So, there I was, high, hot and too close-in for even a chop-and-drop approach. What to do?
I was steaming into a nearby airport situated next to Tampa Bay. The morning’s mission was to meet a neighbor for breakfast at the airport’s quite-capable restaurant. It was a bright, sunny morning, with excellent visibility.
I’d never landed at the field before, but I had it in sight from maybe 10 miles out.
Thanks in part to my unfamiliarity with the airport, the runway I spotted and was planning to land on wasn’t the one the tower wanted me to use. Sad, that, since I was perfectly set up for a base-leg approach. But it was the wrong runway, and I realized my error way too late to recover without the maneuver’s outcome being in doubt.
As the reality slowly dawned on me and the tower controller, he graciously suggested a 360 to lose altitude, which I accepted. I was just about to ask him for the same thing, anyway, but he beat me to it. (How a controller, sitting in a tower cab more than a mile away, can be ahead of an airplane he’s not flying is just one more of life’s eternal mysteries.)
Cleared for the 360 from 1,000 feet agl and about a mile off the approach end of the runway — did I mention I was high and hot? — I rolled left into a standard-rate turn, let the nose drop a bit and focused on making sure I was ready to land. The gear was already down, the selector was on a tank with fuel in it and the engine controls were set. I already had pulled off a bunch of power, anticipating the dive for the runway, but the 360 was a much better choice.
After about a quarter of the turn, I glanced back at the panel, noting with satisfaction I was still in a standard-rate turn to the left. The vertical speed indicator was showing 500 fpm down and I was descending through 750 feet agl. I still had 1.5 minutes of the two-minute, 360° turn to go before rolling back out on the runway centerline.
Wait a sec…
Let me think about this: 500 fpm down, 750 feet agl, and a minute-and-a-half to go. Something about math…what could it be? Soon, I was going to be at 500 feet agl and about one minute into a two-minute turn. At 500 fpm down, I was about 60 seconds from smacking into Tampa Bay, a mile or so off the end of the runway.
Do I know how to make entrance, or what?
It was easily fixed, of course: Add back some power, and let the nose come up to slow the descent rate. Keep the bank in so I don’t embarrass myself further, roll out on the centerline and land, dummy. Which is what I did.
But not before thinking to myself: “That’s how it happens.”
“It” is breaking the airplane, and perhaps injuring myself, or worse. There have been other risks in my flying career, of course, but few of them, if any, had sneaked up on me like this one. I was quite surprised by it all.
A flight that had started out as a literal milk run – this was a $100 breakfast flight, after all – almost became a statistic. I’ve been doing this for a while; how did I let this (almost) happen?
It’s not all that hard to figure out, actually. Let’s look at the chain of events.
First, I was focused more on meeting the neighbor than flying the airplane. I could almost taste the breakfast and was mentally sitting in the restaurant already, even though I still had a few tasks to complete before eating and my chair was moving at around 150 knots.
Then there was my misidentifying the intended runway. The plan I made for the approach had gone south and I was slow to improvise another one. Thankfully, the controller was on his game, even if I wasn’t.
I also had been thinking about trying to look good for the neighbor. Although we had frequent online communication — we fly similar airplanes and are based at the same residential airpark — this was the first time he and were to meet. I wanted to make an impression. I almost did, of course, but not as I intended.
Thinking about looking good in an airplane is not the same as actually doing it.
The final link in the chain was seated in the left front seat, with a great big empty space under the headset: I simply wasn’t thinking about what I was doing.
I’ve done scores of 360s to lose altitude, but most of them were designed to terminate at a higher elevation, perhaps no lower than pattern altitude. Flying a close-in 360° descending turn with the intent of rolling out on the runway centerline in a position from which to land isn’t something I’ve practiced much over the years.
Next time, I’ll know better. For one, I’ll slow down farther out from the destination. I’ll compare the observed runway layout with what my avionics tell me it should look like, and orient both the airplane and my approach plan accordingly. I’ll also keep my head about me, refusing to allow it to taste breakfast before I even sit down in the restaurant.
And the next time I need a close-to-the-ground 360 to get down, I’ll shallow the bank and widen out the turn, and not descend as quickly. Once I’m back around and have the runway threshold in sight again, then I’ll complete the descent.
But mostly I’ll refuse to surrender to the siren song of trying to look good.
Because that’s how it happens.