Thursday, March 14, 2013

"PIC" Is More Than Just a Column in the Logbook

Sometimes, our worst moments make for the best learning opportunities.


A few years ago, I had just moved to New York state as a relatively inexperienced aircraft owner with a handful of long cross country trips under my belt; memories of training for my private pilot certificate still had a glossy sheen of recency when I replayed them in my mind.

I signed up for the "Rochester WINGS" weekend, a Saturday program of seminars and free flight training that would yield a completed FAA WINGS proficiency phase at the end of the day.  I was paired with "Stan" (not his real name) as my volunteer instructor.  Upon learning this, I was struck by a mild sense of weirdness.  I already knew Stan reasonably well and considered him a friend.  Being paired with him was almost as strange as the time I started a new job only to have my boss fired on the second day and replaced by my former stepfather (we had a rocky history, but that is a story for a different time).  At the very least, I had a good relationship with Stan.

Stan and I went to the seminars and chose to defer flying for a different day.  To complete the flight portion of the WINGS phase, we took Warrior 481 airborne on a Sunday morning bound for Oswego County Airport and one of its always fantastic EAA fly-in breakfasts.  Just off of Le Roy, I went under the hood (e.g., I donned some blinders that blocked everything but the instrument panel), contacted Rochester approach for flight following, and flew on instruments for the first time since my private pilot check ride.  As it turned out, I did well at this, tracking straight and true along my assigned headings as I stared intently at the instrument panel.

A Tale of Two Airports

South Haven Area Regional Airport (LWA), photographed November 14, 2004

To put what happened next into better context, a slight tangent is in order.

My previous home base in South Haven, MI (LWA) was on the eastern shore of Lake Michigan, its runways forming a large, lopsided "X" defined by the turf runway 14-32 and paved 4-22.  Robertson's Crop Dusting operated two Pawnee spray planes from their base of operations south of the intersection of the runways. Their standard protocol was to depart heavily laden with chemicals on runway 4 and return via runway 32 with the intention of minimizing time on the ground.  Most of us based at the airport also tended to land on runway 32 because the grass strip was nearly always aligned with the wind.  On the other hand, transients usually shunned the turf in favor of pavement, even though that often meant landing in a strong crosswind off of Lake Michigan.

As a result, simultaneous operations on the intersecting runways were not uncommon at South Haven. More than once, I heard the patter on Unicom interrupted by a surprised exclamation from transients on downwind for runway 22 upon their observation of a NORDO (no radio) Pawnee passing beneath them on short final for the grass. As a new pilot, I effectively "grew up" there and did not find this level of chaos to be unusual or distressing, but simply an occasion for added caution.
Oswego County Airport (FZY), photographed January 3, 2007

On my first trip to the Oswego County Airport, I was struck by its similar layout to South Haven, resting close to the Lake Ontario shore with intersecting paved runways 15-33 and 6-24.  Clearly, the lakeshore was in the wrong relative position to the airport, but it otherwise felt very familiar.

This was to be a factor in my undoing.

Aeronautical Lemmings

Still under the hood with Stan in the right seat, I noted that we were within 10 miles of the Oswego County Airport. I wanted to switch frequencies so that I could listen to Oswego's Unicom and begin creating a mental picture of the traffic at our destination.

"Naw, give it another few miles," Stan said.  I did not agree with this, but complied.  I did, however, tune the field's automated weather observation frequency and heard that the winds were 10 knots at 050° and decided that a landing on runway 6 made the most sense.

Five miles out, Stan allowed me to remove the hood and cancel radar services.  Changing frequencies quickly revealed that light aircraft were swarming around Oswego like flies.  All of them were using runway 33 and landing with a direct crosswind.

I weighed the options quietly.  I could certainly handle a ten knot crosswind and thought that it would be good practice.  I decided to enter the pattern for runway 33 along with everyone else so as to not disrupt traffic.  I banked Warrior 481 northward toward the lake to set myself up for a 45° pattern entry.

