By Mark Awad
It was the type of day most of us pilots live for—low 20 degrees, severe-clear blue skies and not a breath of wind. After roughly a three-month hiatus, I was really looking forward a flight in our family’s CA-25 Winjeel. Flying with me that day was a friend who was at the time a Grade 1 instructor and approved test officer—I was very conscious of his experience and wanted to demonstrate that I could handle the old warbird with ease.
We were planning to spend a couple of hours in the air over the Riverina, visiting Echuca and Jerilderie before returning. All was fine until I realised that I had made a substantial navigational error in my flight planning. I had a completely inappropriate heading written down for the leg from Echuca to Jerilderie, which I discovered while on the ground in Echuca.
I figured I could salvage the situation and manage to find my way using a WAC chart and dead reckoning (this was before the advent of services such as OzRunways or even widespread GPS usage). My friend knew the area well and, while he disapproved of my decision, allowed me to proceed without objecting. In hindsight, I realise he did this largely to teach me a good lesson!
Full of false confidence, I departed Echuca and set us on a course for what I thought was Jerilderie. Well, it didn’t take long for me to realise I was in over my head. To those unfamiliar with the region such as me, this part of the Riverina has precious few distinct landmarks and features. The Murray and Ovens Rivers crisscross endless farmland and double back on themselves in numerous locations; while it seemed each town had grain silos and train tracks (pretty much the only local landmarks that appeared on the WAC). I was lost, and my pride was taking a beating.
After what seemed like forever, my friend put me out of my misery and gave me a heading for home, pointing out local features so that I could re-orient myself on my charts.
“…I had made a substantial navigational error in my flight planning…” Mark Awad is the CEO of the Australian Warbirds Association Limited
While we discussed a few subjects on the flight back, I could not shake the thought of my poor performance on what should have been a simple cross-country navigation exercise. I began to over-compensate by identifying and pointing out virtually every landmark on our way. As we approached home, I should have been preparing the plane, my passenger and myself for landing but was instead still distracted by my earlier mistakes.
Everyone who has flown a taildragger knows that one cannot relax with them until the plane is in the chocks, and that they all—regardless of type—demand our full attention, particularly during take-off and landing.
Obsessing about earlier mistakes is no way to prepare yourself for landing, particularly in a warbird such as the Winjeel that will get away from you if you let it. As we entered the circuit that afternoon, I recall thinking about how I wanted to really make a flawless ‘wheel’ landing and by virtue of that at least salvage some respect.
All was fine as we touched down, but rather than let the speed decrease and the tail to drop of its own accord, I inexplicably put the stick full back.
Of course, this increased the angle of attack and, as we were still somewhere around 70 kt, the plane lifted off into ground effect. As we touched back down, I was just a little sideways but it was enough to start us off to the left.
I overcompensated to the right which began a series of oscillations and ended in a textbook ground-loop.
Thankfully, I had the stick centred throughout and the end result was not too bad; just a scraped left wingtip and a thoroughly chagrinned pilot. What pride I was hoping to salvage was up in smoke and nothing more than a couple streaks of burned rubber on the runway.
I’ve not forgotten that day in the ensuing years: how I didn’t just accept simple human error for what it was and stop to recalculate my heading. How I compounded this mistake by letting pride get in the way of good airmanship and judgement and how I allowed my embarrassment to affect the level of attention, concentration and respect for the plane I showed towards the conclusion of the flight.
I am thankful for the lessons I learned though and was very fortunate to get off as easy as I did, with virtually no damage to our beloved Winjeel or—especially—to either of us onboard. It certainly could have ended much worse!