A lesson for life

Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.

The three least useful resources for a pilot are: the sky above, the runway behind, the fuel at the gas station.

Stabilized approach at 1000ft AGL prevents dents on the runway.

Every successful landing ends with a successful go-around.

Many valuable phrases that are essential for your survival accompany pilot training. They deal with judgment, identifying critical situations, managing risk and—this may be the most important category—admitting and correcting errors you have made to avoid the fatal one, even it feels like failing.

Theory is valuable and memorizing all those phrases support sharpening your pilot survival skillset, but nothing beats direct confrontation with the matter.

Visual navigation is something a green pilot needs to get accustomed to. You build experience slowly, by keeping track of the progress of flight by judging time/distance, identifying landmarks, and comparing to your planned route on your paper map. All the stuff that was considered routine before the advent of GPS and glass cockpits anyways.

Having completed the initial phases of my pilot training a couple of years ago, I was ready for my first cross-country flight. The destination airfield we planned for was Punitz (LOGG), a small strip located in Styria, southeastern Austria. Punitz is located in slightly hilly terrain that is common for that area, surrounded by small patches of forest, fields, and little towns and villages that from above all look pretty much the same.

LOGG
It’s an airport—how hard can it be to find?

My flight instructor was making jokes in advance, about how difficult the airfield is to find for somebody lacking experience. His favorite story was that of one of my predecessors who got lost on the same navigation flight. Assessing the situation with help of his flight instructor, the student pilot began circling while comparing landmarks to the map. After a while, ATC radioed in to ask if their destination (Punitz) still was valid. When the flight instructor confirmed, adding they were still looking out for the airfield, ATC replied “best of luck” accompanied by a laugh. Turned out they were circling exactly above the runway.

Determined not to act as baseline for another funny story, my planning was meticulous. I printed out satellite pictures in different resolutions and noted down radials from every VOR I could find in the remote vicinity. I decided to approach Punitz from the north, turning south at a town five nautical miles from the airfield. I wrote down descriptions of landmarks near the airfield (“NOVEMBER VRP located just north of a triangular shaped storehouse complex 200m across”). I even checked (unsuccessfully) on YouTube for videos on approaches to our destination. While visibility would be decent, and wind generally calm, some light crosswind with annoying gusts were expected on landing. This was not of concern to me, though, as my home base is renowned for crosswinds and I already made jokes on being more proficient at landings involving crosswinds than without. Essentially, I was as over-prepared as possible, and quite confident that even failing on some aspects on navigation my flight would be a complete success.

During the flight, everything went smoothly. I ticked off my turn points, engaged in relaxed conversation with my flight instructor, and felt completely in control of the situation. Approaching and passing NOVEMBER VRP, I turned south and began to look out for a runway. I knew the general direction and had the patches of forest essentially imprinted into my brain, but even so it took quite some time until I finally identified the airfield. When I saw the concrete behind small groups of trees, I pointed out our destination to my flight instructor. We radioed asking for landing information and received a direct-in “land at your own discretion runway 15” immediately as no other traffic was near.

Searching for the field had already made me a bit nervous, and on approach my anxiousness to bring the flight to a successful conclusion grew. My stress level rose the closer we came to the field. I felt I was a bit high, a bit too late on everything, a bit too tense and erratic in control of the aircraft, but put it down to the unfamiliarity with my surroundings. On final approach, I was still too high and compensated with full flaps and a slip. I convinced myself that the approach still looked OK, but even to my untrained eye it was obvious that this was not one of my best approaches, familiar airfield or not. The whole approach phase my flight instructor intervened only minimally and quietly observed my performance.

On flare it all collapsed. One of the crosswind gusts hit the plane with force right when I set power to idle—still a bit high—and turned the plane sideways to the runway. I was completely taken by surprise, and, unprepared, had neither the time nor the reflexes to cope with the situation. I simply continued down towards the concrete, unaligned with the runway.

I heard a shout: MY CONTROLS! and simply let go. My flight instructor, with his experience from thousands of flight hours, and a couple of quick moves, put the plane on the runway as if he had been waiting for that moment—which he probably had.

Twenty minutes later, sipping a coffee, baffled and hands still shaking, fully aware that my life had been saved just moments ago, I winced at the stare of my flight instructor.

Cessna 172
A good landing starts long before the flare.

Now tell me, what went wrong?

