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Ray Tackett
Top Gun

Reged: 04/30/04
Posts: 8892
Loc: Philadelphia, USA
Old, but still relevant
      06/24/17 10:01 PM

I found the following while searching old doc files for something else. It was a lesson learned and remembered.


It was a lovely Saturday afternoon for a student cross-country. I needed a few more solo hours in the Cessna 152 in order to have the required ten solo cross-country hours. It was an easy 90 mile flight right down the pencil line to a large class D airport inside a TRSA. For once, I had spotted the airport from 15 miles out instead of embarrassing myself. My pride swelled when Tower told me to enter the downwind at mid-field and report. That's exactly where the nose had been pointed since departure about an hour before. What a great pilot I was becoming!

I entered the downwind, reported, and immediately was cleared to land. Tower advised that another plane would back taxi from the runup area and depart before my arrival. Out the left window I saw a turboprop twin taxi onto the runway and pivot smartly into position between the numbers. I heard "Nxxxxx cleared for takeoff" and started my GUMP check. I didn't notice a very significant silence.

I concentrated on flying a perfect pattern without the familiar ground clues of my home field. I turned base. When the left wing uncovered the runway, the twin was still there!? Tower warned me at the same moment. I acknowledged and cut my airspeed back to 50 knots to buy us all some time. "Nxxxxx cleared for takeoff."; more silence. Now I was beginning to hear it.

I aimed to turn final beyond the center line to set up a series of S-turns, assuming the twin would roll at any second. "Nxxxxx cleared for takeoff without delay". "Position and hold Nxxxxx" SAY WHAT? I noticed the yoke getting slippery from sweat..

The first S-turn was complete and I started to consider going around -- should have gone already, but I was too green to realize that. I was still trying too hard to follow ATC instructions. On the next right-to-left swing, I looked at the "book" go-around path; parallel to the runway on the right. NO GOOD! A 727 was coming up the parallel taxi way. How high is that fin? Farther to the right? No. The control tower is there. Straight? NO WAY! If the twin departed after I overflew him, he could climb out right through me. (I already had reason to wonder about the other pilot's skills -- why find out any more?) Left? No, I heard another 152 enter the downwind. Strange to feel sweat dripping on a wet shirt in February.

I decided to take my next rightward swing into a 90 degree turn at full power well in front of the 727 and out toward the parking lot. I could parallel the runway from the far side of the control tower. Meanwhile the 727 pilot had stopped well short, perhaps due to getting my landing lights in his face on my last S-turn. Bless him! He was the only pilot who seemed completely in control of his piece of the situation.

ATC continued to order the twin to get moving in increasingly urgent tones. I started the next rightward swing and heard "xxx rolling" and saw him start to go just before I hit the power. I turned hard left instead to catch the center line at the last possible second.

Wake turbulence? Nah. I'll be down long before his rotation point. A little high? No problem; it's a very long runway and nose up to bleed a little speed and sink smoothly to the runway ... honKERWHAM! Way back on base, I had already cut my approach speed to 50 knots. There had been only enough left to get a pathetic little peep from the stall warning horn before the bottom dropped out.

There was no damage except to my pride. My "touchdown" had been directly abeam the 727's cockpit and close to the tower. It sounded as if I had landed a piano instead of an airplane. At least the ELT didn't go off.

I spent quite a while at the FBO looking for the pieces of my composure. On the trip back, all that night, and into the next day I kept replaying the incident in an effort to list all the ways I could have made it work better.

The only thing I had done really well was a series of maneuvers in slow flight, but maneuvers to what? Trouble! The final mistake was not following through on my decision to turn out over the parking lot and get out of there. It was a safe, simple plan, albeit unusual. Even though the twin had gone, I needed safe and simple much more than I needed that center line. "Cleared to land" is not a divine edict; it's just another person's opinion; it's subject to PIC review as is everything else.

With the other plane on the runway during my base leg, my turn to final should have been a turn into an immediate go-around. I had done that once at an uncontrolled field and felt foolish; the other plane had rolled in plenty of time. That experience, plus a misplaced trust in the controller and the more experienced pilot of a much faster plane help suck me into this mess.

Still, I shouldn't have gotten so far in that there was only one alternative left. When should I have known trouble was brewing? The twin pilot had never acknowledged his original takeoff clearance! He also had failed to acknowledge the second clearance. If I had "heard" the silence clearly enough, I would have had ample warning. I should have extended my downwind until he rolled. It would have left me with a very long final, but ATC could perhaps have used the time for the 727 and/or the other 152. I would have been in better shape for a few easy minutes over the hinterlands than I was after trying to outfly my own ability.

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