I have been aware of it for many years. It fits the old adage, 'Familiarity breeds contempt'. If I haven't piloted a plane for several weeks, my flying seems to demonstrate wonderfully sharpened skills. Yet, when I fly constantly day after day, I tend to become a sloppy, bumbling amateur.
This was graphically demonstrated last May 19th. I needed a bit of fabric repair on the right wing of my aircraft, because the following weekend I would likely be ferrying relatives to our daughter's high school graduation. It was a windy day, but it was a short flight of about 34 miles to the repair station, and I wanted to get it over with. Of course it would be a turbulent flight, but being alone in the aircraft I didn't worry about making a passenger uncomfortable.
When we arrived at the airport, the wind was even more brisk than I had imagined, but the windsock and ATIS confirmed a strong steady south wind of 25 knots directly down the runway. This was no problem for a "big time, 1300 hour pilot". I taxied to runway 17 and took off into this gale. Turning north I had a very hefty tailwind, for which I was thankful. I didn't want to bounce around in this fury longer than necessary.
I approached my destination airport after only about 15 minutes, but felt plenty beaten by the turbulence. "Just get this thing on the ground and get home", I thought. I noticed the wind sock here was not directly down the runway, but at a 45 degree angle. That gives a cross wind of about 17 knots if the wind speed is 25. I had handled this much wind many times before. What? Me worry?
I rode out the final bumps and bounces on final approach and touched down on the narrow runway. If I've heard it once, I've heard it a thousand times. Every instructor says it over and over again, "Keep it on the center line." At first I gave it all I had, but the wind, rocked and rolled this little aircraft all over the place. It felt as if we were being repelled from the runway like similar poles of two strong magnets.
Then I had that fateful, horrible, unprofessional thought. The grass looked greener out my left window. Lots of grass. I've taxied on grass, landed on grass and parked on grass. Why not now. Just let this bird go where it wants to go. No problem. Then I'll be in a perfect position to make a right turn into the wind to taxi back down the runway.
All went well for about two seconds. Then it appeared there in the lush greenery. A runway light. Ok, we're moving to the left, take it around the left side. That was close. But wait, what's happening now? No the grass isn't getting shorter, it's a ditch. This could be bad, but there's nothing I can do now. Down we go, and I see nothing but green. A split second passes. I see nothing but blue sky, and then suddenly I'm looking directly ahead at a flat farm field. Wow! We made it, or did we?
Here is where slow motion kicked in. The grass ended. The nose wheel passed onto the flat, muddy, swampy field and proceeded to submerge itself. The scenery in my windshield now changed to black earth as I found myself staring directly down with my plane's tail straight up in the air. After a couple fascinating seconds, the aircraft continued its slow roll. The world was now in a position I had never seen from the cockpit of an aircraft. What do I do now?
Now, I listen to my instructors. Leaking fuel and electricity don't mix. I've got to turn off the master switch. It's right here under the seat. Under? The seat is above me. This is weird. Find the switch. Unbuckle the seat belt. Fall to the ceiling. Figure out which way the door handle will move. Open the door. Step onto the wing. Step into the mud.
Totally uninjured, but in a daze I begin the long walk to the airport office. I am met by a witness who asks if there is anyone else in the plane. I say, "No", and walk on. I sadly look back at the dreadful sight. It's over. Or is it?
The new week begins. It's paperwork for the FAA. It's paperwork for the insurance company. It's paperwork for the NTSB. It's flying with the FAA examiner...... Two months later, it's finally over.
Written by Gene Seibel
Flip to Gene's home page... - Tri-Pacer Page - The Final WreckMay 1996
Read this story and dozens more in the book Confessions of a Pilot.