Watch those last few feet

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image: © Civil Aviation Safety Authority

Name withheld by request

My first close call occurred in September last year. At the time it frightened me to death, but it proved to be an excellent learning experience. I had been holidaying in Brisbane for the weekend, and had organised to take a mate flying the afternoon I flew home to Sydney. I’d combine the trip with some circuits at Camden. I checked NAIPS a few times throughout the day and saw showers and moderate winds were forecast for the afternoon. The terminal area forecast (TAF) showed the conditions gradually getting worse as the afternoon went on, so I was eager to get home so we could get going before we were forced to cancel.

While landing in Sydney, I was pleasantly surprised by the weather, but it quickly took a turn for the worse, with a series of heavy, isolated showers. By the time I got home, picked up my mate, and drove out to Bankstown, the rain had subsided, but the wind had shifted 100 degrees since I had last checked, with the airport changing runway direction to compensate.

I preflighted, taxied and took off normally. The clouds were broken at about 4000 ft, so we stayed at 2500 ft for the majority of the flight. We tracked west out of Bankstown to Warragamba Dam, then skirted around the western boundary of the training area before entering the Camden control zone via Mayfield at 1800 ft. The air was turbulent, but nothing I hadn’t experienced before, and we joined right base for Camden’s runway 24 without incident. The ATIS had reported the wind as 14 kt from the south, with a crosswind component of 12 kt, which wasn’t an issue until late final, when the surrounding terrain started to swirl and tumble the air, making a stable approach very difficult.

The last 300 ft of the approach was extremely gusty and the nose swung side to side as we descended, but our track remained fairly constant. About 30 ft, a strong gust pushed the Warrior’s nose 15 degrees to the left, but I was about to apply crosswind correction for the flare, so I lined the nose up with the centreline with the rudder while banking into the wind, cut the power and glided down to the runway. We touched down on the left wheel, then the right, and then I gently released some of my back pressure to lower the nose.

The nose touched down and I reached down to retract the flaps when we suddenly became airborne again. I dropped the flaps handle, which locked at 25 degrees, and pushed the throttle to the firewall while also raising the nose slightly to cushion our second impact with the runway. The main wheels made contact with the asphalt, followed quickly by the nose wheel slamming down, the force of which catapulted us back into the air. With the throttle already fully open, I pulled back to go around, but the aircraft failed to climb. At the same time, the aircraft started veering to the left, pushed by a sudden gust of crosswind from the opposite direction to what we had encountered all the way down the approach. To make matters worse, our slight headwind during the approach had swung around to a tailwind, so my already low airspeed dwindled back to a mere 40 kt.

The aircraft dropped back onto the runway and continued to veer left. In a sudden moment of panic, I slammed the throttle back in an attempt to stop, but just as quickly changed my mind, pushing it forward and stepping on the right rudder pedal to stop our sideways movement. Our airspeed rose to 60 kt when I pulled back and climbed positively away from the ground, before momentarily levelling off at about 30 ft to build speed and continuing the climb out.

I fumbled for the flaps and retracted them as we accelerated and climbed, the swirling tailwind giving us terrible climb performance. As we climbed upwind, tower notified all traffic of an amendment to the ATIS which included a gusting crosswind up to 15 kt with an occasional tailwind component of 5 kt. I completed another circuit without incident and then returned to Bankstown.

Those few seconds taught me a lot about flying in difficult conditions. Luckily, I recorded the flight with my GoPro (video camera) suction cupped to the ceiling, which was incredibly helpful when debriefing myself. After reviewing the footage countless times, I don’t think I could have done anything differently without the knowledge I acquired from the incident. I considered whether I should have gone around after the gust of wind which pushed the nose off the runway centreline before touchdown, but it was only momentary and didn’t affect my track, and the aircraft was stable in time for the flare.

If there is any expression which every pilot knows off by heart, it is aviate, navigate, communicate, or in other words, fly the damn aeroplane! I was more than aware of this expression, and the logic behind it, but I still found myself distracted by factors outside my control which took my attention away from the aeroplane itself. I should have focused more on flying the aircraft all the way to the runway, and then a little further, before even thinking about retracting the flaps and powering up for the ‘go’ part of the touch-and-go. I believe that had I let the aircraft settle on the runway for as little as a second longer, I would have been in a much better position to then complete the touch-and-go. By changing the flap position, and therefore the amount of lift the wings were producing, I made the aircraft unstable, and was unlucky enough to be hit by a gust of crosswind and tailwind at the same time.

I also found it difficult to understand why we were veering left, especially since we had experienced a crosswind from the left the entire way down the approach. The approach to runway 24 at Camden goes over tall trees and several scattered houses, and follows a descending hill down to the runway threshold. The hill also rises to the left of the runway, resulting in swirling, unpredictable winds given the right conditions. Having flown predominantly out of Bankstown, this was not something I was acutely aware of.

Despite this, I should have been prepared for sudden gusts and wind changes because of the indicators present throughout the afternoon, most notably the unpredictable showers that passed through earlier, and the sudden wind change which required a change in runway direction at Bankstown.

It’s clichéd, but if there is one thing that everyone can take away from my close call, it is to expect the unexpected, and to not panic when it happens.

It’s critical when something happens that confuses or startles you, your first priority is just to continue flying the aeroplane in its simplest form, even if that means leaving the flaps in the full down position during a touch and go to prevent ending up in the grass. It’s better to have a slightly reduced climb performance than to cartwheel in the dirt.

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