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MARCH, 2000


About a year ago I was standing alongside the Borrego Springs runway in Southern California when a single engine Grumman landed, lurched, skidded sideways, ran off the runway and began to perform impressive whoop-de-dos over the sand berms. The last leap transfixed onlookers: twenty feet airborne and nose-first into a dune—surely the occupants would be dead or at best severely injured...

As the dust settled and we rushed to gather up a vehicle and rescue crew, first one, then a second and finally a third occupant emerged from the cockpit and began to trudge back up the runway toward us—all apparently unhurt. A very lucky outcome.

When we joined up, the pilot had a ready explanation: one of the brakes had locked. He had in fact been advised that it was a bit "soft" when he initially took the keys, and we were looking at the result. In support of this explanation, the airport operator looked over the scene and pronounced authoritatively: "It was the brakes."

Well, actually, no. Even seen from several hundred yards away, it had looked like a landing accident, not mechanical failure: the plane made an extremely hard and out of shape touchdown. On examination of the runway surface, I could find no brake marks, just the impact traces left as the plane careened off the runway into the sand and then up and over the berms. It looked like the pilot had simply lost directional control, perhaps in part because a brake had failed—Grummans lack nosewheel steering—but not because one had locked.

What everybody appeared to be ignoring in the immediate aftermath was that the pilot had landed with 10 to 12 knots of tailwind—enough to create a great deal of mischief for the unsuspecting. He had accepted a suggested runway over the unicom frequency and apparently checked no further. As often happens in the desert, the wind changed markedly as he made his approach; by the time he got over the runway he was in the wrong place, going the wrong way, drifting across the runway with about 25 knots more groundspeed than necessary.

I don't know if this or something like it has ever happened to you—if not, you owe it to yourself to go out and experiment a bit with downwind approaches—the circumstance isn't as uncommon as you might think. If you are unaware, or unsuspecting, a downwind flare can produce mystifying results: the plane's visible speed doesn't match the aerodynamics. Put another way, while you are apparently still moving along over the runway at a good clip, you are actually running out of airspeed. If you press on anyway, the result can be a stalled arrival with enough ground speed to significantly magnify directional problems created by the out of control aerodynamics. In other words, you may run off the runway.

As with so many errors in aviation, the basic culprit that leads pilots to attempt downwind landings is lack of training exposure. You are taught from the beginning that you should make all takeoffs and landings into the wind to reduce ground roll; from that point forward, you become accustomed to making every touchdown with more airspeed than groundspeed. While this is certainly correct procedure, but you should try reversing the process—at least through the flare—to see what the opposite effect looks like. If you are accustomed to landing in a 10 knot headwind, reversing direction will have the effect of increasing groundspeed by 20 knots. How will you react if you are 20 knots fast in the flare? Will you even recognize the reversal—the fact that groundspeed is now significantly higher than airspeed? If you're like most pilots with no exposure to tailwind approaches, the answers will be less than encouraging.

As I said above, misjudging the wind isn't all that uncommon. Just six months after the described incident I saw another pilot getting in over his head in exactly the same situation at the same airport; this time someone was fortunately close enough to a radio to suggest a go-around and a check of the wind. The pilot appeared only mildly grateful, but the difference between his first and second landing attempts was dramatic.

Why didn't he recognize what was happening? He was obviously in trouble, flying very close to the ground on the ragged edge and unable to make his airplane behave as expected. He needed to go around and rethink—instead he persisted in a losing cause.

As stated, the primary culprit is lack of prior exposure. Beyond that is the stubborn resolve to make each landing work no matter what. As a word of advice: if a landing is presenting you with unexpected events—if you are suddenly playing catch-up instead of leading—go around. Then, once you’ve solved the immediate problem, resolve to experiment a bit to gain the exposure necessary to make you better informed in the future.

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