The quavering voice on the telephone answering machine said, "We've had a little problem, and I'm at Willow Grove. I'm okay, I'll call you later."
Naval Air Station Willow Grove? In a Cessna 152?
But the story starts months earlier. After working together for almost a year, Kate pranced into my office, settled pertly in a chair by my desk and announced with a coy smile that it was a great day to go flying. A recent convert to aviation, thanks to a ride in my open cockpit biplane, I thought she was asking to go again. But she knew as well as I did--no, better than I did--that there was work to be done.
So when I cocked my head and narrowed my eyes in question, she said,
"What I'm trying to tell you is I'm just back from my fourth flight lesson, and it's a beautiful day for flying."
As a flight instructor I was eager to hear about her flying experiences. Meanwhile, I pondered what stroke of fate had brought me together with this gorgeous woman who was smarted than I was, had better business instincts than I did, and liked to fly.
But that was days ago, and the phone message I'd just listened to had me perplexed and worried.
The 'we' suggested that an instructor had gone with her for some dual, instead of the scheduled solo session. That was easy to deduce because the spring weather was bizarre--snow so hard you couldn't see across the street followed by crackling clear blue sky and calm air followed by thunderstorm wind gusts followed by white-out snow, rinse and repeat. No competent instructor would send a student out in such conditions.
The 'problem' part, though, was hard to judge. "I'm okay" suggested she might not have been, and that was worrisome. And the fact that she was calling from a Naval Air Station suggested whatever the problem had been was significant enough that they'd had to land at an otherwise not open to the public facility. Strange.
Weather had to be the problem, I decided; and waited for the call that never came.
Instead, late in the day, she walked into my office, gingerly closed the door, and sat down as if something might break if she moved quickly. She blinked back tears, her lips quivered.
"Well, I've had an interesting afternoon," she said.
As the story unfolded I understood--although I'm not sure she did--that she'd very nearly died.
When she'd arrived at the rural Pennsylvania airport she was told her instructor wasn't there. The idea, far from a plan, had been a few minutes of dual--as is customary with a low time student--followed by solo practice takeoff and landings. Instead, the guy behind the desk threw her the keys to an aircraft and said,
"Why don't you go buzz your boyfriends house. The tanks are about half full, but that should be enough."
No discussion about weather, no admonition about low flying (quite the contrary), no words about doing a careful preflight, no reminder of the old adage that sky above you, runway behind you, and fuel in the gas truck are all worthless.
During the year we'd worked together we'd had occasion to travel on business in a lovely old G35 Beechcraft Bonanza. She showed an interest that went beyond simple pleasure in a sky-high perspective, so enroute I explained the instruments and controls to her and shared some of the things I'd learned in 25 years of flying. Fortunately, she remember a lot of what we'd talked about.
She prudently filled the Cessna with gas and took off, ready to enjoy a few minutes of freedom in three-dimensions over rolling Pennsylvania Dutch country before returning to practice some landings. At least that was her plan. With no training or advice, she had no reason to fear the deteriorating weather.
"About thirty to forty minutes into my flight," she wrote later to the FAA,"I began to encounter some clouds and snow at 3500 feet. I immediately headed back to Limerick. As the snow got worse I dropped down to 2500 feet to try to get below the snow. It was clear for a while, but the snow got worse again as I approached the airport. I was able to see the runway, though, so I entered the pattern on crosswind and announced my landing. About three quarters of the way down the downwind leg the snow got so bad that I was not able to see the runway. I immediately turned toward the runway hoping to see it, but I couldn't. I aborted the approach and attempted to get back in the pattern. I announced my intentions again on crosswind as visibility was a little better and I was able to see the runway. This time I was in and out of heavy snow on downwind. I was having trouble seeing the ground when I was to turn to base. At a momentary clearing I saw that I had drifted off course so I immediately turned to final at which time I completely lost all visibility."
This is the point where such stories often end.
But Kate, above all else, is a woman of determination. Well aware that the 500 foot high cooling towers at the Limerick nuclear power plant nearby, and remembering my admonition that the higher you are the safer you are, she decided to climb.
"It felt like the plane was neither climbing or moving," she wrote, "and I feared that the wind was holding me back. On later reflection I suspect that it was the lack of visual cues that caused the disorientation. I looked at my instruments and realized that I was, in fact, climbing so I tried to regain my composure. I announced to Limerick that I had aborted the landing and I did not know where I was."