"What are you doing?" Stan asked.  When I explained, he shook his head.  "They're all landing with a crosswind and should be using runway 6.  You should use runway 6."

I looked at him for a moment.  Was he testing me?  "Really, Stan, I can handle the crosswind and we don't need to cause any confusion in the pattern."

"No.  Runway 6."  He was adamant.

"I think I should join the pattern for runway 33."

"Sure," said Stan.  "And, if you have an accident, how will your insurance company react when you tell them that you unnecessarily landed in a crosswind just because everyone else was?"

He had a point, but I still did not like it.  I had never disobeyed a flight instructor before.  After all, flight instructors lived on Olympus and knew everything, right? My experience from South Haven had taught me that simultaneous runway operations were manageable provided that one could stop short at the runway intersection; this would be a piece of cake with Oswego's long runways.

I expressed concern that entering the pattern for runway 6 would place me in conflict with traffic in the runway 33 pattern. Stan pointed out the windscreen.  "You're already lined up for runway 6, go straight in."

I hate unnecessary straight-in approaches at non-towered fields, they just seem to incite chaos when other aircraft are already in the pattern.  I understand that straight-ins come with practice or actual instrument approaches, but outside of those scenarios, I always fly the pattern.  But as I sorted out the three-dimensional picture in my mind's eye, I realized that he had a good point.  A straight-in final approach to 6 would carry me under the pattern traffic for runway 33 without posing a conflict. It would be just like the crop dusters on final approach for the grass at South Haven with traffic above them on downwind for the paved runway. It made some amount of geometric sense.

Mass Panic

We were running out of time, rapidly approaching the airport.  I complied with Stan's instructions and announced my intentions to land straight in on runway 6.

This generated instant chaos.

A pilot already rolling on runway 33 executed a go-around.  The airplane about to land on runway 33 went around, too.  To the sound of sniping and crabbing on the radio, we landed softly on runway 6 and stopped at least 1000' shy of the intersection with runway 33.  The windsock, standing nearly straight out,  pointed directly at us.

"See," Stan said indicating the windsock.  "You did the right thing.  The rest of them are in the wrong."

So why did I feel so low?

Worst. Lesson. Ever. (...?)

Years after this incident, I still feel a knot of embarrassment when replaying the memories.  I have shared my other aeronautical missteps (and the lessons learned from them) on this blog, but it has taken me years to share this one.

Though I finished my WINGS flying with Stan (which, ironically, is supposed to make me safer), I have no desire to fly any more instructional flights with him.  I actually avoided him for at least a year afterward.  Not that Stan really did anything wrong; the failings were mine.  Over time, however, I came to realize that Stan had unwittingly taught me some extremely valuable lessons.

The obvious lesson is that I should not have extrapolated local (and non-standard) practices from my former home base to Oswego County no matter how much one facility reminded me of the other.

Second, there are better ways to manage the scenario I faced that day.  Yes, I could have followed my original instinct and landed with a crosswind, knowing that it was within my ability.  Or I could have broadcast a suggestion for a pattern change.  Or I could have left the pattern, allowed it to empty out, and returned to land on the appropriate runway.  In the years since, I have successfully avoided causing mass panic in the traffic pattern and that is exactly the way I like it.

My greatest failure that day was not exercising my responsibility as Pilot in Command (PIC).  When I was a student, the word of my instructor was absolute because he was PIC.  Once I became a private pilot, however, I was PIC for every flight (in a single engine land airplane) whether there was an instructor on board or not.  But my mindset regarding instructors did not graduate to that level.  I still viewed the CFI as an absolute authority and felt compelled to do what I was told.

As a result, it was Stan who taught me - indirectly - what it really meant to be PIC.  As PIC on that day, I not only had the legal right, but the responsibility, to conduct the flight as I saw fit.  I should not have obeyed the guy in the right seat when I did not agree with him.

In the end, after much angst, I came to realize that it was a valuable learning experience, perhaps one of my most important lessons ever.