicom to an otherwise empty sky.

At this point, we were having a blast! Just flying around, goofing off was so very unusual to the normally serious and brooding personality of an attack helicopter pilot. Laura had some fixed-wing training before the Army and had been doing most of the flying to this point, Amanda was in the back with my iPad navigating us around with ForeFlight (new to all of us), and I was just enjoying the whole experience.

I switched us over to the Lake Placid Unicom and began making calls stating we were inbound from the northwest. Not a lot of traffic that day, I noted. As a matter of fact, the frequency was absolutely silent. The first half of the 13 mile leg was uneventful and had us all peering over the dash looking for the runway, which was just ahead. We were lined up with runway 14, and, with winds generally out of the west, I told my “crew” I’d enter a left downwind, check winds and planned on landing 32. I ran through the before landing checks from the laminated checklist card and right about then Laura announced she had the field in sight.

Then a bump. Not a vertical bump one would expect on a warm summer day, but a fairly stiff bump with a bit of roll. “No big deal,” I thought. Some mechanical turbulence is to be expected in the mountains. We fly out here all the time and feel a few bumps anytime it’s windy.

Two miles out and maneuvering into a left downwind, the air around that little Cessna had become rather unstable. “Anyone see the wind sock?” I can’t remember who first saw the tetrahedron that adorns the field, but I remember thinking, “Every time I look at the damn thing, it’s pointing a different direction!” At this point I was fighting to correct the attitude of the little plane every five or ten seconds. At one point, passing very close to the 1980s Olympic ski jump towers (which are mid-field in the downwind), I had the yoke to the roll stop for what seemed like a very long time. I remember very distinctly hitting the stop, the plane was still near 30 degrees in roll and not correcting and I thought, “Well, surely it’s gotta roll back eventually…” It did, and I continued to fight the turbulence around to final. I made a quick radio call, set flaps to the second notch and pulled out the rest of the power. We were not descending. In fact, the altimeter was bobbing up a bit!

The terrain under this leg of the pattern at Lake Placid rises up, away from the runway. I realized fairly quickly that we were in a mechanical updraft caused by the westerly winds climbing up the mountain to our rear. Still more turbulence. I deployed full flaps, fighting with the yoke with both hands and nosed the plane over in an effort get us down to what some could argue would “look” like a glide path. The approach end of the runway began to get swallowed up by the dash and my pride took a back seat to my aviator’s sensibility. “Well, shoot…” I muttered and applied power, brought the flaps up and radioed for a go-around.

At this point, it hadn’t occurred to me, but the once busy intercom had been deathly silent for quite a while now. As I turned left crosswind, I looked over and back at my “crew.” There wasn’t any fear in their expressions, but we were all definitely back to “serious and brooding” mode. The yoke made yet another journey to the stops in the downwind and I thought to myself, “If this one doesn’t work, we’re going to Saranac.” I made my turns for base and final with no flaps and at a considerably lower altitude this time. Still fighting the yoke, we crossed the tree line with and headed for the numbers. Just as we rolled out and began the flare, as if to say “You’re not done yet!” a gust of wind tried its best to blow us off the right side of the runway. Touchdown was made unceremoniously to the right of the centerline with a fair bit of lateral pull as I struggled to recover the plane back away from the grass.

Lake Placid
A beautiful town, but not the flattest terrain.

The mood lightened considerably by the time we stopped at the fuel pump. We all hopped out and talked as the attendant topped off the plane. Once finished, I asked the man where he wanted us to move the plane to, as we would be there a few hours. He looked at the plane, looked at the pump, then looked around and said, “I don’t think anyone’s gonna’ be through here today. You can just leave it.”

We then walked into town, talking about the crazy turbulence and how much different a 3000 lb plane is than Apache. (DUH!) We had a great time in Lake Placid, having lunch at an outdoor café and checking out all the shops and of course, letting our inner children buy us some candy from a candy store. It wasn’t until on the walk back when it dawned on me. I stopped walking and exclaimed, “Wait a minute!” What the airport attendant was really saying was, “I don’t think anyone’s gonna be through here today. EXCEPT YOU IDIOTS!” We had a good laugh at that one!

