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