The Agony and the Ecstasy

I have to open this story with an admission: I didn’t tell the entire story of my flight out of Winslow. For every takeoff, there must be a landing, and the landing in Alburquerque would not have happened the way it did if the takeoff in Winslow had gone differently.

Hour 358

Even after the engine cooled after our frightening takeoff, the flight was not pleasant. The desert floor was heated by the unrelenting late August sun and made for one of the most turbulent flights I’d experienced. As a passenger, turbulence can be nauseating and frightening; as a pilot, it’s exhausting. During the cruise phase of a normal flight I get to sit back, relax, and enjoy watching the world pass underneath. In turbulent flight, it’s a constant battle to keep the plane on the right heading and at the correct altitude, constantly re-trimming and fussing with the throttle, rarely getting more than a few moments of rest. My stress level skyrocketed as we left Winslow, and the turbulence kept me from ever really relaxing even after the threat of mushing into the ground on takeoff had abated.

By the time we reached Alburquerque, I was ready to be on the ground. The problem was I was scared of the ground. I delayed our descent as long as possible, and made my final approach at nearly twice the recommended speed. I kept thinking, “If I have to abort the landing and go around, I want to make damned sure I have enough speed to climb out.” I’d been so frightened by what happened in Winslow that I was now irrationally hoarding energy exactly as a man who once almost died of starvation might hoard food. My approach speed kept creeping up and up -- the runway is 13,000’ long, I reasoned, so why not?

Touching down at 120mph in a plane whose normal touchdown speed is 65 certainly taught me a lesson. The moment the main landing gear touched the tarmac, the nosewheel came slamming down and the plane bounced 30 feet back in the air. I tried to coax it back down, overcorrected, landed nosewheel-first again, and bounced another 20 feet up. After a third bounce I realized what was happening and, near the top of the bounce, applied full power with the intention of going around. I then had a moment of terror: even at full power, I could not completely arrest the descent. The pilot-induced oscillation was so bad at that point that after the bounce the plane continued its trajectory slowly downward until the mains kissed the ground with the engine blazing. In an instant, I decided this was good enough, cut the power again, and focused on keeping the plane on the runway centerline as I bled off airspeed for the next 4,000 feet. I’ve flown that Cardinal for about 850 hours total now, and that landing in Albuquerque remains, by far, my worst.

Dad and I found a hotel. I had dinner with a depressed cloud over my head and fell asleep immediately afterwards, totally exhausted. During the night I had a vivid nightmare about crashing a plane into the side of a mountain and woke up the next morning with a deep sense of dread, regretting having taken the trip and wishing it were over.

Hour 359

The next day I resolved to solve the problems from the day before. Specifically:

  • We'd leave as early as possible, while the air was cool
  • We'd plan a short segment so that we'd be able to take off without full fuel, lightening the load.

Between the cooler air temperature (i.e., thicker air) and less fuel (i.e., lighter plane), the climb should be much easier. Of course, Dad was fine with waking up early, because he was still on East coast time and didn't want a repeat performance of Winslow any more than I did. We picked Dodge City, Kansas as our destination. My pilot friend Morten, who was also based at Santa Monica, had coincidentally been there the day before on his way back from OshKosh. He'd called to tell me it was a nice place to stop, and I also wanted to be able to say it was "time to get out of Dodge." Even the FAA has a sense of humor: the instrument approach has an EARPP intersection.

We were at the airport by 7am, where I put only 10 more gallons of fuel in the plane. By my computations, we'd still have fuel to make it to Dodge with 90 minutes or even 2 hours to spare.

I filed our IFR flight plan and by 7:40 we were holding in position at the end of ABQ's wonderfully long, 13,000 foot runway. I throttled up to full power and held the plane on the runway for as long as I possibly could -- we accelerated past the plane's normal rotation speed, called "Vr".  Then past Vr+5, Vr+10, Vr+15... by Vr+20 the plane was begging to be let into the air. I released the forward pressure I'd been holding on the yoke and we leapt up into the piercingly blue, crystal-clear sky. We climbed at 700 feet per minute! That's almost ten times faster than our climb out of Winslow. In fact, it's not unreasonable performance even for a sea level takeoff, home in Santa Monica!

My mood instantly changed. Ha, ha-- now I'm getting the hang of this!

Our trip over the remainder of the Rockies was wonderfully uneventful. The early morning air was completely smooth; we sailed over the mountains at 11,000 feet as if we were being carried along on a cloud. I was in fine spirits, happy about the trip again, and really enjoying looking down at the fantastic scenery. In two hours time, the Rockies gave way to Kansas and the Great Plains. Minute by minute we could see the terrain dropping lower and lower under us. Before we knew it, it was time to land in Dodge City, after penetrating a tiny layer of scattered clouds. I brought us in for a nice landing, which was quite a relief after my terrible performance in Albuquerque.

We taxied to the parking area, and I shut the plane down. But, oops, one more minor task--we had to cancel our IFR flight plan. In other words, we had tell Air Traffic Control that we were safely on the ground. If you don't do this, they send out a search and rescue party. I powered up the avionics, and on my #1 radio, started to announce, "Kansas City Center, Cardinal 1234H is on the ground in Dodge City, canceling IFR..." until there was a fizz and a pop and I realized my radio was completely dark.

