The morning’s mission was to pop down to a non-towered airport on the Gulf of Mexico to meet some friends for lunch. Naturally, I got a late start, so I stayed high as I neared the destination until tucking the nose down and keeping the power up in an attempt to make up a minute or two. Alas, I erred significantly when letting down and found myself way too high and way too fast when I should have been entering the traffic pattern. The only thing for it was to keep the power back, level off and make a descending 360-degree right turn to bleed off some speed and let me get things back under control. Which is what I did.
Feeling rather feisty and not having done a steep turn lately, I wracked the airplane into a 45-degree bank and began my 360, looking out the window to verify my position as I circled out over the water. As the airplane slowed, I dropped the gear and turned my attention back to the panel, to check airspeed and other important things.
A glance confirmed I still had about 45 degrees of bank. The vertical speed indicator was showing about a 500-fpm descent and the altimeter said I was descending through 750 feet agl. I hadn’t made it very far around the circle I was attempting, so I still had a minute or so of turn to go before rolling out for the downwind leg. Which is when I said to myself, “Self, you’re doing this wrong. The math isn’t going to work out in your favor.” At my present rate of descent, I was going to be no higher than 250 feet agl when finished with the turn. Not only was that too low for the downwind leg, it was too low. I was about 30 seconds from smacking into the Gulf of Mexico.
It was an easy problem to fix: Add back some power, shallow out the bank and raise the nose. Arrest the descent and use the extra airspeed to climb most of the way back to pattern altitude. That worked well, and soon I was shutting down on the ramp and greeting my friends.
But the big thing on my mind wasn’t lunch. It was how close I had come to going for a swim. Talking to myself again, I said, “That’s how it happens.”
This wasn’t my first rodeo. How did I let this happen? Hindsight is 20/20, they say, so I thought back about how much of a hurry I was in, how I had misunderestimated my energy state on arrival and how I decided to fly a much steeper banked turn than usual or necessary to lose the excess altitude and speed.
The next time I need a 360 to get down and join a traffic pattern or align myself with a runway, I’ll shallow out the bank angle and widen out the turn, and not descend as quickly. Because that’s how it happens.