I Learned About Flying From That: Hazardous Habits

What works most of the time may not be the best course of action.

I Learned About Flying From That Barry Ross Aviation Art
To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.comBarry Ross

It was a sunny Friday afternoon as I gathered my friends at our usual meeting point, the local airport coffee shop. We were off for a weekend of fun and leisure after a long week at the office. We departed San Fernando International Airport in the city of ­Buenos Aires, Argentina, in a 1980 Baron B55 and headed northwest 150 nm to Rosario to see a concert that same night.

The plan was to depart from Rosario International Airport the next day and head to a weekend house by the river in Carmelo, a paradise spot in Uruguay. Although it was my first time flying this particular route, I had flown dozens of times from Buenos Aires to Carmelo, so I knew the destination like the back of my hand.

Carmelo International Airport is one of those perfect spots you might encounter in an old movie. Off the edge of the River Plate (the widest ­river in the world, which divides Argentina and Uruguay) runs a 3,477-foot-long by 92-foot-wide runway made of dirt and gravel. The airport’s sole terminal is a small vintage but well-kept wooden barn where four ­friendly locals meet you upon arrival to go through some quick ­immigration and customs procedures. Runway 35 has a gorgeous final over the river followed by some tall eucalyptus trees just before the start of the runway, forcing the pilot to fly a fairly steep final descent to flare and touchdown. Runway 17, on the contrary, has a final over a splendid 18-hole golf course and allows for a more gradual descent on final approach. Given the runway length, it is best to configure the airplane for a short landing in case something goes wrong.

We took off from Rosario International at 9:15 a.m. and flew a direct route to Carmelo. Flight en route was pleasant as the autopilot flew the airplane; the air was calm, crisp and smooth. After 50 minutes of casual chatter in the cabin while I continued to monitor the cockpit’s instruments and talk with my friend in the right seat about the airplane, it was time for descent. Ten miles out, I called Carmelo on the radio. Although it is a nontowered airport, there is an airport manager on a specific frequency, and arriving aircraft are advised to contact him for ­reports of other traffic headed the same way. I was advised on the usable runway, wind direction, and airspace clear for a standard visual approach and landing.

So there we were at 1,000 feet, flying the downwind leg of Runway 17 for a normal approach over the golf course. As I disengaged the autopilot and went through the final landing checklist — gear down, three green lights, flaps down — all looked good from there to base and final. At 95 kias, I selected full flaps and confirmed over the radio “short final and landing,” aiming to touch down just past the fence at the start of the runway.

Suddenly I got that “different feel” one gets while flying an airplane when things are not going exactly as planned. With a quick glance, I realized the airspeed was holding steady, and the airplane did not seem to be slowing down as it should during the final seconds of landing. I reduced all power, leveled off at the start of the runway and flared, still feeling as though the airplane was flying much faster than it should be. At this point, my eyes were out of the cockpit and focused on the runway. As some distance went by and with no sound of the stall horn, the  airplane finally touched the ground. A false sense of relief vanished as we went off into the air, flying again.

I continued maneuvering the airplane and waited for a second touchdown, which took place ­almost instantly after, but again the wheels popped off the ground. I realized the airplane was bouncing. My eyes darted to the fence at the far end of the runway, and in a fraction of a second I assessed my options. Something told me that the airplane would stick to the ground in time and come to a stop before the end of the runway.

Again my wheels popped off the ground, and I realized the airplane was bouncing. My eyes darted to the fence at the far end of the runway.

I was uncomfortable with the situation but kept calm. The cabin was silent as I made my decision to continue the landing. After two more bounces, the Baron finally stuck to the ground. I ­immediately stepped on the brakes. It was ­going to be close, I knew, but I managed to stop the airplane in time. The airport manager came on the ­radio to tell me I had landed on the opposite runway he had ­advised ­minutes ago. Right away, it was clear I landed with a moderate to strong tailwind — but why?

Because of wind predominance, 80 percent of my landings in ­Carmelo had taken place on Runway 17; therefore, it was second nature to fly the downwind leg toward the golf course. I also recall a busy cabin filled with casual conversation (one can imagine six friends on a weekend trip). Cabin “pollution” is a common problem, ­especially at critical moments such as takeoff, landing or when approaching an airport. Every pilot is responsible for using sterile cockpit procedures to ensure flying is not ­impacted by a lack of focus during critical phases of flight.

Once on the runway for touchdown, my decision to land the airplane and not go around was simply a matter of instinct. Going around at that point felt riskier, ­especially since I was heading toward the end of the runway with those tall trees. On a positive note, I can say I ­remained calm and focused while ­working to control the bouncing aircraft. At that point, my goal was to prevent the situation from getting worse than it already was.

Who knows what would have happened if my instinct was mistaken. Thankfully, I am able to write about it now, and I certainly learned something from it. I felt truly embarrassed by the whole situation, which was completely my fault. But it happened, I learned from it, and that’s what matters.

I was reminded of my father’s advice. He has been a pilot for 30 years and always says: “If you live to reflect on your mistakes, make the best of them and make sure you don’t repeat the same mistake twice.”