I took a long, steady drag off the cigarette. I don’t usually smoke, but this day was an exception. The smoke grated on my throat and I suppressed a cough. Then came the lullaby, which is why I lit one up in the first place.
For the second time, my world slowed down. I became hyper-aware of my circumstances. For the second time, I felt an otherworldly sense of peace. I looked up. A ragged, sun-bleached windsock snapped in the wind.
I focused on that windsock, unaware that Paul was focusing on it, too. He likewise sucked leisurely on a cigarette.
A gust of wind angrily smacked the windsock and it swung several degrees. It pointed, quivering, like the scolding finger of an angry grandparent. A second gust of wind pivoted the windsock on its pole back to its previous position. Back and forth it snapped, like a finger jabbing toward two separate perpetrators. Paul was the first to speak:
“Well, that explains it.”
It dawned on me – that is exactly why we got dropped. The windsock gave it away. Given our direction of travel, the wind alternated between a quartering headwind and a quartering tailwind. At the crucial moment in the landing, when we needed a headwind the most, we got a tailwind.
Here is how that felt:
I had picked Manly, Louisiana as an improvised fuel stop. We should have made it to Galveston, Texas by now, but a diabolically persistent 50 mile-per-hour headwind had plagued our progress. We were burning more fuel and more oil as the engine struggled against the current.
I looked down the length of the wing. I did not like what I saw.
I circled the airport, which was little more than a single asphalt runway carved out of gnarly woodland. There was a fuel farm and a few buildings, but little else. What bothered me was the crosswind. The wind clearly favored a landing to the west, but not by much. Running perpendicular to one end of the runway was a grass spur, easily long and wide enough to accommodate the PT-19. The grass swath faced directly into the wind, which would be ideal. However, the airport directory only listed the asphalt runway – no mention of a grass option.
I circled one more time, weighing my options. A US Army Lakota helicopter approached Manly, bounced, and took off to the southeast. I debated radioing the pilot about the grass strip, but they sounded hopelessly overwhelmed on the radio. More than likely the Lakota was a trainer, the pilot a student.
I throttled back the engine and set up my approach. Immediately, the wind delivered a series of blows, as if rejecting our intent to land. I gritted my teeth and rode the gusts. The PT-19 felt like a rowboat getting tossed by oceanic swells. Still, I felt confident in my decision to land. Manly was still our safest option, and although unpleasant, the 15 mile-per-hour crosswind was not a deal breaker. I didn’t like it, but I’d safely landed in far worse.
I flew parallel to the runway and well past the threshold, and then made two left-hand turns. The 180-degree maneuver should have lined me up perfectly with the runway, but the wind swatted the PT-19 off course. We were fighting a riptide. I added power to compensate, and steered back on course. I added flaps to control our descent.
Still, that infernal crosswind! The airplane bucked, tipped, and swooped. The gusts of wind felt exactly like swells on the ocean, and I instinctively worked the throttle in anticipation of each rise, and each fall.
A gust of wind slammed the PT-19, giving it extra lift and tossing it higher. I carefully throttled back so as not to gain too much altitude. Anticipating the apex of the gust, I added power so we didn’t drop out of the sky when the boost expired.
Throttle up; throttle down, each time with the expectation of a gust coming or going – exactly like powering through the swells in a small boat.
We were close to the runway now – the tree line blurred past, and gave way to mowed grass. We were nearly there, just a few more gusts and I would set us down, timing our landing to match a trough in between the gusts. We had been tracking sideways to compensate for the velocity of the wind, so I used the rudder pedals to straighten the airplane.
We were close – so close. The runway threshold slid past. The airspeed indicated 70 miles per hour; a perfect approach. Our altitude was treetop height.
And then, my world slowed to a crawl. A deep and resolute thought permeated my consciousness and I became aware of nothing else, “This is not going to end well.”
Suddenly, I became hyper-aware of my circumstances. The gusts had intensified, flinging the airplane higher and dropping us lower each time. At treetop height, I added full power just as another gust rocked the airplane. This landing was unsalvageable. I reached down to release the flaps, but hesitated – flaps slow the airplane, but add lift. If I dumped the flaps now, we would drop like a rock. I pulled back slightly on the stick. Time to abort this landing and divert to another airport. Wait a second – we should be gaining altitude, but we were still dropping. My eyes darted to the airspeed, which registered below 60 miles per hour. I could feel the controls turn mushy and unresponsive.
