It was pre-solo, thankfully, and I learned not only what to do during that encounter, but also how to proceed later with others under my care. We were under a couple hundred feet on final approach and I was staring at my aim point with the tunnel vision typical of student pilots when abruptly my instructor Eve said, “Look up.” I did, and froze. There was a Cessna dead ahead, at our height, landing the opposite direction on that same half-mile runway! If neither vessel changed course we were seconds from a head-on collision near ground level, and squeezing the stick harder didn’t help.
With deliberate calm, Eve barely more than murmured, “Slide to the right.” Her normal voice returned after the bogie roared past, but with unusual gravity, “Now get back over the runway while you still can.” We landed moments later, long but normally, and the other pilot landed… somewhere else I guess.
You can be doing everything right, or think so, and suddenly your fat’s in a fire you didn’t know existed. According to the fine print in Murphy’s law, eventually everything will tumble into that fire, if you let it. The only certainty, it always happens at exactly the same time: NOW. To pilots who’ve seen enough stuff already, something as ‘straightforward’ as a friendly little unscheduled joust on final should present only an interesting, if inconvenient challenge, more a call for courage than fear (and virgin wool for yarns spun later). But what about the newbie? You, that is, for whom among us will live long enough to train for every possible one-of-a-kind predicament?
Advanced courses in this field are always available at the world wide campus of my alma mater, Hardknocks U, where the tuition is high but payable in currency that even I can afford: time and sweat. In decades of study at this prestigious institution (I’m slow, but I stick with it!) there’ve now been too many landing emergencies to recall, though none more salient than that first one. The lesson was about more than standard collision avoidance. What stood out was not just Eve’s unshaken poise, but her conscious effort to instill that in me. I saw the need to always maintain two essentials without which flying is among the more deadly things you can do: practical ALTERNATIVES and rock-solid SELF-CONTROL. When you have both of these they enhance and support each other. Lacking either makes you an accident – not waiting to happen, soon to happen! Only question, how soon.
This is also one more example of the single most profound maxim in aviation. Superficially it sounds too obvious to repeat, but for me the phrase always conjures an image of some rosy-cheeked kid retreating across the English Channel at the yoke of a B-17. Smoke in the cockpit, shrapnel in the gut, one engine aflame and another faltering, tail shot up by fighters attacking from all sides. What should one do in such circumstances? Observe this priority over all others, for if you fail to, nothing else will matter: FLY THE AIRCRAFT!