While private pilots are given a modest amount of training on how to fly using only instruments, that's part of later stages of the curriculum. What she knew, she confided, was entirely what she'd learned in our few flights together. Her instructor had, so far, only taught her how to drive an airplane, not how to fly one. Worse, she hadn't been given even rudimentary training on the few instruments the aircraft had, or even how to change radio frequencies.
By happy chance, on one of those recent flights together, I'd explained how an artificial horizon and turn coordinator worked. Essentially I told her, 'Keep that little thing that looks like an airplane level and in the middle and the airplane will fly straight'. I don't remember exactly what I said about the turn coordinator, but it didn't matter. The one in her aircraft, required equipment, didn't work.
Vertigo, you probably have heard, is what gets you. Staying balanced is accomplished with help from your inner ear, your eyes, and how you body feels. The problem is, when you can't see, that your inner ear lies to you and your body gets confused--vertigo takes over.
In everyday life, gravity pulls toward your feet, it pushes your butt into the seat if your sitting down. But in an airplane you can create your own G(ravity) forces, and they ain't always down. In a loop, for example, it's perfectly easy to have your butt pushed into the seat just as hard when you're upside down as it is when you flying right-side up. So if you take away visual references you don't know which way's up—literally.
To complicate matters, there are other G-forces in an aircraft you don't experience in everyday, ground-bound life; and they can really confuse you. Well known to Navy flyers, for example, a catapult shot off a carrier at night can really confuse your senses. Transverse Gs, the forces you feel during horizontal acceleration, perversely, make you feel like your climbing. So, surrounded by black ocean, it's easy to develop an uncomfortable sensation that you're climbing too steeply. But if you push a little on the stick when you're flying at 100 feet and accelerating through 200 knots, it only takes a split second before you hit the water.
By the same process, when Kate started to climb the aircraft decelerated, and she felt like she must be descending, so she tried to make the aircraft climb...and it only decelerated more. And this is where the unsuspecting, untrained, pilot often loses control.
The airplane slows to the point where the airflow over the wing is no longer able to generate enough lift. It stalls (aerodynamic stall--nothing to do with the engine, which is working fine and pulling as hard is it can). The aircraft noses over, usually falling off to one side a bit, and the pilot pulls harder sensing the sudden descent. Noting an increase in airspeed, because of the sound of the engine speeding and wind rushing, the ill-fated pilot pulls harder yet, tightening the turn and increasing the rate of descent.
Observers on the ground, under such circumstances, report seeing the aircraft come out of the clouds at a steep angle. They say they heard the engine was screaming (overspeed) or making "weird popping sounds," which is exactly the sound an aircraft engine makes when suddenly pulled to idle--a last dash effort when the pilot realizes, too late, what is happening.
So how do you avoid all this? You get proper training on how to fly using instruments, and how to resist the temptation to believe your lyin'
eyes ears. Kate had been taught neither, but those few words about "keep the little airplane centered," and her determination to solve the problem, saved her.
Eventually she flew out of the snow squall. With the airport nowhere in sight, she knew she was lost. Then Murphy stepped in. If things weren't already bad enough, while Kate was trying without success to communicate her plight to the flight school, the transmit button on the microphone broke off and flew across the cockpit.
Meanwhile, another aircraft, hearing her terse calls saying she was lost, came on the frequency and suggested she contact Philadelphia approach for radar vectors, direction to another airport. By using a fingernail, she was able to make the microphone work, and told the helpful pilot that sounded like a great idea, but no one had taught her how to tune the radio. He patiently explained which knobs to use, and what numbers to put in the radio, and mirabile dictu, she was able to switch frequencies, and hear aircraft talking to Philly Approach.
Announcing that she was a lost student pilot with less than two hours of solo experience, the approach controller calmly and reassuringly gave her directions to another airport to the east, Wings Field. That sounded like a good plan; her early flights had been at Wings Field before the school's recent move to Pottstown-Limerick Airport. But as she approached the area she could see snow squalls similar to the ones that she had just narrowly escaped.
She said, no, that didn't look like a good direction to fly and explained why. The controller, realizing that the weather was continuing to get worse, and that the pilot he was talking to was flying an aircraft with less and less fuel, redirected her to Willow Grove Naval Air Station, just a few miles away.
Approaching at right angles to the runway, at first she had problem seeing it in the distance. Then, almost overhead, she had trouble recognizing it as an airport because, as she said, "It had a really big-ass runway."
