Land the Damn Airplane
There’s a lot to be said for cutting one’s losses, like right now.
By Robert Goyer / Published: Aug 20, 2013
I read a terrific article by Helicopter Association International president Matt Zuccaro the other week in which he admonished helicopter pilots in increasingly risky flight conditions to just “land the damn helicopter,” his point being that when things get dicey, the ground is your friend, so long as you arrive there at a survivable level of G loading and with all the parts more or less still attached.
So with thanks to Matt, let me say that the very same thing is true for airplanes. We might not have the luxury of landing our airplanes everywhere a helicopter can touch down, but in most places in the country there are many, many available options for landing safe and sound at some point prior to our planned destination.
This ties in closely with scenario-based training and risk mitigation strategies. I’ve been talking with aviation educators John and Martha King, co-founders of King Schools, for years about scenario-based training and how much it matters, because I know it does. John, Martha and I have a lot in common as pilots because we came up the hard way, essentially teaching ourselves what not to do in an airplane by getting to the brink of disaster on more than one occasion, somehow pulling our fat out of the fire and then vowing never to do it again. I’ve mentioned to John and Martha, today consumate pros flying their own fast bizjet around the world on company business, that it would have been great to have been taught how not to make that mistake in the first place, thereby eliminating the near catastrophe part of the learning experience. The sad fact is, we lose a lot of pilots who weren’t as lucky as I’ve been because they didn’t know how to think about the kinds of risks that lay just around the bend and how to head them off.
I’ll admit that I’m one of those stupid pilots who nearly ran a perfectly good airplane out of fuel while passing perfectly good airports along the way. An inexperienced pilot with a new instrument rating, I was on my way home to the east coast from Oshkosh one summer many, many years ago in a light fixed-gear single and encountered strong and unforecast headwinds going west to east — it can happen. As I droned along it became increasingly apparent that my planned fuel stop in eastern New York state, about 90 minutes from home, was going to be a stretch. But somehow I kept on flying. I don’t know exactly what I was thinking, that maybe through the power of hope I’d somehow be able to create 20 gallons or so of 100LL in the nearly empty tanks of the Cherokee. The optimism was debilitating. It wasn’t until I thought they might run dry at any moment and turn me into a glider pilot in one of the world’s worst gliders that I picked an airport and landed. I don’t recall exactly how empty the tanks were, but I do remember worrying that I’d run them dry while taxiing.
I can’t describe the feeling of shame and relief I felt when taking off again on my way home with full tanks. What was I thinking!
The truth is, I wasn’t prepared to do what I had to do, land the damn airplane. The truth is, learning how to land short of the planned destination — there are a number of steps that one needs to take to pull this off — and then doing it is a learned skill, not one we should expect a new pilot to be able to figure out literally on the fly. Turning a pilot loose with a new rating without teaching this absolutely critical skill is nothing short of irresponsible.
And from our point of view as pilots in command of our own airplanes, continuing on after all common sense dictates a hasty retreat is nothing short of, well, ... stupid. I’ve been there, I’ve done that, and I vowed long ago to never let it happen again.
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