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Saturday, May 31, 2014

A successful failure

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(Note: it wasn't until long after I wrote this post that I found out that Apollo 13 was also given the same nickname. This post is about a training flight that "failed" in many rewarding ways, not astronauts that survived despite incredible odds.)

This month, the FAA launched an initiative called "Got Weather?" to help pilots get better at evaluating weather and its hazards on their own. Each month has a separate topic, and May's is turbulence.

It's no secret that weather is one of my favorite things about aviation, so to contribute to their initiative, I'm capping off my May schedule of posts with a little story that blends turbulence, equipment failures, a failed forecast, and a failed landing attempt into an extremely successful flight.

It was a dark and stormy night.... Well, actually, it was a clear blue day. Slightly on the breezy side, but not horribly so. The winds were a steady 14 knots, about 70 degrees off the runway. A little outside the comfort zone for the person I was flying with, but sometimes you have to get outside of that nice comfy spot to expand your skills. The key is to get out of that comfort zone safely, and since 14 knots is both within the 172's maximum demonstrated crosswind component and my own proficiency and currency envelope since I fly this particular aircraft several times a week, this instructional flight should be a... breeze.

One of the flights I always have my students do is a trip from Lorain County to Carroll County to Burke-Lakefront and back to Lorain County. This is a busy flight, since it hits Class B, C, and D all in one shot. (Because there's so much going on in it, it is the basis for one part of the final project my AVIA 111 students do, too.) People who learn to fly with me don't get to duck under airspace or shy away from talking to controllers. Once you get used to talking to them, you'll quickly learn that they are one of your best resources. Use everything in the cockpit, and the radio is in the cockpit, right? The reward is that once you make it to Carroll County, you can eat the best pie in the state of Ohio.


So, the plan for what we're going to do is done. The preflight is done. One part of the preflight preparation was the TAF, which was calling for winds lighter than the actual ones. They were supposed to be 10 knots, increasing to 15G25 right around the time we would be returning. That's something to make a note of, because that often means that the weather is going to end up worse than forecast. But that was just an opportunity for a nice crosswind takeoff.

One of the first parts of the plan was to contact Cleveland Approach and get cleared through their Class B. The frequency was already in standby before takeoff, so a simple switchover and callout was all that was necessary. It went like any other, until the controller couldn't make radar contact. We reset the transponder and tried again. No luck. It looked like either our transponder was dead or his system was having issues. We finally agreed to just stay under his Class B shelf and continue on course.

Once we started getting close to Akron-Canton's airspace, we tried again. This time it was the same failure to make radar contact, except that the controller said that he was getting a transponder code of 7777 instead of what he had assigned us. (That's really bad because only the military guys get to use that squawk code.) Again we reset the transponder and again it didn't work. Now the problem was definitely with us. We agreed to circumnavigate his Class C and continue on our way.

While we were working with Akron-Canton Approach, we started getting some bumps. There were no airmets for turbulence along our route, although there was one well to the east of where we would be. There were also no pireps of turbulence in the entire state of Ohio; the only scattered ones were in the area that had moderate turbulence forecast, and those reports were 1 light, 2 light-moderate, and 1 moderate. (I only include those pireps from about 10,000 or below, since our 172 won't make it into the flight levels without being strapped to an SSME.)

Naturally, neither forecasts nor pireps are solid-gold indicators of the absence of turbulence. Pireps are especially non-reflective, since they're only given by those who know how (which is actually pretty simple: just tell ATC you want to give a pirep and then say what it's like up there), aren't too lazy to, and aren't too busy fighting to keep the shiny side up in turbulence.

This, unfortunately, was one of those times when no news was not good news. The closer we got to the destination, the worse the bumps got. By 10 miles out, there were a few that definitely would have made a good moderate turbulence pirep for ATC. I have a rather high tolerance for getting bumped around a cockpit, so when even I'm starting to get a little irritated, it's at least moderate.

Now comes the time when a lot of metal gets bent: at the end of a cross country flight, so close to the airport that it calls to you like a Homeric Siren. The AWOS was reporting winds 80 degrees off the runway at 21 knots gusting to 27. You have the airport in sight. What do you do?

Discretion is the better part of valor. The wise pilot knows when to say when. These conditions were pushing up against my own skill level. I let him fly the pattern and try to land, with my hand right by the yoke ready to jump in if necessary, as I fully expected us to not even be able to touch asphalt.

We managed, after an approach that wouldn't win any trophies for precision, to land. Many times, the natural instinct after feeling wheels touch pavement in conditions like that, is to breathe a sigh of relief and be glad it's over. However, especially in a crosswind, the landing isn't over until the plane is in a hangar. As soon as the upwind aileron was released, the wind got under the wing and raised the plane up a bit on that side, pushing it toward the side of the runway.

It's never too late to go around, so power up, pitch up, clean up, and speak up. That's what we did and decided to skip the next leg and head for home instead, where it was a little saner—or at least it was when we took off. There wasn't even a thought of going back in the pattern and making a second chance at a landing.

On the way back, we were getting beat up again, so we used the time to see how well the wing leveler on the autopilot works. Use all the resources in the cockpit, which includes the autopilot when necessary. It did a passable job keeping the shiny side up until we got back to the home patch.

Back home, the winds had picked up to 17 gusting to 24 and at a right angle to the runway. However, this pattern and approach went much more smoothly, and the landing was a very nice one without me even touching the controls. As we taxied back to the hangar, I thought about the sentiment that Ernie Gann and Bob Buck expressed about how sometimes 1 hour of time in the cockpit is worth 100 hours in a logbook. This was one of those flights.

Why? How could I be so pleased after coming home with an empty belly?

Look at all the things experienced on just one flight:

  • A real (not simulated) equipment failure and working with ATC about it
  • A real (not simulated) in-flight change of plans because of it
  • A first encounter with real turbulence
  • An approach that shows why it's better to bug out than bend metal
  • Why textbooks (and instructors) say to keep that aileron down all the way through rollout. It's no longer just ink on a page but a real experience.
  • A real (not simulated) go around in tough conditions
  • A real (not simulated) decision to abandon the original goal
  • A real (not simulated) diversion because of that decision
  • A real (not simulated) need to use the autopilot to reduce workload. Autopilots are excellent tools if you use them as a workload reducer, not a brain replacer
  •  A confidence-building nice crosswind landing back at the home drome—and the yoke stayed fully deflected the whole time after that learning experience at Carroll County
If every flight "failed" this successfully, we'd all be aces in no time.

Got a "So there I was..." story? Leave a comment and share it.

The author is an airline pilot, flight instructor, and adjunct college professor teaching aviation ground schools. He holds an ATP certificate with a DHC-8 type rating, as well as CFI, CFII, MEI, AGI, and IGI certificates, and is a FAASafety Team representative and Master-level participant in the FAA's WINGS program. He is on Facebook as Larry the Flying Guy, has a Larry the Flying Guy YouTube channel, and is on Twitter as @Lairspeed.

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