An unwelcome attitude adjustment

My student was working hard on his Private Pilot certificate in a Cessna 172, when we entered the airspace for St. Petersburg-Clearwater International (PIE) on a routine flight from Zephyrhills, Florida. We had been handed off from Tampa approach, and having secured ATIS prior to this, found that it had indicated nothing untoward save for a warning of birds in the vicinity of the water, seemingly omnipresent on three sides of the field.

We were using Runway 4/22, and after clearance to land on 4, I warned my student about the need to keep our eyes peeled for a flock of seabirds that might be worth avoiding. He had heard it, too. Just making sure.

We were on about a half-mile final when the controller decided to add some information for us: “Be aware of Coast Guard aircraft doing routine engine maintenance adjacent your touchdown zone.”

C-130
Those engines and props can move some air when they’re turning.

I didn’t have to look far to spot the gigantic C-130 in its Coast Guard markings. Of the two engines I could see, they were not moving. I eased some power in, and arrested the descent, as I explained to my student of the havoc of a live Hercules engine on our little airplane, flying so low and slow. Tower personnel observed our flattened glide path and opined as to that being perhaps a good idea.

We were no more than 150 feet above the ground when the airplane rose vertically about 50 feet. I grabbed the controls, and it hit hard, rolling the aircraft all the way up upon its left wing. Full power, top rudder, and aileron did seemingly nothing to our immediate roll attitude. When it did, it snapped us back level once again.

I waited for another monster wave, but even the birds left us alone from that point. I looked back to see the C-130 with two of its engines in motion. I was quite upset and told the tower operator that that runway should be closed in the presence of an aircraft like that—doing whatever they were doing.

“If you want to try another approach, you might want to flatten your glide out more.”

My student looked like a boxing referee calling off a fight as he waved both hands and shook his head in a gesture that screamed, “No!”

He told me quite directly: “Your airplane!”

So, I kept on flying. I declined the invitation to return to the warm embrace of St. Petersburg on that particular evening. I remember my former chief pilot once telling me: “this job can literally kill you…” and he snapped his fingers for effect, saying “…like that.” I resigned myself to the fact that an aborted approach to land whilst in the clutches of unseemly events was no vice.

We were both so lucky that early spring evening. We both flew back together in silence.

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