I Learned About Flying From That: Hypnosis

A sunset landing goes awry.

I Learned About Flying From That Barry Ross Aviation Art
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The late afternoon sky was clear and the air crisp. Light spread itself evenly across the landscape in the absence of clouds, and colorful fugitive leaves danced across the runway ahead of a mild, quartering crosswind. The relative calm outside the cockpit of my Cessna trainer dueled in graphic opposition to the inner excitement I felt as I eased the throttle forward, about to embark upon my first cross-country solo flight. My eyes roamed over an instrument panel active with lights, needles and information about the airplane’s airworthy condition. The engine hummed with efficiency.

Before the flight, my instructor had given me tips to ensure a safe and successful trip. “If you find yourself in a difficult situation, do your best to stay ahead of the aircraft, anticipate the worst, trust your training and ... wiggle your toes; doing that will take your mind off the situation.” Charged with excitement, I obediently noted the sage advice but wondered silently at the last tidbit of insight. In my mind, I had flown a thousand fantasy missions as a fighter pilot. Now this was my opportunity to experience the imagined thrill for real. Liftoff and a westerly outbound leg of my three-hour round trip were uneventful, and I arrived at my destination, got the appropriate logbook signatures, and took off for my return leg. In those days, only a single-leg round trip was required.

“If you find yourself in a difficult situation, do your best to stay ahead of the aircraft, anticipate the worst, trust your training and ... wiggle your toes; doing that will take your mind off the situation.”

It occurred to me, as I lifted off and headed eastbound, that my late afternoon departure from home put me close to the dangerous edge of the sunset “legal” limit for student pilots. My original speed, distance and winds-aloft calculations had me within a safe envelope, but I had failed to consider something else: a strong headwind that now pushed vigorously against the airplane’s efforts to beat a rapidly setting sun. A hasty calculation showed that, if I forged ahead, I would be forced to attempt something I hadn’t done before: a nighttime touchdown on a 30-foot-wide, 1,200-foot-long unlighted runway — and one notoriously known for a constant 10- to 15-knot crosswind.

Thank goodness common sense and good judgment prevailed. With only about 25 minutes of legal light remaining, my instructor’s words came back to me in force: “Trust your training.” I instantly remembered I had located a nearby municipal airport during the preflight planning. It was on my flight path, only 15 minutes away. If I were able to make that runway, I’d be out of a whole lot of trouble. Minutes later, I called the tower and made my intentions known. I received immediate clearance to land. From a half-mile away, the runway of this tower-controlled airport looked like a superhighway.

The view out the left side of the airplane was as serene and comforting as the steady rhythmic hum of the Continental engine up front. Conditions were ideal. There were no other aircraft in the pattern and no pesky thermals to disrupt a smooth descent. Lengthening shadows rendered the scene calm and peaceful.

Without realizing it, I was becoming hypnotized. A short time later, I was turning base to short final. Wiggling my toes, I thought: “This runway is huge; it must be a mile long and 100 feet wide. I bet I could put this thing down sideways.” The chatter in my head competed for my attention. “I’ll show the guys in that tower what a greased landing is.” And then it happened. I fell into an unexpected trance.

Lengthening shadows rendered the scene calm and peaceful. Without realizing it, I was becoming hypnotized.

Mesmerized by the setting sun, I lost myself. It was now a huge yellow-orange disc — a shimmering, oversize beach ball — resting squarely on the edge of the distant end of the runway. I couldn’t take my eyes off it. I had never seen the sun so enormous, so inviting. The seconds-long lapse in concentration had disastrous results but could have been much worse. Instead of nosing over, the mains were close enough to make contact and hit with such force that I bounced several times, skittered and bounced again. Finally, the nosewheel planted and I rolled on the ground, fearful that a few aircraft parts had detached and were racing behind me to catch up.

With damaged pride (and a damaged airplane), I thought I heard a muffled giggling voice in my headset. Then a clearer voice from the tower insisted I not “dally on the active.” I tried to hide myself for as long as possible inside the cockpit and sheepishly guided the airplane to a parking space as far from public scrutiny as I could manage. Grateful that a signature was not required, I slithered out of the left seat and mustered enough courage to inspect the Cessna with feigned professionalism.

I originally had mild misgivings about a late-afternoon westbound departure but dismissed them in favor of getting a student flight requirement out of the way. My anxiety to complete the cross-country had gotten me into hot water and caused a near disaster. I shuddered to think how I would have explained (if I were able) how my airplane ended up in a heap of aluminum on a level and straight 5,000-foot slab of concrete on a calm CAVU day. My “what could have happened” afterthoughts both humbled and sobered me.

Arrogance has no place in a cockpit, and even minor distractions have the power to be damaging — or deadly. Constant focus on the task at hand is essential to flight safety. Diligence, humility and wiggling toes have been with me ever since.