Reading Lessons

On a bumpy flight from Pueblo, Colorado to Centennial Airport in Denver, a strong wind gust hit us like a big ocean wave crashes into a boat. The left wing lifted up — higher and higher. With full aileron deflection against the bank, I couldn’t stop it. At 45 degrees, it looked like we were going over onto the knife-edge. My friend grabbed my shoulder and although I didn’t have to look over there to see that she was terrified, her fingernails conveyed that point through my jacket with unmistakable clarity. At that moment, with pain shooting through my arm from the deathgrip on my shoulder, I remembered a story I’d read about how to handle upsets. “STEP ON THE SKY.” I stomped on the left rudder pedal (it and I were the ones pointed at the sky) and the wings came level. WHEW! We got home with clean sick sacks, but with an uncanny desire for clean laundry.

PRE-FLIGHT: Our weather briefing had included an airmet for occasional, moderate turbulence, with 36-knot winds at 9,000. Our flight would take us down at 9,500 and back at 8,500, but I wanted my friend to see the grandeur of Pikes Peak and the snow covered Rocky Mountains from the seat of a small plane. (It hadn’t occurred to me that the view might be less enjoyable if the seat from which it was observed wasn’t right side up.) The trip was bumpy from the start, but we got to Pueblo and made our way straight to the plate of free cookies at the office of the local FBO. The ride home was just as bumpy and quickly degraded from pleasure flying to hard work! I crabbed into the wind, holding our course. But I couldn’t maintain a steady altitude … or attitude for that matter. We’d go up, we’d go down, riding the wave … and then we’d go side to side. Then that wave came…

HANGAR TALK: Jeff Montiel, a Denver based CFII and corporate jet pilot, told me a story about how one day he was flying in turbulent air with a long-time friend and flight instructor. Back then, he was a 300-hour commercial pilot. The airplane was getting knocked around, he said, and he couldn’t keep the ship straight and level with just the ailerons. With a look of disbelief, his friend asked the question: “Nobody ever taught you to level the wings with the rudder?” The simple and honest answer was ‘No.’

I might have stayed bug-dumb stupid too except for that scary moment of my own. For me, it took the actual experience to connect what I’d read with how I should physically handle the airplane in that situation.

BEYOND TEACHING: Why is it that my current instructor and I were never taught during our initial flight training that “in turbulence you should level the wings with the rudder”? I don’t blame my first instructor. He taught me a lot and sometimes had to work damn hard to do it. Besides, he couldn’t teach me everything. To his credit, before he went off to work for a regional airline, he advised me to “read, read, read as much as you can about flying.” Thanks to that advice, I learned from a magazine article to “STEP ON THE SKY” which likely saved me from an UPSET… although my passenger may disagree with that particular choice of words. Now, when I run into rough air, I use the rudders to level the wings and I fly with greater control, confidence and peace of mind.

A PostScript: Why they call a Private Pilot Certificate “A License to Learn.”

Last summer I flew into the Greeley, Colorado airport. The field had a new runway (and had closed the old one for repairs) but construction wasn’t yet complete on the new taxiways. Before I got into the plane, I asked how I was supposed to takeoff into the wind. “You’ll have to back taxi,’ (taxi the airplane on the runway opposite to the traffic flow, turn around and takeoff) I was told. No one in my initial flight training had ever taught me what it meant to “Back Taxi!” But luckily, I’d read about it in a book the night before. So, there was this big twin wandering around on the ramp out by a corn field on the other side of the runway that looked confused … and two singles on my side who’d run out of pavement and were spinning around in circles wondering where to go. In the end, they all followed me — a low-timer in my rented Katana — who’d bothered to read up and ask questions. And (this is for the peanut gallery), yes, they waited for me to get airborne before following onto the runway, behind me.