A Perfect Day to Fly, Part 2

We had done our maneuvers in the practice area north of Greenwood Lake and our simulated engine-out landings at Orange County. Then we headed back to Caldwell. Tom had allowed me to drift off course as I tried to find my way back, and by the time we called the tower, we were coming in from the northeast. I wasn’t accustomed to coming in from that direction and didn’t recognize the airport as we approached. All of a sudden we were on our downwind. I thought: How did we get on our downwind already? I’d slowed and descended and knew it must be close, but man, I just didn’t recognize the airport until it was directly off to my right.

Tom later explained that coming in from a remote location does a number on most pilots. I think it must be one of the hardest things to master. You have to cover a lot of space, and finding the runway from so far out, inside such a little plane, feels like trying to hit a hole in one. You have to have a keen sense of navigation. And you have to stay focused on flying right and what’s going on in the world outside.

As we came in from the northeast and I discovered myself on the downwind, Tom told me to inch over, to make more room between us and the runway. Which I did, but not nearly enough. When I made my base turn, and started flying perpendicular to the runway, I was out of room. I had to turn immediately into final if I didn’t want to dramatically overshoot the runway. My base leg lasted about two seconds. I had no time to slow down, to descend, to pitch for speed. I was coming in too fast, and I was way too high.

To get down, I pointed the nose at the runway.

I’ve done that before. It was a mistake then, too.

I should have gone around. If Tom hadn’t been with me, I would have. But with him in the plane, it’s easy to think you can get out of anything. So we continued to try to land.

The sight picture before my eyes failed to trigger an intuitive and appropriate response. I think this is a common reaction among beginner pilots who nevertheless have some hours in the plane: you don’t recognize something, but thinking you probably should, you rack your brain trying to formulate a response, and in the meantime, the plane keeps trending in the wrong direction. It becomes too late to correct, and all the while you’re making things worse with inaction, or the wrong action.

Tom said to me, “Don’t nose down.” He said, “Bring the nose up.” He said, “Bring the nose up” a second time. I ignored him.

I don’t know why. I sort of heard him, but I also sort of didn’t. And I just didn’t react.

And we kept getting closer. And closer. All the while pointed at the runway. We were pointed at the runway even as we came into ground effect.

With no time to spare, Tom took over. He nosed up. We bounced. We came floating back up. He was wrangling the plane into control. We came down again, teetered a bit, and then the wheels came down a final time and stuck.

It wasn’t a pretty landing, but it did the trick. Taxiing down the runway, I felt stupid, inept, and embarrassed. And I felt disappointed. A beautiful day flying, a day of confident flying, a day in which I felt in perfect control, marred at the end by bad judgment and poor piloting.

All because I had pointed the nose down. Which I did because I was too high. And I was too high because I had no base leg. I had no base leg because I had crowded the runway during the downwind. And I had crowded the runway because I had come in from a remote location and didn’t recognize where I was.

This is what Tom means when he talks of a chain of error. It never begins with the final mistake. The final mistake is authored four or five or twenty mistakes earlier. The fatal mistake is written in the DNA of the first mistake. You just don’t know that when making it.

“It worries me that I was that nose-down,” I said to Tom during our little debrief back at Fischer Aviation. “I’m not happy about it.”

“What bothered me most about it is that you weren’t responding to the prompts I was giving you,” he said. “I said them several times before I did anything about it myself.”

I agreed. It bothered me, too. He told me to raise the nose, and what did I do? Nothing. And even now I can’t say why.

“Well,” I said. “Let’s hope I’ve learned a lesson.”

Tom laughed . “Yes,” he said. “Let’s hope that.”