If not the most noxious, perhaps the oddest of my many defects is willingness to admit mistakes as if unabashed by them. (Just imagine the faux I’ve pas′ed that even I’m too vain to reveal!) One fiasco I always mention to students is my worst landing ever, though usually in only fleeting reference. The unabridged version is far more painful to recall.
It was a post-solo student’s first taste of soaring cross-country and we elected to go without a ground crew. That’s two reasons why the weather should be expected to turn against us. Forcing a flight on the only day available when the very wind itself warned us to STAY HOME, we flirted for an hour with ‘GetThereitis’ before I succumbed to that ailment’s identical twin, ‘GetHomeitis’.
We’d already crawled beyond Mojave with little hope of remaining airborne, and as we passed by the other direction – sinking fast toward pattern height – all hands knew we should concede defeat and land there. But I’ve always been averse to big airports, and was determined to press on for the next approved alternate where I felt more comfortable.
You won’t see it on aviation charts but ordinary maps show Pontious Airport. Letters painted on the runway midfield spell ANCIENT VALLEY, readable from three thousand feet up. Of course (wouldn’t you know) soaring pilots call it Backus, for the country road that wanders by. It’s my kind of place, nice and friendly with no traffic or radio or other hassles. A lady there once brought iced tea out, then invited us in to enjoy some air conditioning while we waited for rescue.
Problem this time, the wind was throwing us down faster each moment, even as it tried to blow us away from the field. From several miles off I was already planning a straight-in approach, but couldn’t resist darting glances for where to turn in case of a shortfall. This would be long, low and fast, with a slightly trailing crosswind of twenty plus. I was sure of handling it if only we… Got There. But now we were being hammered by the lee of a big hill and needing ninety knots just for the sink.
We still had it made though, and that should have been enough for a twenty-year instructor who’d already gotten away with a passel of dim judgements and was halfway through a sweaty landing. But no, my bad angel wasn’t finished. As we dropped through a hundred feet I glimpsed what looked like another strip, closer and aligned into the wind. With only a couple seconds from first perception to commitment I went full bonehead, trading everything we had for a lapful of new troubles.
The haste of a fool is the slowest thing in the world.
For this landing we’re now too high. We need full spoilers and a mega slip to enforce descent while dumping thirty knots steep around a power pole, then level out to find… nothing but a small construction site on a dirt road. Screwed.
There seems no possible way through the mess of obstacles ahead, and not a moment to think! All that matters is saving the noble soul up front.
It’s like when you’ve stumbled and your body reacts before your mind knows what’s happened. Down over a phone line, between guy wires, a backhoe and stacks of lumber, raise one wing over a big steel post during flare, then shove that one down, kick opposite rudder and touch down sideways as if sliding into third base.
We manage to slew once each way, scrubbing energy in a hideous grounded version of a dutch roll, stopping yards short of a dirt pile, main wheel adjacent to a drainage ditch and – honest – one whole wing out over desert brush. If an old wire fence had not been only recently knocked down we’d have eaten it broadside.
Daylight becomes dusk as a heavy shower of sand settles on the canopy. Once the wind blows that off we emerge sneezing, and a frightened neighbor runs up prepared to witness the aftermath of a grisly crash. When I ask how he found us so quickly he shouts, “A giant cloud of dust!”
Yes I nailed it alright, but that’s not the point. I was supposed to after all. The bird could/should have been demolished, but we only scratched a wingtip. It’s true that decades of handling savvy did save her (and the soul up front), but none of that would have been necessary if I had done anything else right.
So now everyone knows. This much, anyway.
But you’ve still heard only the part that’s fun to hear someone else confess. I could testify all night about sorrier, more lasting ramifications of my worst landing ever, like its effect on that student for example. The whole story so sorely indicts its teller that sixteen years later it still aches. I keep most of that to myself.