Sometimes You Win

I had spent all my time focusing on one danger and let another sneak up on me


Four years ago my wife and I made the decision to buy an aircraft. We live in San Diego, where the weather is typically good for flying and there are many exciting destinations a short flight away.

It was my job to select the aircraft. We needed a plane that could carry four adults with luggage and still have good performance at altitude. Our research led us to a Cessna 210.

We bought a local airplane with a good maintenance record and set about upgrading it. The improvements took some time, and to celebrate their completion we planned a weekend trip to Las Vegas with another couple. I am an instrument and commercial rated pilot with more than 600 hours in a Centurion, but still I did about four hours of hood work with my regular CFII before embarking on the trip.

The Friday afternoon trip to Las Vegas was pleasant and fun. We all had a great time but we were ready to go home by Sunday afternoon. The ceilings were about 2,000 feet at both the departure airport and the destination. The cloud layers en route were at 7,000 feet, 10,000 feet and 24,000 feet. Enroute winds at our cruise attitude of 10,000 feet were 35 to 40 knots out of the west (clue one), with moderate turbulence.

I knew the turbulence and IMC might make the flight uncomfortable for my passengers, but the flight could be safely flown. The only troubling report was icing conditions on the west side of the mountain ridge between Palm Springs and San Diego. The briefer said that farther south the temperatures were warmer and there were no icing conditions. I decided it was safe to head home but reminded myself to check pireps en route for reports of icing. If there were, I would head south even though it would add 45 minutes of IMC and turbulence.

We took off and climbed to altitude, where we were mostly in IMC but the ride was pretty smooth, with only occasional light turbulence. When I made inquires about icing reports, I was told that there were no reports of icing on my route – only reports of turbulence.

Flying over Palm Springs toward the ridge, we briefly broke out to VFR conditions (second clue). About 10 miles ahead I saw a well-defined non-towering stationary cloud (big third clue). My first thought was to call ATC and ask for a higher altitude, but the possibility of ice stopped me. We were only a little more than 35 minutes from home in an area I thought I understood very well.

At 10,000 feet I was 1,000 feet above minimums and 3,500 feet above the ridge line. I figured my choice was between turbulence and ice. I decided my passengers would just have to tough it out for a little while as we passed over the ridge.

About 15 to 20 seconds into the cloud it was clear Id made a bad call. I had spent all my time focusing on one danger and let another sneak up on me. The mountain wave I hit was severe. I had flown this route many times at this altitude and had always easily overcome the mountain wave. A slight pitch up, costing at most 20 knots of airspeed, would always hold my altitude. This time I dropped 400 feet in a few seconds and needed full power just to stop the descent. I had lost 60 knots of airspeed and was only 10 to 15 knots above stall speed.

I recalled that a few years ago a Cessna 172 with three people aboard hit a wave heading west crossing this same ridge. They did not make it. Dropping at 1,500 to 2,000 feet per minute can use up 3,500 feet of safety margin very quickly. Reviewing my flight later, I realized the biggest danger I faced was stalling the aircraft. The total time in the down draft was about five or six minutes, though it seemed much longer at the time.

Fortunately, there was no turbulence in the wave. The autopilot kept me on course and my wings level. The altitude-hold trim light was screaming for help. My eyes were glued to the airspeed and altimeter. Although the Centurions green arc ends at 69 knots, the plane actually stalls at about 57 knots. The desire to pull back on the yoke is strong when your plane is descending and it should be climbing at over 1,000 feet a minute.

The Centurions best angle of climb speed at 10,000 feet is 80 KIAS. I kept the airspeed needle between 70 and 80 knots, which stopped the descent just above 9,500 feet. Slowly, I lowered the nose to gain airspeed as we continued through the down draft. A few minutes later, we quickly climbed to altitude and accelerated to cruise airspeed.

The remainder of the trip was uneventful. My flight review concluded that the plane and the pilot got As for successfully handling a dangerous situation. However, I got an F for bad decision-making, focusing on only one danger, not connecting obvious clues and feeling safe because I was close to home.

Instead of venturing into that cloud, I should have taken the southern route where the air was warmer and the ridge was 1,500 feet lower. Hanging on the prop is not the best way to fly, but I was glad I had power to stop the fall. The good decision I made four years ago to own a plane with enough performance to safely carry four adults, exactly offset the bad decision of not flying south.

I realized that you need to accumulate as many good decisions as possible. You never know when you will need a good one to offset one of your bad ones.


Straight in to Trouble
Our airport uses runway 34 as the preferred runway on low-wind days because of noise complaints from people who have built houses off the end of runway 16. Several local pilots ignore that preference and use runway 16 for landing because its in a direct line from a favorite breakfast restaurant at an airport 15 miles north.

Recently, on a day when the light morning winds and the wind sock favored runway 34, I did my run-up and a 360-degree rotation of my taildragger to check for traffic. Then I announced over the Unicom that I was taking the active 34 for takeoff.

As I taxied into position, another pilot returning from his breakfast run made a straight-in, low-altitude approach for landing on 16 – without making a radio call or checking for traffic.

I saw him before I applied takeoff power and safely cleared the runway. The landing airplane also saw me and aborted his landing.

Dont assume that other pilots will be on the radio and dont assume theyll use the correct runway.


Whoa, Nellie!
As I entered the downwind leg on my approach to the airport in New Lenox, Ill., I was scanning for potential traffic, transmitting my position, and preparing the airplane for landing by putting in the first notch of flaps and lowering the landing gear. As I turned to complete my entry to the downwind, I came upon a flock of Canadian geese, but I was too close to take evasive action. A loud thunk off the right side indicated a bird strike, but I could not see any damage. As I flew the pattern, I could not detect any problems with the control surfaces.

When I touched down, however, the right brake pedal went to the floor and I was concerned that any use of the left brake would induce a ground loop. I was able to maneuver the right wheel onto the grass to help slow me down, and ended the rollout 20 feet short of the end of the runway.

Post-flight inspection revealed blood and feathers on the right landing gear and a portion of the brake line missing. Since this incident, I have made it a regular practice to scan the airport area for birds before entering the pattern and to test the brake compression as part of my regular pre-landing checklist.


Oer Hill and Dale
I had recently obtained my instrument ticket and was practicing ILS approaches one morning in my Piper Colt at the local tower-controlled airport. It was a pretty good day for practice. Ceilings were at 1,500 and visibility at 1.5, with mist and light showers.

I was surprised when, after takeoff, I was told to turn right instead of left. All of the other practice Id done at this airport had resulted in vectors to the left. Vectors to the right took me over unpopulated mountainous terrain, while left traffic would have meant flat terrain, with golf courses and a satellite airport nearby.

Being new to this, I continued accepted the vectors that turned me around and put me on the localizer. As I flew on through the opaque whiteness, it occurred to me that below me lay not fields of green, but trees of pine. At first I was a little miffed at the controller, but then I realized hes probably not a pilot and probably doesnt know or care what the risks are in the air.

The main risk that I saw was that, if I had an engine failure, I would glide out of the clouds at 1,500 feet agl and would have about a minute and a half at best to find flat, open ground. If I broke out over the mountains, well, I didnt want to even think about that.

On the next approach, I requested left traffic. The controller asked why, and when I told him that flat terrain offered more options in the case of engine failure, he paused as if it had never occurred to him that engines fail in airplanes sometimes. He approved the request.

The event reminded me that a controllers basic allegiance is to traffic separation and sequencing, with little concern to my options in case of an engine failure. I dont fault him for that, but the bottom line is to let ATC know what you want or need. If its reasonable, theyll accommodate you. But dont expect them to know those needs in advance.


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