By Doug Magill
Embarrassment is where growth happens. Jaylen Brown
“Cessna one-niner-two-niner Foxtrot cleared touch-and-go Runway 6 right.”
The Burke Lakefront tower controller’s voice was crisp and authoritative. I loved that professionalism, and my ability to be part of a brotherhood where the rules were clear, communication precise and expectations high.
I acknowledged the clearance with my own crisp “two-nine Fox” and reduced power, lowered the flaps and went through my pre-landing checklist.
There are few things more enervating than a clear fall afternoon and being able to fly. I had departed Cuyahoga County airport after doing a few touch-and-go landings there. County was a busy airport and had a lot of corporate traffic. At this time they were doing repairs to the main runway for a few weeks so I was using the taxiway to take off and land, which required a great deal of precision.
Having recently soloed, every flight alone was an experience, every landing a success, and every moment aloft a paean to an inexpressible sense of freedom and the joy of perspective that few people get to have.
The flight to Burke Lakefront airport was a few minutes as both fields were close together. Burke was along the north shore of Cleveland and was a great place to practice touch-and-go landings as there were always crosswinds. I wanted to increase my level of professionalism and become proficient at crosswind landings. Today was a perfect day for it. Maybe a 20 degree crosswind at 8 to 10 knots. A great combination, strong enough to be challenging, below the threshold of dangerous. With northeasterly winds my landing patterns would be over the lake which was beautiful, and gave a great view of the city.
Crosswind landings are and essential skill if you want to do any cross country excursions in an airplane. While airports are aligned with the prevailing winds in their location, rarely are the winds exactly down the runway. It’s a great test of airmanship, and requires constant adjustments of ailerons, rudder and elevators.
Once power has been reduced and a stabilized descent established there are two ways to nail a crosswind landing. Crabbing is the simplest and most often used by new pilots. It requires turning the nose towards the wind so the plane is not being blown off track with the runway, using fine adjustments of the controls to keep the line of flight aligned with the runway while the nose may be pointed offline. The plane kind of heads sideways, like a scuttling crab, at an angle over the ground until reaching the runway. At the point of touchdown the rudder is kicked over and the plane straightened to the runway before landing. Straighten too soon and your craft will be blown off track away from the runway and you’ll have to go around – or land in the field next to the runway. An embarrassing and potentially expensive ending to any flight.
The professional way of landing in a crosswind is to lower the windward wing and track straight with the runway. This requires a constant symphony of adjustments to controls to keep the runway aligned and the plane under control. Crosswinds are never constant, and the windward wing will be constantly moving. It allows a precision approach and shows professionalism. Once over the runway at the right time – if everything aligns – you can put the plane down, tracking straight with the runway – on the windward wheel before gently levelling off on all 3 wheels on a tricycle-gear craft.
The crosswinds were kind, my feeling of aircraft control was excellent, and my descent – if charted out – was smooth.
One of the difficulties of learning any new skill is getting the picture of everything that is going on: you are attuned to changes, oblivious to distractions and feeling in control. The hard part is not obsessively focusing on one or two things at the expense of all components of the aircraft. It’s called situational awareness, and as a pilot you have to have it – seeing the sky around you, watching for obstructions on the runway, hearing the engine, managing descent with the throttle, feeling the wind and anticipating minute changes to bank angle to keep the nose aligned while listening to the tower frequency and preparing for takeoff after a touch-and-go. It’s easy to focus on the immediate issue: speed, rate of descent alignment with the runway – while letting other things move to the background.
Anyone who has ever played football knows it – that feeling of getting the picture amidst noise, contact, mistakes and following what the play is designed to do. It takes a while, and it isn’t always there. Quarterbacks know it best as they have to be aware of their blocking while scanning the field and looking off defensive backs while simultaneously avoiding potential tacklers.
Pilots have to have the picture at all times, because the result of poor situational awareness can be deadly.
Crossing the runway threshold I was at a great altitude and into ground effect everything was perfect. I chopped the throttle, heard the left wheel chirp, lowered the plane and immediately felt it rolling smoothly down the middle of the runway. Flaps up, I added power and right rudder to counteract propeller torque and we were smoothly back into our natural element.
I was exultant and mentally slapping myself on my back for a great crosswind landing, hoping the controller was watching and nodding at the professionalism.
The radio crackled with an angry tone “Cessna 1929 Foxtrot you were cleared touch and go on runway 6 right, not the taxiway!”
My cheeks flushed, my ears burned and my heretofore feeling of professionalism shriveled into a tight ball of extreme embarrassment. I had been so focused on the details of a crosswind landing that I had carried the sight picture of my taxiway landings at Cuyahoga County into my approach at Burke. The taxiways looked the same. I just was using my memory of the correct approach picture at one airport since the taxiway looked like what I was used to landing on.
I really wanted to shrink down, disappear into the plane and slink away – if a plane could slink. But in the aviation business there was nowhere to hide and I could well be written up to the FAA which would put a long delay into any flying ambitions I had. That also could have been really dangerous if there were another aircraft on the taxiway, or taxiing to it. I was lucky, no one else was active at that time.
Still, I wondered if there weren’t a few snickering pilots who were listening on the frequency. Fortunately an aircraft call sign is not a clue to your identity without some detective work.
“29Fox – I, I..Uh, yeah. I’ve been practicing at County and they’re using the taxiway so it just looked right. My apologies….I’m still learning.”
“That’s obvious. Cessna 29F cleared touch and go on runway 6 right, and this time let’s see you do it as well as you did last time except on the runway.”
There followed one of the tightest and most precisely executed crosswind, downwind and base-to final approaches ever seen. I greased it on one wheel again – but on the runway -and was ready to hightail it back to County.
“29Fox, well done, and on the runway this time. We’ll see you next time.”
“29Fox, thank you sir.”
I couldn’t wait to land back at County – on the taxiway – and find a nearby bar to lessen my shame for a while. Still, shame is a good teacher, and the lesson of situational awareness was brought home in a very real and striking way. Never to be forgotten, or repeated.
I’ve used that story in speeches and in training employees. There’s always one more thing to be aware of, and one more thing you may not be thinking about if you are too focused on the immediate task – or the immediate reward. The lesson works in business, and in relationships.
Oh, and gratitude too. I sent a note to the controller thanking him for being part of my learning process. I suspect he knew my embarrassment was the only learning needed to become a better pilot.
Doug Magill is an instrument-rated pilot with over 1000 hours as pilot-in-command and 230 instrument hours. He is a consultant, freelance writer, and voice-over talent and can be reached at email@example.com.