Directed by Approach to switch to Willow Grove tower, she was cleared to land, only to believe, for the second time that day, that she might die.
"Watch out for the wires at 500 feet," the controller cautioned.
Oh gees, I'm at 600 feet, she thought. "What wires at 500 feet, I don't see any wires," she asked, leveling out.
"Land long, land long," another voice said.
With 8,000 feet of runway ahead of her--the longest and widest she'd ever seen--that would not be a problem, even with a little whoopdeedo in the middle of her approach. As she flared, the 2 inch steel emergency arresting gear cable flashed beneath her wheels. Held 10 inches off the runway by steel springs to ensure arresting hook engagement, it was just the right height to rip the landing gear off a little Cessna. But she missed the cable, made a "pretty good landing, under the circumstance," and taxied to the ramp.
Parked between huge Navy P-3 'Orion' sub-hunters, she was intimidated enough. When a Jeep screeched to halt, and Marines with rifles jumped out she almost lost it. When she heard a voice on a walki-talki ask if they needed help bringing her in, she cracked up.
"Do I really look like a security risk to you?"
Even the Marine couldn't stifle a grin, and she started to relax a little.
Walking to the Operations building nursing an overdose of adrenalin and blasted by the cold blustery wind, she started to shiver.
"Can we run?" she asked.
"No m'am, if you run I'll have to shoot you." Another grin.
They walked the rest of the way across the windy ramp. Quickly.
Inside the Operations building everyone came out to see who the lost lady was...and gave her a round of applause.
"You sounded very professional on the radio," the controller said.
"How did you know what to say when I told you I couldn't see the wires at 500 feet?" Kate asked.
"They blindfold us and put us behind the wheel of a Jeep out on the ramp. You learn very quickly how important clear, calm directions are.
"We were worried about you, though, 'cause the weather really sucks." the Navy Chief on duty said. "Oh sorry, m'am, that's Navy talk. But it is pretty shitty."
After writing a short, surprisingly coherent, statement on Navy stationary for the Ops Officer, and certifying in writing that she would hold the U.S. Government, The Department of the Navy, and Willow Grove Air Station "harmless from any damages sustained by me or the aircraft as a result of having landed," she called back to the flight school. After explaining what happened to an apparently unconcerned voice she was told just to fly on home, dear.
She explained that given her recent ordeal and poor weather she didn't really want to do that. She was told it was probably a good idea to get back on your horsie, honey. Besides, the weather had cleared up some.
As she protested, the Operations Officer took charge of the situation, asked for the phone and told whoever he was talking to that the aircraft was not leaving the ground unless it was flown by a licensed pilot. "Navy Regulations say so, and I say so. Any questions?"
Hugely inconvenienced by the whole thing, two instructors drove the hour on the Pennsylvania Turnpike to Willow Grove and Kate flew back with one of them.
"Good thing, too" she said. "It was very bumpy, and even the instructor had trouble landing in the crosswind when we got back. He had to use full control deflection."
Is there a moral to this story? Well, a couple.
The first is if you're a pilot, especially a flight instructor, act on your instincts. If I had, Kate would never have been in such jeopardy. She told me once, for example, that she'd asked her instructor why they were doing a certain maneuver and his response was, "Because I told you so." I laughed that off as one of those you-had-to-be-there jokes. But when she later told me that they never used a check list, and he made her feel kinda foolish if she had to resort to one, I should have acted. Later, I found out they never used the shoulder harness (required), they never did a post flight debrief (required), they hadn't signed her off for solo before she went (required), etc. What other shortcuts did they take, say with required maintenance?
The second moral to this story is if you're a student pilot you unfortunately don't know what you don't know. So don't buy flight training because it's cheap or just because it's conveniently nearby, as Kate did with no other criteria to judge by. Make sure your instructor gives you a thorough preflight and postflight debrief, on the ground not in the airplane. Sure you'll pay for the time, but ground instruction (should be) cheaper than flight instruction. If you don't like your instructor, ask to fly with someone else. A good pilot isn't necessarily a good instructor (but never vice versa). In the military you have to 'hack it' regardless of who's in the cockpit with you. Not so when you're paying good money for training that you and other's lives will depend on.
I will always be grateful to whatever fate brought me together with this wonderful woman--indeed my days with her have defined my life. I'm even more grateful that she had the determination and luck to find a solution when she'd 'had a little problem'.
The quavering voice on the telephone answering machine said, "We've had a little problem, and I'm at Willow Grove. I'm okay, I'll call you later."