I made our departure using the whole runway to get the best speed before peeking over the tree line, then transitioned us into a best climb attitude and headed for an altitude that would provide relief from the washing machine below.

The journey back was slow with the nearly direct 20-knot headwind. Along the way, I noted all the somewhat remote lakes we flew over, as they were the only option for a survivable forced landing in this country. At one point, I took notice of a boat speeding across a rather remote lake. On a second look, I saw the boat had stopped and its wake was in the shape of a tight “J”, as if it made a sharp 150 degree turn and stopped. I looked at it out the right windows with a frown for a bit and Laura asked me “What is it?” I expressed concern that if that boat caught a bad bounce and the driver was ejected, that could be a bad deal. The waters up here were still pretty cold and that’s a remote lake. From 2000 ft it was hard to tell…

Now we were all looking at the boat as it passed behind the right wingtip. As if to satisfy the unspoken requests of my friends (I knew they were thinking it… so was I), I reduced the throttle, began a descent and turned toward the little boat. I swung around the lake at a little below 1000 ft and circled left around the boat. As we came around we saw the craft start to move again and collectively, we all let out a kind of “Oh, okay. They’re good.”

A few minutes later and back on courses, Amanda announced, “Dude! Do realize how ironic that was?” “Three Apache helicopter pilots (hunter/killers), in a Cessna airplane, doing Search and Rescue Ops?!?!” The three of us had a few good minutes of laughter on that one! Still joke about it today.

The intercom was quiet once again on our approach into Watertown. I think nerves were still a bit tender over the landing at Placid. The landing was uneventful, and it may just be in my mind, but I remember it as being the smoothest landing I have ever made in an airplane to date!

10 Comments

  • Excellent article. Well written, enjoyable to read, and shows how even the best of us can miss things.
    Thank you so much for your service Alex and friends. Safe flying.

  • That is the difference between flying a helicopter and flying an airplane. The wings are a big sail and as such even light wind drafts are felt with gusto and they throw all kinds of disarray on whatever flying configuration you had at that point. Helicopter rotors are also wings but they just slice through those wind drafts. The effect of the wind on the helicopter’s body is small and controllable. A windy day when flying a small airplane will make you work. Thanks for your service.

  • In your spare time, you definitely could be a writer as your story drew me in to where I felt I was in that 4th seat of the C-172!

    My husband (who is retired from the U.S. Army, CW3) and I say THANK YOU FOR YOUR SERVICE as well as to your “crew”, Laura and Amanda.

    Blue skies and calm winds!

  • My guess is that you were in mountain wave/rotor during the approach. The wave (likely secondary or tertiary) would have been generated by the southwesterly winds going over high terrain southwest of the airport.
    If so, then you would have experienced turbulence while in the rotor – just below the laminar flow of the wave. The rising air on approach might well have been within the smooth air of the wave itself.
    NP
    CFI- Gliders

  • Interesting and most enjoyable story…love Lake Placid and had a chance to take a pleasure flight there years ago…remember the the turbulence made for an exciting flight.
    Thanks to all for your service.

  • Excellent article Alex! I enjoyed the read as I had to plan my PPL checkride cross country to Lake Placid from my home airport in Mass. On a side note, I got a chuckle out of your bio that you started your early training at Marlborough, Mass. I grew up there and flew out of 9B1 a few times. You should write an article about flying in there over the tall pines at one end and with the STOP street sign on the chain link fence at the other end of the 1659ft runway. Ahhh, good times!

    Thank you for your service and fly safe

  • Great article, Alex! Loved hearing about your adventure again. You are a talented writer (and pilot)! You paint a picture and a mood with your words that are easy to imagine when read. Thanks for sharing!

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