Wait. What? No radio? Please tell me this isn't happening.

I turned everything off and back on again, hoping in vain that I'd flipped some switch the wrong way, but the sound of the "fizz.... pop" was all too distinct in my memory. The #1 radio was dead. My good radio! Arrrgggh!

Dodge City may be a great place to go if you want to see a re-enacted gun fight, or get cheap fuel, but it's not a particularly good place to find someone who knows how to fix a KX-155. Now what?

Well, first things first: after contacting ATC using my other radio, we had some lunch. The fine folks at the Dodge City airport lent us the crew car. We had a nice Mexican meal in town, and stopped by the local auto parts store to buy a fuse and some screwdrivers. Back at the airport, I took my radio out of the panel and confirmed that the fuse was blown... but, replacing it just resulted in another blown fuse. Something was wrong. And the nearest avionics shop was 120 miles away in Wichita!

But how do we get to Wichita with clouds in the sky and only one working radio? And a marginally crappy radio, at that? Its front panel looked more like a 1940s gas pump than like a piece of avionics.

Hour 362

After some soul searching, I decided to try the flight. My GPS was still working, which had been my primary source of navigation anyway. The #2 radio hadn't given me any problems. It was old, but sturdy. I had a backup handheld radio in my flight bag. And, although there were some clouds, they weren't that thick, and were a few thousand feet above the ground.

I was -- again! -- very nervous before the takeoff, but once we were in the air, I could tell the single-radio flight wouldn't be a problem. I was careful to write down all frequencies on a sheet of paper, instead of depending on my fancy but dead #1 radio to remember them for me. The clouds started to thin out, too.

Our trip to Wichita had an unexpected benefit: my homesick Cardinal got a chance to see its birthplace! The Cessna factory is near Wichita, KS, and we passed right over it on the way.

We were down through the clouds long before we reached the airport, so did a visual approach that didn't even require the radio's navigation functions.

After about 10 minutes of taxiing (Wichita is a big airport!) we arrived at the avionics shop that had been recommended by the folks in Dodge City. There, we found a kind gentleman who had about five lifetimes' worth of avionics experience piled on work-benches and bookshelves. At any moment it seemed his office would burst, covering everything within 100 yards with a strafing fire of half-assembled radios and stray transistors.

Luckily, this disaster was averted, and in 45 minutes our radio was repaired and back in the plane! We felt really energized and still had a couple of hours of daylight left, so we decided to press on with a third flight. Our first thought was to get to Indianapolis, IN, but a large weather front was between us and them, so we decided instead on St. Louis, MO.

Hour 363

We were in the air by 6pm. Since we were finally in areas of much lower terrain, we could cruise along at 7,000 feet instead of the 11,000 we'd been using for the earlier segments. At this lower altitude the engine has all the air it needs to develop full power. Plus, we had a nice tailwind, so the plane was scooting along at 165 knots (190 mph) most of the way. The sky was clear, our radio was working, our spirits were high -- we felt unstoppable!

By the time we got closer to St. Louis we were rapidly closing in on the cold front ahead and the bad weather that went with it. The further east we went, the more the weather was expected to deteriorate. Our intended destination of St. Louis International was reporting low visibility and light rain. 20 miles closer to us the smaller Spirit of St. Louis Airport sounded much more promising with a comfortable 2,000' between the clouds and the ground, and no rain. We advised ATC we'd be diverting to Spirit Airport.

Under control of ATC, we made our initial descent, and soon found ourselves sandwiched in between two solid layers of clouds. Then, in one magical moment, the setting sun came down below the upper layer, and joined us in between -- turning the clouds above and below into a stunning orange.

Finally, the sun set, leaving us in the dark. I activated my various cockpit lighting systems. And then on to the further excitement for the flight: an instrument approach that kept us in actual clouds for about 30 minutes. Many pilots do this routinely, but I learned to fly in Southern California, where an "instrument approach" usually means spending 2 minutes in the marine layer just before you get to the airport. Spending 30 minutes tooling around in the soup was a new experience for me!

We got vectored to the ILS. We had to take the "long way around," since the airport was landing to the west, and we were initially heading east. We had to go about 10 miles past the airport, do a slow turn back to the west and intercept the final approach course. Finally, the time came for our final descent on the electronic glideslope, and we broke out of the clouds at about 1,900'. By this time, it was dark, and a fine mist further reduced visibility, so we continued on the instrument approach. At about a 2 mile final (i.e., 2 miles from landing), we saw the beautiful line of sequenced strobe lights leading us right into the runway. And to top it off, I made a gorgeous landing.

As we shut down the plane and waited for a taxi, I reflected on the fact that days like this were really what made flying magical. There are certain sights and experiences that seem to be reserved for pilots only. I feel lucky every time I get to see one. During the minute and a half when the sun was with us in between two solid cloud layers, Dad and I were, most likely, the only two people on Earth who could to see it. Where on the scale of human experience do you put having your own personal sunset? I can only describe it crudely and say it was fucking awesome. If you’re a student pilot stuck in your training, or you’re still on the fence as to whether or not you should start, I have three words for you: get up here. You won’t regret it.