Nose-up attitude, full power, bleeding speed, much too low to lose flaps, maybe 100 feet off the ground; the realization washed over me – the airplane was about to stall. I pushed forward on the stick just as the PT-19 stopped flying.
An airplane only flies when there is a sufficient volume of wind moving over its wings. In flight, you can actually slow down to the point where the wings stall, and the aircraft falters and drops. Pilots regularly practice this maneuver, so that when it happens in real life, we hopefully know how to react without having to think, because believe me – it all happens in a matter of microseconds.
I felt the PT-19 break loose. The nose dropped as the wings no longer produced lift. Out front, my view changed from cloudy sky to pavement as we plunged. In those brief moments, my world slowed down. Would we crash? Would I become a statistic? Would armchair pilots wax online everything they would have done different? What would John Ellis think? I felt ashamed for allowing myself to get into this situation in the first place. I thought about my wife. I braced myself for the sound of crunching wood and bending metal.
I held the stick forward, trying to ride out the fall. I held the throttle full open. I danced on the rudder pedals, doing my best to keep the wings level. The Ranger roared and the propeller clawed frantically at the air like a terrified animal attempting to escape certain death.
Something caught. The wind changed. The propeller took solid bites of air. The wings did their thing. The PT-19 recovered. I glanced down. We were well off the runway. Had we hit the ground, we would have smashed runway lights and skidded into the tree line. No time for reflection – I pulled back on the stick, which translated into altitude. We grudgingly climbed, again at the mercy of the crosswind.
And then, it happened again. The airplane broke loose a second time and plummeted. Again, fighting every natural instinct, I pushed the stick forward to ride out the fall. Out front, my view changed from cloudy sky to trees and steel buildings. We were much too low to lose the flaps, so I held the nose down and throttle wide open.
For the second time, I imagined what it would be like to smash into the earth. Amazingly, I felt a sense of calm. I watched the buildings and trees grow larger and larger, and also felt the recovery. For the second time in as many seconds, the PT-19 caught itself and we gained altitude. Safely above the trees, I reached down and disengaged the flaps. The airplane dipped from the sudden loss of extra lift, but our airspeed ticked up to 70 miles, and then 80. We were out of danger, but still needed fuel. I was going to have to find somewhere else to land. I glanced down once more at the grass strip that ran perpendicular to the runway.
A second US Army Lakota helicopter approached Manly. Again, a timid and overwhelmed voice announced a muddled set of intentions. This time, I radioed the pilot, “Manly helicopter traffic, I’m running low on fuel and I don’t like this crosswind. Is that a useable grass strip off the one-two threshold?”
A weary but commanding voice, probably the instructor, immediately responded, “Manly traffic, I know the crop-dusters use it in the summertime.” With that, the Lakota bounced and departed to the southeast. I smiled at the abruptness of the exchange. It reminded me of the types of macabre conversations I heard amongst military flight instructors when they would joke about “only” getting killed by their students three times in one flight. I wondered if Paul, seated in the back and silent throughout the entire ordeal, felt the same way.
I set up my approach, cleared the tree line, and executed a textbook touchdown on the grass strip, this time facing directly into the wind. We rolled to a stop, turned, and taxied to the tarmac in silence. I shut down the engine and secured the airplane. Paul found a place to sit down and pulled out a pack of cigarettes, offering one to me.
I sucked on the nicotine, enjoying the lullaby. For the second time in as many minutes, my world slowed down. Paul and I watched the dance of the windsock, entranced by the violent nature of the shifting wind. “You know” Paul said, “You saved the airplane.”
His comment caught me off-guard. “What do you mean? I should’ve never tried to land. I nearly wrecked the airplane.”
“No dude, I felt it when we stalled. But you had already added power. We would’ve crashed if you hadn’t added power when you did.”
I took one final drag and rubbed the cigarette on the pavement. It left a dirty streak, like charcoal. We flicked the butts into a nearby trashcan and fueled up the PT-19. The windsock stood guard, snapping back and forth.
With nothing left to accomplish at Manly I turned to Paul, “Well dude, you ready to press on?” We were just over halfway to Corpus Christi, and already well into the afternoon.
I climbed onto the wing of the PT-19 and settled into the pilots seat, because that’s what you do when a horse throws you off.
You get right back on.