Thursday, February 01, 2007

To Go Around or Not Go Around

Christmas was over a month ago and I still had presents for my sister's family and my mother sitting at home in Jacksonville. Since I had a free Sunday, I made plans to fly over to Tampa to play Santa.

The forecast called for a front to push through bringing gusty conditions during the mid-day period. The worst part would be during the afternoon after I had already landed in Tampa, so I wasn't too worried. The winds aloft were forecast from the west-northwest at anywhere from 35 to 49 knots. This would give me a bit of a headwind for the first part of my flight with a slight tailwind after I passed Ocala.

During preflight, I discovered that some yahoo had removed the checklist from the aircraft, so I had to go back to the hanger to get another. I think this is the third time in just a few months that the checklist has gone missing. It's a bit aggravating, but I know I made the mistake once when I was a student.

During the preflight, the plane was shaking quite a bit in the wind. I made a mental note to pay close attention to the wind direction and yoke position lest the wind flip the plane. When taxiing to the controlled ground area, the plane kept trying to weathervane into the wind. There was a very steady 15 knot wind from my right rear quarter.

I called for my IFR clearance and went through the runup without incident. The wind was from 280 at 14 knots according to the ATIS and I would be departing runway 32. This would give me a fair amount of crosswind to contend with. The weather was chilly, too, so the engine performance should be good.

On climbout, I saw around 1100 fpm climb rate, which is much better than the POH calls for at STP at sea level. With only me in the plane, I was well below max weight. This fact combined with the favorable temperature and pressure accounted for the excellent performance.

The flight to X39 was fairly uneventful. I flew over at 5000' as instructed by ATC - even though I was flying southwest and the AIM calls for even altitudes. ATC does things differently in Florida since most traffic runs north and south rather than east-west. There was a cloud layer at 4000' that I flew through, but the air was surprisingly smooth. For much of the flight, the GPS showed a 45 knot wind blowing from my right. Fortunately, it was such that my ground speed matched my TAS, so the wind wasn't really slowing me down. I was showing 128 knots TAS.

About 20 miles out, ATC called, "November 6-3-Foxtrot, traffic 11 o'clock 7 miles, two-thousand-three-hundred-feet, maneuvering, type unknown."

I replied, "6-3-Foxtrot, negative contact, and I don't see it on my display yet either. I'm looking".

ATC then descended me to 1600 feet. This struck me as kind of odd since the MEA for the airway I was on was 2000 feet. It was a relatively clear day, so 1600 did not pose any problems.

A few minutes later, ATC announced, "November 6-3-foxtrot, traffic now at your 10 o'clock, seven miles".

I answered, "Approach, 6-3-foxtrot, I do not have the traffic in sight, but I have three bogeys on my scope. I'll keep my eyes out."

The traffic display showed that the traffic was now only two aircraft and it was now heading straight for me 500 feet higher and only a few miles away. ATC called the traffic again at 1 mile and I told the controller that I had the traffic in sight. Meanwhile, I was monitoring the frequency for X39 and heard no one announcing any positions. We were close enought to that airport that I had expected to hear this other pilot on the air, but I had no such luck.

I kept my eye on the other aircraft as he flew directly over head - I never knew if he actually saw me or not.

As I got closer to the airport, I listened to the weather at Vandenberg and Brooksville and a few other airports along the way. My destination airport does not have an ATIS or AWOS. The wind was generally from the Northwest at around 10 or 12 knots and I expected this airport to show the same. With the airport in sight, I canceled my IFR clearance and thanked the controller.

I announced my intentions and flew directly over the field noting that the windsock next to the runway was fully extended and pointing roughly straight down runway 32. The sock on top of the hanger, though was pointing about 30 degrees off indicating that the wind may either be swirling or I would be getting some cross wind from the left as I landed on 32. Crossing over the runway, I descended to 1000' and made a right teardrop turn to enter the left downwind for 32. There was no traffic around at all.

Since the wind was so stiff - the GPS was now showing 23 knots at pattern altitude, I expected some shear and possibly gusts, so I decided that I would only use 2 notches of flaps and would keep my speed up a bit to compensate for any sudden changes in the wind. What happened next was not what I had expected.

I lined up on final and as I reached the runway, I pulled the power and let the plane settle before flaring. The mains touched down and I traveled about 100 feet down the center of the runway when a gust of wind lifted the plane about 10 or 15 feet into the air. I immediately gave the plane a little bit of throttle and let it stabilize. The plane started to drift right, so I banked slightly to the left and realigned with the center of the narrow runway. Back in the center, I reduced power and let the plane settle to the runway and immediately retracted the flaps. I stopped and announced my intention to taxi back on the runway. I carefully taxied with full nose down elevators and found a parking spot.

I've never had a plane lifted into the air in the past, but maybe I've never had such gusts. I once had a Cessna 152 fall out of the sky due to a sudden windshift when I was still a student, but even that didn't just caused my instructor to say something about charging me for her chiropractor bills.

Maybe next time, I would use only one notch of flaps in such gusty conditions, but the problem is that I just didn't know there were gusts - the two closest airports were not reporting gusts. I could have opted to give the plane full power and execute a go-around, but I didn't feel like I had let the situation deteriorate to the point that I couldn't land the plane safely. I still had the plane under control, I had 15 feet of altitude and enough speed to maintain the altitude - and several thousand feet of runway remaining. All in all, I think I made a good decision. I'm just glad I didn't have any passengers or witnesses on the ground to comment on the poor first attempt.

Anyway, I got 1.6 hours of cross-country with about 0.2 of actual instrument time. Another fun flight. I returned that night - that flight will be the subject of my next post.

David West

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