"No, no, no! This can't be happening," I thought, wishing that I was in a dream. I felt like I was in a dream, as the airplane skidded sideways, the propeller batting against the hillside. Finally, the airplane came to rest and the propeller came to a halt; everything was suddenly silent. I took a moment to collect my thoughts and then looked around to assess the situation. What just happened?
It started as a routine training flight. I went out to do a few solo circuits in the traffic pattern. A check of the current weather and the forecast indicated that it was a great day for pattern work: wind 10-15 knots, generally aligned with the runway. The wind was strong enough that I would need to apply corrections in the traffic pattern, but the crosswind component for landing would be within my personal minimums.
On the second time around the pattern, I checked the ASOS, and the reported wind had begun gusting to 20 knots, 40 degrees off runway heading (although I would find out later that this was not a true picture of the wind situation). I determined that I could safely land, but that this would be my last landing of the day. The landing began as a textbook crosswind landing: I approached the runway with a 5 knot gust factor and partial flaps. I flew a stabilized approach and rounded out, followed by the right main touching down, then the left main—then something happened that I didn't expect.
I've made over 700 landings in small airplanes, and have encountered thermals, wind gusts, floats, ballooning, and even a few bounces. But never before (or since) have I had an experience like I did that day. As the nose wheel was coming down, the airplane was abruptly lifted into the air. I was flying again! This was outside my realm of experience, and in a split second my mind started quickly processing potential courses of action (I would later find out that this is termed "automatic decision making", and is normal in this type of situation).
My first thought was to add a couple hundred RPM and ease the airplane back onto the runway. I had plenty of runway remaining. This is what I'd usually do to recover from a balloon or a bounce. But given the abrupt manner in which the airplane felt like it had been yanked off the runway, my concern was that I would be dropped back onto the asphalt hard enough to cause damage or loss of control. This entire thought process took less than a second, and this did not seem to be the best course of action.
In an instant, my mind went on to the next viable option: go around. With 20 degrees of flaps selected, I was already in a low-drag configuration. This seemed like the safe option. Much of the training I had received had ingrained the belief in me that "it's never wrong to go around" (a future post will deal with that!). I had practiced go-arounds many times, so muscle memory kicked in. I immediately applied full power and forward pressure on the yoke, with the intention of accelerating in ground effect and climbing out for another landing attempt. But things did not go as planned.
The next few seconds were a bit of a blur. Instead of accelerating and climbing, the airplane dropped back toward the runway. Anticipating a bounce, I double-checked that the throttle was fully opened, while applying left rudder to re-align the airplane with the runway. But there was no bounce. It all happened so fast that I can't remember the details. Within a few seconds, the airplane departed the runway, took out a taxi light, crossed a grassy area adjacent to the runway, spun 180 degrees, and went over an embankment.
After everything stopped, I looked around to take in my surroundings. I was in a brier patch, the airplane facing the small hillside I'd just come down. The pilot's door had flung open and some of my belongings were on the ground outside. I checked myself for injuries; there were none. I did not smell fuel. That was good sign. I secured the airplane and started looking for my cell phone. After locating it on the floor, I made a phone call for help.
That was only the beginning of a long, wearisome process. There were lots of conversations and forms to fill out. Everyone wanted to know what happened, including the FAA, the insurance company, and the NTSB. I even got to be reexamined by the FAA! I don't plan to go through the details of that process. What I'd rather focus on are some of the lessons I learned through the experience. Look for the next post in this series: It's Never Wrong to Go Around—Except When It Is.