It’s a commonly held adage that more experienced drivers are less likely to have an accident, and that’s why their insurance premiums are lower. On the face of it, it seems entirely logical, and makes sense. However, as has been found out in many an Air Accident Investigation, there are some drawbacks that come with greater experience, and I shall share with you a story of how my own experience in a particular field nearly ended up in me crashing a plane…
So it was late summer in 2012, and I had signed out a Cessna 172 from a flying school at Denham Airfield in Buckinghamshire. I was just going up to do a few rejoins from Bovingdon VOR to keep current with time in the circuit and my takeoffs and landings. A friend of mine was waiting on the ground with a beer in his hand and some reading material to pass that time in the warm summer sun.
After an uneventful takeoff and climbout, I had reached the VOR at Bovingdon, and begun my return to the airfield. The air was surprisingly still for a summer afternoon, and all appeared to be going well. After calling the St. Giles Visual Reporting Point (VRP), I began my descent and turn over the golf course to land on Runway 06 Left Hand. As I reached the last 100 feet before touch down, I had slowed to 65 knots and had extended full flaps. By the time I was across the numbers it was 60 knots. This was going to be a perfect landing… only it wasn’t.
As soon as I touched the main gear down I made the mistake of releasing a little too much back pressure. That was the first mistake. However, as is always the case with accidents, it’s never just one thing that causes them. Invariably there is a chain of events. As a result of my releasing too much back pressure, and of my low speed, the nose came down a little quicker than it should have. As per the design, the nose gear absorbed the shock, but then the nose bounced back a little, momentarily getting us airborne (albeit perhaps to the height of 30 cms) again. This time, with the nose high, the main gear touched again, and shortly thereafter, the nose gear…. I was beginning to porpoise. If you’d like to see what that looks like, take a look at the YouTube video below:
So, not wanting to end up like the person in that video, I did what I thought was the right thing to do: GO AROUND!
For those not familiar with aviation parlance, that’s the term which essentially means “Give up what you were trying to do, climb away on full power, then come back and try again”. Pilots are, quite rightly, encouraged to avoid getting themselves into situations where the desire to just get the plane on the ground overpowers the pilot’s ability to make good decisions about flight safety. For a bit more on “get-there-itis”, see American Airlines Flight 1420.
So there I was, sure I had made the best decision: I had put the nose ever so slightly above the horizon, set the the engine at full power, and I’d reset the flaps to takeoff settings. Only I hadn’t done the right thing at all. For a few seconds the aircraft began to climb away from the runway, and then it stopped. I was still at full power, but for reasons my poor little brain couldn’t fathom, I was descending. I was descending towards the perimeter wall of the airfield… what on earth was going on?! For a moment I heard myself running through the
five six stages of crashing a plane (adapted for retrospective humorous purposes from the Kübler-Ross model):
- Denial: “This can’t be happening… no, it isn’t happening. It doesn’t make sense.”
- Anger: “Why is this happening to me?! I’m a good pilot! This shouldn’t be happening to me!”
- Bargaining: This one doesn’t quite apply. Nothing in aviation is a bargain.
- Depression: “It’s going to be so expensive paying this off. It’ll probably be even worse cause I won’t be able to work after this accident. I wish I’d never got into flying at all.”
- Acceptance: “Oh well. So this is what my crash looks like.”
- Aragorn: “The day may come when I crash a plane, but today is not that day!”
By now, I had used up more than half of the total runway, and I was about twenty or so feet above the runway. It occurred to me that I had two options: to remain a passenger in the plane, or become a pilot again and at least have the dignity to fly my way to the scene of the crash. I opted for the latter, killed the power and then flew the aircraft back down onto the runway and then applied the brakes as they have never been applied in the aircraft’s thirty-five year history. Fortunately, I was able to bring the aircraft to a halt on the runway, albeit with only one aircraft’s length left to spare. As you might imagine, I made the decision to remain on the ground for the day at that point… but what went wrong? Why did this incident even happen?
Here is the meat to this blog post: how sometimes being experienced at something and expecting success every time can set you up for failure. You see, as a student pilot, you find yourself in your early days learning to land and deciding very early on that you are not going to be able to land the plane, so you go around long before the wheels touch… that’s fine, and a change in the aircraft’s flap configuration from full to landing (20°) is normal. As you gain experience it is much more common that your approach will end with the wheels actually on the runway, whereby you then reset the flaps to takeoff (10°), increase power as you continue down the runway, then takeoff again as normal. The area of danger, which was the ultimate cause of my near accident was that I had the level of experience and skill that meant I very rarely ever found myself having to go around, and instead I very commonly did touch and goes. This all meant that when the time came that I got as far as touching the wheels on the ground, but having to abort that landing, my ‘muscle memory’ went through the motions of moving the flaps as I would have on a touch and go. What happened as I began my go around was the drag flaps came away, the aircraft gained speed and started to climb, but before it reached sufficient speed as to maintain a climb, the flaps continued to retract all the way to 10°, and I simply didn’t have the lift required to climb out. To help visualise, see below:
The lesson: Sometimes you’re so used to getting something right, you can’t handle it when you get it wrong. Practice for when you get things wrong.