Updated: Dec 27, 2020
I Learned About Flying From That
Pilots learn from their experiences and sometimes the experiences of others. The first in our ILAFFT series looks at a student pilot who finds himself having to take control of the aircraft in a tricky situation when the instructor backs out. How did I end up here?
This is a true story! The identities of the club and instructor are withheld.
Having recently completed my PPL and with around 300 hours on fixed-wing microlights, I decided to pursue a night rating. I'd completed my PPL on the Cessna 152 as it was cheaper than the club's PA28. However, when I asked if I could also complete my night rating on the Cessna, the club owner replied, "Oh no, we don't trust it at night".
The owner suggested that I kill two birds with one stone and complete my PA28 conversion training and the night training at the same time. He introduced me to my instructor, Tony (not his real name), and asked him to lock up the office when he returned as he was leaving for the night.
It was around 8pm, dark and clear skies with a full moon. I checked the METAR and TAF on my phone and although the conditions were good, the forecast was to deteriorate with strong winds later. Tony told me this was not a problem and we would be back before then.
30 minutes later we were over the countryside and I was getting to grips with the PA28 cockpit and handling characteristics. The clear moonlit sky made for great visibility but as I turned over a small town, I could see the city lights of our departure point illuminating the base of clouds over the city. I also noticed that the conditions were turning a little bit rough. It was at this moment that ATC called us up to advise that the wind had picked up significantly at the aerodrome and we should consider returning. This had never happened to me before. If ATC were recommending I come back, it must be bad.
As we approached the boundary of controlled airspace, ATC advised us that the surface wind was directly crosswind at 20kts with gusts up to 30kts. I couldn't handle that type of wind and I thought to myself that the instructor will be working hard during the landing.
To my surprise, the instructor turned to me and said, "What should we do?" I simply replied, "You're the instructor". He was clearly uncomfortable and explained to me that it was his first day as an instructor. I could see immediately that he was not going to take charge of the situation. I was shocked and my mind was racing. I suggested that we shoot an approach and if we couldn't get in, we had plenty of fuel to divert north towards the nearest suitable airport, which would be around one hour's flying time. The poor weather was coming from the south so that was really our only option. He folded his arms and left the flying to me! I was concerned because I'd never landed a PA28 before, I'd never landed at night and I'd never handled such strong crosswinds.
As we came around on to final and began to descend, the buffeting was severe. There were no other aircraft on frequency and ATC passed us the wind every 30 seconds or so. We had a strong crab angle and I was working hard on the throttle to maintain the glidepath using the PAPI. I remember thinking that I would never be able to de-crab fully. The maximum demonstrated crosswind for the PA28-161 is 17kts. Tony seemed to be monitoring the instruments but did not say a word.
During the roundout, I found it very difficult to judge my height above the ground. The landing light was not working so I could not see any texture on the runway surface. I only had the runway lights as a guide. Unexpectedly, the aircraft touched down very hard and bounced back into the air. I thought I was around five feet above the runway. As the aircraft rebounded into the air, Tony unfolded his arms and tensed up. I quickly kicked the aircraft straight and began to flare blindly. The plane touched down again almost straight and thankfully stayed down. ATC cleared us to the GA parking and we taxied slowly without a word spoken.
Video: Plane Old Ben shows how difficult it can be to land at night without a landing light.
Afterwards, Tony locked up the office quite quickly without a debrief. I was left to ponder the experience myself. A few days later I returned to the club and the owner talked to me about the flight. He said that he had told Tony about the poor weather and told him to, "knock it on the head". I wonder why, as the owner, he even allowed Tony to take me flying? As an inexperienced instructor on his first day, why was he left alone at the club that evening? Whilst the decision to fly is at the discretion of the pilot in command, as the owner of the aircraft, he could have called it off.
Tony now flies for a major UK airline and I can't help but wonder if his captaincy skills have improved since that flight. I certainly hope so because he showed no ability to take control of a difficult situation.
However, I think it is fair to say that I played a role in it too and I chastised myself afterwards. Although I was a student pilot in this situation, I could have checked the weather more thoroughly. I didn't have to go flying and I could have simply told the instructor that I was uncomfortable. I could have resisted flying the PA28 for the first time at night too.
Although this occurred nearly 10 years ago, it sticks in my memory vividly and it is one of the many flights that characterised my experience as a pilot.
What I learnt:
Always make your own decision about whether to fly, regardless of who is the pilot-in-command.
Don't assume that all pilots are competent.
If you have a gut feeling, or if there are one or more reasons not to fly, don't fly. Remember the Swiss Cheese Model.
And finally, this experience helped me to formulate my own approach to risk assessment. The reader may find the following statement excessive, but I will not get into an aircraft with a pilot unless I am sure that I can get it down safely by myself if need be.
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