I did not count on the crosswind gust…

No. What went wrong?

Well, I was high on final and the slip added to…

No. Think. What went wrong?

I think my timing was off right from the beginning.

Closer.

He continued with determination:

That was not a single mistake. You were at least 1500 ft too high when you identified the airfield, you were close, and you were aware of that. You misinterpreted the radio message to land at your own discretion as an order to land. You wanted to impress by completing what you started instead of minimizing risk. You ignored that fighting for your descent resulted in being too late on every step in the approach, mentally and physically. You ignored all the accumulating warning signs on final and were overloaded with tasks. You ignored the option to go around, an option you had all the time until milliseconds before touchdown. But actually you should have opted to enter the traffic pattern in the first place instead of trying to prove how cool you are going direct in. Even without that gust your landing would have been somewhere between terrible and dangerous. You had lengths of time and gazillions of chances to prevent ending up as a blotch on the concrete. You took none of them.

I was thunderstruck. I realized I had ignored every single lesson about judgment and risk prevention just because I wanted to be successful. To impress. To be the Best Green Navigator Student Pilot Ever. With my head hanging, I felt what was still left of my confidence slowly drifting away. I realized that I had failed in my decision-making process.

Then my flight instructor grinned: “That will not happen again. Lessons like these stay. Don’t worry, I know how you fly. You will be a good pilot.”

To this day I believe this was one of the most important lectures of my adult life, not just to remind me how to stay a responsible and safe pilot. The options to prevent fatal errors, even if it means to swallow your pride or to admit that you did not perform as expected, are always there. Some options might be inconvenient, or embarrassing. Nevertheless, if it is necessary to prevent something significantly worse, it is not only legitimate but mandatory to make use of them.

I believe this lesson applies to many aspects life, not only to flying. The underlying mindset can be a problem solver in relationships, raising kids, to friendships, to cope with difficult situations in general and how you perform on your job.

To become a pilot and roam the skies has always been my dream since I was a child. Only with time, I realized becoming a pilot taught me a lot more than just how to fly aircraft.

16 Comments

  • Direct approaches to land are a big red flag for me, since my first solo cross country. High and fast is the usual result. Thanks for sharing your experience. Great article!

    • Thank you Rick. I have a similar view on direct approaches – at least at unfamiliar airfields. Pattern altitudes are there for a reason. Besides traffic management they keep you from wasting time to catch the glideslope while you should concentrate on other tasks.

  • Excellent! Lessens learned from mistakes are often the best teachers. That is why learning from other’s mistakes are important to us pilots. We can’t make all of them ourselves! Hard to beat getting a few hours in with a long time experienced CFI. They’ve “been there and done that!”

    • Absolutely Mike. I was lucky to spend most of my training with a very experienced CFI who did it because he thought it was fun an rewarding to teach others how to fly, not because he needed the money.

  • A fine article Leonard. I am an Aeronautical Engineer, trained to become a pilot while on active duty in the US Air Force flying Piper Cub, T-28, and T-33 aircraft… then flew B-47 on SAC alert …. then flew F-84 and F-86H aircraft in the Mass. ANG.. finally owning and flying a Cessna 182 in the civilian sector while being employed at Pratt & Whitney for ~40 years. I had 50+ years of flying that I ALWAYS used, Aviate, Navigate, Communicate!…. the words you used to begin your article. Now, in retirement I do mentoring/seminars on many Aviation related topics with youngsters and ‘elderly’. Being in Aviation, EAA Young Eagles program (flown just under 400 youngsters), and mentoring youngsters has been, and is, a VERY rewarding experience.

  • Wow this is a powerful story. Also one that I can relate to. I appreciate your humility and completely agree with your correlation of flying and life. Great article!

  • An experience never to be forgotten often becomes a lesson well learnt. Thanks for sharing this, and best wishes for continued safe flying.

  • Great story, Leonard — thanks for sharing it.

    Just so that post-traumatic fear doesn’t come back and bite you later, I think it’s unlikely the instructor actually saved your life. He saved the landing gear, some runway lights, (possibly) a bent wing, and (definitely) your flight training, but landing in an extreme crab would be unlikely to cause serious injury to the people inside a typical trainer.

  • Thanks for the excellent post, you are a great story-teller. Maybe you should become an instructor yourself? Lessons like this could be passed on side by side 😉

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