In the summer of 1967 I was a 16-year-old student pilot flying out of Cornelia Fort Airpark in Nashville, Tennessee. This historic airport had been around since 1944 and was still surrounded by farmland. I had been flying since I was 14 with the local Civil Air Patrol unit. By the time I decided to pursue flying in earnest I had logged time in the L-4, L-5 and L-19. I had since moved to the Cessna 150 and 152 and even had several hours in a 172. My favorite was an older 150, N22075, that had seen better days. With worn paint and missing the spinner and wheel fairings, it was a little slower and looser but, oh, so forgiving. The grass field had 6 inches of cushioning fescue at all times, and I would flare so as to get the wheels rolling before touchdown, which resulted in landings that would make any seasoned pilot proud.
Having completed all my cross-country requirements, I was just flying off hours in preparation for my check ride. Hour after hour of touch-and-goes, I could do them in my sleep. Flare … touchdown … carb heat in … full throttle … flaps up … rotate and circle for another. Over and over and over. Redundant and boring, just the right amount of ingredients to cause problems if you didn’t pay attention. Life was good for this young aviator!
My only weak area of flying was crosswind landings. It was unnerving to see the ground moving sideways. Like a lot of pilots, I worked to perfect my technique but mostly avoided them if possible. It was August and I had reserved an airplane for the following afternoon, briefing with my instructor via phone. He told me to stay in the pattern and do the landing work as the forecast called for gusty winds in the afternoon, which were more than likely going to be perfect for crosswind landings. Great, I thought. I arrived at the airpark and immediately took notice of the windsock, which was fluttering back and forth, reflecting definite crosswind components if not completely changing directions east to west. I should have paid more attention to this! I did my walk-around, noting that the airplane was better than half full of fuel, started up, taxied and launched. As the wheels cleared the grass the winds were strong enough to push the airplane several feet off centerline, and I realized that this was indeed not going to be one of my better days of flying.
The first landing was challenging. It required a little rudder and the wing down somewhat. Splat, I was on the ground — carb heat in … full throttle … flaps up and I was airborne again. Looking back this is where I made my first mistake. I should have stayed on the ground. The second trip was much like the first except the wind gusts were shifting more to my rear and pushing the airplane. I remember that it took even more effort to get the wing low to abate the crosswinds, and I was more than 20 feet off the center of the runway. Bang, splat, I hit hard and sideways — carb heat in … full throttle … flaps. Up we go. I told myself one more and I’m done; I’m just not comfortable with all this. I had just committed my second mistake. I should have stayed on the ground.
It was a bumpy ride around the pattern and I was on edge as I attempted to set up my landing.
Turning final I was having to fight to keep the airplane centered with the runway, crabbing all the way down. Ten feet off the ground I was already a good 30 feet off the center of the runway. I looked out to my left and all I saw was row after row of corn. Looking out to the right my wingtip was only a foot off the grass. I was running out of rudder and wing and any semblance of control. My instructor had always said, “There’s no shame in a go-around,” and this was going to be that time. I leveled the wings and straightened my direction in relation to the wind and was astonished to see not the runway but acres of corn! I was low and slow and nowhere near the runway. I pushed carb heat … full throttle … and hit the flap switch.
This is when redundancy bit me in the butt. The little Cessna just stopped flying. It was also when I looked at the flap switch and knew I had made a huge mistake. Flaps down, not up. Bam! The sounds of the assault of the corn on the little Cessna are something that I will never forget. In a matter of seconds I had gone from pilot to farmer, and the Cessna was now a combine. Corn stalks were flying off the gear and struts. The stall horn came to life along with a heightened sense of pending doom making it seem that much louder. I was in ground effect and tearing through a sea of corn.
The flaps, which were so fast to retract, were finally reaching full down. The airplane nosed back into the air and I was on the verge of a complete stall. I pushed the nose forward and the stall horn finally stopped, and the view was still a sea of corn. I let the airplane slowly gain speed before retracting the flaps and starting a climb.
I was in no frame of mind to come around and try another attempt to land, so I just headed away from the airport toward the practice area to calm down. I had let a redundant practice nearly kill me and the little mistakes were adding up. After going over what had happened several times, I decided it was time to return to the airport. On the way back I did a scan of the panel and was horrified to see that the fuel was sitting nearly empty on both tanks. I decided on a straight-in approach and broadcast my intents on the field frequency. The landing was uneventful because the winds had dissipated in the time I had flown away from the airport and returned. My unintended path through the cornfield was clearly visible for all to see.
I taxied the airplane directly to the fuel pumps, got out, and walked around to check for any damage. Luckily all I found were traces of corn in odd places and I just knew that everyone inside was watching as I removed the evidence of my little adventure. I walked into the office and was greeted by airport owner and Colemill Enterprises President Bill Colbert, who to a 16-year-old was an imposing figure. “What happened?” he asked. I looked at the floor and shook my head and said, “The plane needs fuel,” and quietly walked out the door. I returned the next day and walked into the office to find Mr. Colbert again looking at me. “Your instructor is waiting for you in the classroom. … By the way, do you know how much fuel was in the plane when you landed?” I said, “Not much,” which turned out to be an understatement and less than a gallon. Yep, it was yet another lesson. It was the last thing I said the rest of the afternoon as I was doing a lot of listening to a lot of people. In the debriefing session with my instructor, and with a lot of input from Mr. Colbert, we determined that most likely I encountered crosswinds greater than forecast as well as elements of wind shear. Those and the unnecessary retraction of the flaps.
Every time I went flying until the corn crop was harvested in the fall, I had a little reminder of what happens when you don’t think about every action you take while flying. Though procedures, planning, takeoffs and landings may appear to be redundant in nature, you can never let your guard down. While a strong gust of wind from the rear was most likely a contributing factor, it was my inattention to repetitive actions that nearly killed me. To this day I think about every single action I make while flying and take nothing for granted.
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