Boldly Where No Man Has Gone Before

sp32-20090313-1932121It’s always best to learn from someone else’s flying mistakes You’ll never live long if you intend to make them all yourself. On this particular day, as a budding student pilot, I chose to make one of my own.  A few weeks earlier, I had just learned the subtle but necessary control inputs to maintain alignment with the runway upon landing in a crosswind. Today, I had taken off with steady 20 knot winds down the center. Actually, landing is pretty cool in this situation. The plane darn near seems to hover when attempting a short field landing with full flaps. This changes dramatically when the wind is coming at right angles to the plane and you’re carrying way too much airspeed and you haven’t yet developed the knack for landing on one main wheel. This chain of events was soon to be played out when I was given the latest active runway.

Everything seemed fine until I touched down. With a hefty amount of airspeed the plane just didn’t want to stay put. It had a mind of it’s own and wanted to keep flying for a while, despite cranking in full aileron into the wind and opposite rudder. It was at this point  I was transformed from pilot in command to hapless amazed passenger as the plane began to veer off the runway. Not any runway, mind you, but one of four very busy runways in a tower controlled airport with jet traffic. I was only along for the ride, as my student license flashed before my eyes. As the main wheels departed the pavement, I suspected I was breaking numerous aviation regulations like stunt flying without an endorsement or mowing the lawn with an airplane. Landing on grass is normal for most light airplanes but not between runways on a towered field. Worse, I was heading toward the runway lighting and soon to be in line to strike the runway signage.

No amount of control inputs were having an impact. I was Clark Griswold on a saucer heading for the ATM machine. It seemed to pick up speed. The plane had descended into a swale between runway and taxiway and began sliding on the freshly cut grass, so I decided against jamming the brakes. As the main gear headed for the runway light, the sound of crunching metal would announce the suspension of my flying privileges. Bracing myself, I began estimating the cost for a used Piper Cherokee. Miraculously, it whizzed by, missing by inches. Next up on the menu: The intersecting taxiway and the more substantial runway sign. However, as the Cherokee began an uphill climb, momentum reduced and I popped up on the runway hold short line of the perpendicular taxiway. The plane, Lawn Boy N4257S, was covered with wet grass and looked very much like it had mowed the back forty, but it was unharmed. Sort of. After pausing for a moment I croaked at the faceless voice in the tower. 57S is clear of the active, request Echo 21 hangers. Of course, the inevitable call back would certainly include “call the tower” which means expect inevitable FAA enforcement action. Incredibly it didn’t happen. It’s a mystery to me to this day. I have actually seen, in real time, two pilots getting tagged for a violation when using the wrong runway. I didn’t even use a runway.

The Lawn Boy with wings went back to the hanger of the FBO but before tying down, I jumped out of the plane and did my level best to clean it up. Not only was grass everywhere, but it clogged up the wheel fairings on the plane. I advised the guy working the FBO that I landed on grass: “Could we check out the gear?” His reply: “Hey-These planes aren’t for grass strips”. I replied “Yes, yes, I know but grass  happens. We need to check the gear”. After squawking (reporting) the fairings, they were permanently removed. It certainly wasn’t as expensive as watching a plane defy the parking chocks, roll down a hill and into a fence but that’s another story.

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