Among the more peculiar of my many defects is willingness to admit mistakes as if unabashed by them — just imagine the faux I’ve pas’d that even I’m too vain to reveal! One fiasco I always mention to student pilots is my worst landing ever, though usually in fleeting reference only.
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. We tried to force a flight on the only day available when the very wind itself warned to stay home, only to flirt with ‘GetThereItis’ for a tensive hour until I finally relented, succumbing to that ailment’s exact reciprocal, ‘GetHomeItis’.
After crawling beyond Mojave with little hope of remaining airborne, as we passed by the other way sinking fast toward pattern height, all hands knew we should concede defeat and land there. But another of my defects is an aversion to big airports, and I was determined to press on for the next alternate, a private field where I felt more comfortable.
You won’t see it on aviation charts but ordinary maps show Pontious Airport. Big block letters painted on the runway midfield spell ANCIENT VALLEY, readable from three thousand feet up. 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 our retrieve.
This time though, 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, and caught myself darting glances for where to turn in case of a shortfall. It would be long, low and fast, with a trailing crosswind of twenty plus, but I was sure of handling that, if only we GotThere. Then, passing through the lee of one last hill, we needed ninety knots just for the sink…
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 below a hundred feet, the corner of my eye spied what seemed another strip, closer and aligned into the wind… One long second after that glimpse I went full boat, trading everything we had for a lapful of new troubles.
For this landing we’re now too high and too fast. 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… just a small construction site beside the road, no path through a mess of obstacles and not a moment to think. All that matters is saving this noble soul up front!
Like when you’ve stumbled and your body reacts before your mind knows what’s happened, down over a phone line between guy wires, stacks of lumber and a backhoe, raise one wing over a big steel post during flare, then shove it down, kick opposite rudder and skid sideways as if sliding into third base. The headwind powers one more slew each direction, scrubbing the last of 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 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 preparing to witness the aftermath of a grisly crash. When I ask how he so quickly found us he shouts, “A giant cloud of dust!” Then in a calmer tone wonders why we didn’t land at the airport next door.
Oh I nailed the ‘landing’ alright, but that’s not the point. I was supposed to after all. The bird could/should have been demolished, yet we only scratched a wingtip. It’s true that taxiing savvy from thousands of landings is what saved 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, only the part that’s fun to hear someone else admit. 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 even now it still aches. I keep most of that to myself.