Two prob­lem­atic land­ings, years apart lead to re­flec­tions on learn­ing from not just one’s own ex­pe­ri­ences, but those of fellow pi­lots

Pilot - - CONTENTS - By Stu­art Evans

Don’t ig­nore tail­winds, they can bite you at any time

Ap­proach­ing the lo­cal zone af­ter a suc­cess­ful af­ter­noon’s solo flight to an­other dis­tant air­field, I was feel­ing quite pleased. The con­ti­nu­ity was fi­nally start­ing to pay off: all my ex­er­cises had gone well, I’d men­tally kept ahead of the air­craft, and man­aged to avoid all the in­ex­pe­ri­enced types cur­rently fum­bling their ra­dio calls in the cir­cuit. The air­craft was start­ing to feel like a com­fort­able old shoe. I just couldn’t quite bear to land yet, so com­pleted a few more cir­cuits, by which time I was alone in the pat­tern.

Turn­ing base, the Tower sur­prised me with news that the wind had swung around and of­fered me a land­ing on ei­ther the other end, or the cross run­way. I had no idea how I’d phys­i­cally achieve this im­promptu re­ver­sal of cir­cuit di­rec­tion and, feel­ing quite happy (read: ig­no­rant) with a tail­wind af­ter such a good day, ex­pressed my in­ten­tion to con­tinue. Tower seemed con­tent with my de­ci­sion and cleared me to land, which re­in­forced my mind-set. You know what’s com­ing now…

I touched down in the usual place and, in that brief mo­ment, noth­ing felt dif­fer­ent. The ground­speed and the air­field in­fra­struc­ture drift­ing past in my pe­riph­eral vi­sion seemed nor­mal. Ad­mit­tedly, it was a nar­row and short grass run­way with some bare patches from heavy use. I pushed the brakes harder, just in case, and we did stop be­fore the marker boards at the end... just. I shrugged it off as an ex­er­cise I’d pre­fer to avoid re­peat­ing, parked, got in the car and thought noth­ing more of it.

Later on, I re­ceived a phone call from one of our in­struc­tors. She’d been en­ter­ing the zone with her own stu­dent as I’d ac­cepted the tail­wind and wanted to hear my logic — in per­son. Gulp. In­stantly I knew I was in trou­ble.

With a heavy heart, I reached for the per­for­mance charts and re­verseengi­neered a cal­cu­la­tion of the con­di­tions of the day: I needed some­thing to go into bat­tle with. I put on some smart clothes and drove back to the air­field. I’d never been sum­moned to the head­mas­ter’s of­fice, but at that mo­ment I un­der­stood what it must feel like. I was lucky. She was very non-judge­men­tal, ac­cepted my ex­pla­na­tion and we had a fair dis­cus­sion about weigh­ing up the odds in fu­ture. I kept that con­ver­sa­tion with me and thought of it some time later...

Take two

Years later I was in­volved in a clas­sic un­sta­ble ap­proach that a pro­fes­sional pi­lot col­league flew in a big­ger air­craft to a big­ger run­way. I was in­ex­pe­ri­enced and he was quite the op­po­site so there was a steep author­ity gra­di­ent. It was a fair day with no wind on the ground but a hefty tail­wind aloft. By the time I’d clocked this and de­nied him the first stage of flap twice be­cause we were above lim­it­ing speed, we both should have re­alised that the odds were stack­ing up and said some­thing... any­thing.

Cap­ti­vated by the un­usual pic­ture, I missed the fi­nal ba­nana skin at 500ft...

Even­tu­ally the gear went down, fol­lowed by more flap and he took the de­ci­sion to con­tinue. With that ex­tra ground­speed came a higher rate of de­scent and, cap­ti­vated by the un­usual pic­ture un­fold­ing in front of me, I missed the fi­nal ba­nana skin at 500ft my last chance to get him to throw away the land­ing. I no­ticed at about 300ft but phrased my doubt in a very open way. I was over­ruled and we con­tin­ued. It was an un­pleas­ant and silent taxi in but I stood my ground once the brakes were set, know­ing we had to dis­cuss this with higher pow­ers.

The op­er­a­tor did not see things quite so favourably as my in­struc­tor had, that day in train­ing. I couldn’t be­lieve it: I’d only just started in this job and had al­most thrown it away al­ready. But we were both treated fairly, learned from it and my as­sertive­ness took a few gi­ant leaps up the scale from that day on.

I did feel about three feet tall for a while, but an un­ex­pected thing hap­pened when I be­gan to re­late the tale to friends and col­leagues. I thought I was the only one hold­ing my hand up to my in­volve­ment in a clas­sic er­ror, but it seemed that for ev­ery re-telling of my story, each re­cip­i­ent had an equiv­a­lent em­bar­rass­ment.

One landed with­out clear­ance at a ma­jor air­port, one got into a dis­agree­ment at the con­trols with an­other about po­si­tion dur­ing an IMC ap­proach. An­other touched down with feet on the brakes and ground-looped, clos­ing an air­port for an hour, some­one else remembered at the very last minute to drop the gear on a light twin whilst test­ing it in front of the owner. All clas­sic howlers that made them feel three feet tall, but we all got over it and passed on the knowl­edge to avoid any­one else cre­at­ing their own se­quel. It was like be­ing in­ducted into the broth­er­hood our motto: re­peat the tale, but never the in­ci­dent.

I hadn’t ex­pected such an in­clu­sive, can­did ad­mis­sion of fail­ure from such a com­mu­nity, but it is very much some­thing that dif­fer­en­ti­ates pi­lots from other en­thu­si­asts or pro­fes­sion­als. If Ernest K Gann talked about fate be­ing the hunter, is this our way of re-stack­ing the odds a lit­tle fur­ther in our favour?

Nowa­days, tail­winds are a reg­u­lar fea­ture of the job, but I can see them com­ing in ad­vance, brief ap­pro­pri­ately and con­sider my ap­proach type, run­way length, con­fig­u­ra­tion and brak­ing. With pi­lots’ dark hu­mour, we joke that abroad, par­tic­u­larly with coastal sea breezes, ATC ac­tu­ally prefers to give you the tail­wind for no other rea­son than spite or ig­no­rance. Of course, some­times it is the more com­mer­cial di­rec­tion too which does fea­ture in the de­ci­sion mak­ing.

When­ever any­one asks me what I learned the most from, in all the pages of my log­book I think of those two tail­wind events, many years apart.

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