I came over the fence at 100 mph in the Cessna 172. Even the traffic reporter sitting to my right knew I was way too fast. I saw her hands tighten around her seatbelt harness, her knuckles whiten.
Halfway down the 3,000-foot runway, I’d only bled off 20 mph. Normally I’d have firewalled the throttle and flown a go-around. Instead, when the wheels touched pavement with 300 feet of runway left, I retracted the flaps and stood on the brakes.
“You never go around in the Flight Restricted Zone,” my boss — the owner of the airplane — had warned when he hired me.
He was the owner of a Washington, D.C., traffic reporting company, based at one of the three airports inside the DC FRZ. “You never go around at Hyde Field, unless you want F-16s out of Joint Base Andrews greeting you when you pop back up on radar.”
So I didn’t go around. I just pumped the brakes harder with less than 200 feet to go, determined not to skid or square the tires. I managed to come to a stop on the white runway end line —zero feet to spare.
The weak joke I made to the traffic reporter, hoping to ease the tension, didn’t go over well. She yelled, “I’m eight months pregnant!” We rode back in disquieting silence.
Back at the office, she requested never to be assigned to fly with me again.
My boss was even less forgiving: “When I said you don’t go around, I didn’t mean it literally!”
Another C-172 pilot also decided to abdicate his pilot in command authority to accommodate a Tower controller at his local airport. The plane landed long, at the runway end threshold, with overheated brakes and damaged tires.
According to his report to NASA’s Aviation Safety Reporting System, he was inbound and ready to join the pattern. Tower asked him if his intention was to fuel up at a particular FBO before parking the plane. He confirmed that intention. That’s when Tower changed the pilot’s clearance to a different, shorter runway closer to the FBO.
The pilot understood that the controller was trying to do two favors at the same time — save the pilot taxi time to the fuel pumps and give himself less traffic to deal with.
However, wrote the pilot, “I was initially unsure of how to enter this approach for RWY X, being not overly familiar with the airport, and answered the controller: ‘You want me to make a 2-mile right base for RWY X?’ He replied, ‘You can fly south and bring it straight to the numbers RWY X, cleared to land RWY X.’”
At that point, the pilot read back the clearance and went to work. He was still at pattern altitude and at 85 knots, no flaps. He cut power to idle and put the plane into a slip. He lost altitude quickly, but also gained 20 more knots of airspeed. Coming out of the slip, he found himself still high and fast.
“I forced the plane down at about 80 knots, bounced once, I think, then slowed it down, braking harder as I realized I was running out of runway. The last few seconds I was braking hard with the yoke back, and the tires or brakes were squealing.”A flight instructor in a Cessna 152 had to file a NASA report after his rationale to continue a forward slip to a landing became a runway incursion involving an Eclipse jet. The instructor was preparing a student for a private pilot checkride at an uncontrolled airport.
On base leg, the pilots saw the Eclipse jet land long. The CFI expected the jet to clear the runway in time for their landing. Instead it began a back taxi down the airport’s 8,800-foot runway, toward Taxiway Delta.
The flight instructor chose to have his student continue the forward slip approach “to the numbers.” He rationalized his decision as a teachable moment on short approach and short field landings.
The student landed the plane on the runway threshold. The C-152 did roll out well before the Eclipse jet, but not before the jet had exited onto Taxiway Delta.
In another NASA report, a newly minted private pilot described his rationale for landing long. He discovered on short final that the throttle on his Piper Archer wouldn’t retard to idle.
“When I descended, I seemed to have difficulties slowing down the aircraft, and much later I realized the throttle was stuck at about 500-600 rpm above idle, not too much, but enough for a crash landing.”
His intended runway was a relatively short 3,000 feet. Plus he was 30 knots too fast due to the stuck throttle.
“I was forced to make a decision in less than five seconds. With the stuck throttle, damage could also affect the higher rpms sooner or later,” he wrote, rationalizing his decision to continue for a landing.
He then dove the airplane with full flaps at the runway threshold. Once over the runway, he chopped the mixture and retracted the flaps.
“In any case, I still had too much airspeed, about 75 knots upon touchdown.”
He touched down with more than 50% of the runway behind him. Heavy braking kept him from going off the runway.
RATIONALIZING A BAD DECISION
What did all these pilots have in common with me? We all rationalized a bad decision.
I rationalized landing long and the subsequent havoc I wreaked because of blind adherence to my boss’s directive. I chose to obey my boss rather than exercise pilot in command authority. If I had done so, I would have made the reasonable decision to go around and shoot the approach again.
Wanting to help out the controller was how the C-172 pilot rationalized his bad decision.
“I wanted to complete the landing to accommodate the controller, who was accommodating me by giving me the RWY X approach. Though I didn’t think of it in these terms, I must have subconsciously thought that if I didn’t accomplish the first approach, I would have wasted the controller’s efforts, which, while true, was not a good reason to continue a bad approach.”
The Archer pilot did not derive any wisdom post-incident.
He wrote, “I would still have done the same should it have happened again. I could have damaged the front gear in the grass ahead, but we still would have walked out safely and with minor damage to the aircraft. Going around is perfect if you have misjudged the airspeed or altitude, but not in a power failure, where the situation could get much worse.”
Yet he was still airborne when he discovered the problem. He could have applied full power, which he still had, aborted the landing and climbed to a safe altitude to reassess his situation.
At first the pilot expressed concern about arriving before sunset. However, he later wrote that he’d arrived over the airport well before sundown, with enough time to have gone to an alternate airport. Time enough to go to an alternate means time enough to climb out of the pattern and start all over again. Why did this pilot feel his decision was his only option?
In psychology, rationalization is defined as a defense mechanism in which controversial behaviors are justified and explained in a seemingly rational or logical manner to avoid the true explanation, and are made consciously tolerable — or even admirable and superior — by plausible means. Rationalization happens in two steps:
- A decision, action, or judgment is made for a given reason, or no known reason at all.
- A rationalization is performed, constructing a seemingly good or logical reason, as an attempt to justify the act after the fact for oneself or others.
Rationalization encourages irrational or unacceptable behavior and often involves ad hoc hypothesizing.
The Archer pilot believed he had not been trained for his particular emergency.
“So there you are to improvise and control your panic,” he wrote.
That was his rationalization.
He also believed he only had five seconds in which to make the decision. But that wasn’t the case. He had a working motor and fuel, which meant he had time. He also had the training — the engine-out procedure. As a newly minted pilot, he would have practiced that maneuver a lot, prior to having performed it during his checkride.
In controlling his panic, the pilot failed to correlate that procedure with the unfamiliar stuck throttle situation. A more reasonable option would have been to abort the landing, get back into the pattern, and set up for an engine-out landing.
The C-152 flight instructor rationalized his bad decision because he was too locked into that approach so he could finish the lesson. In his conclusion, he realized the fallacy of his logic.
“In retrospect, this incident should have been used as a teachable moment, and I should have performed a go-around. I did call the student later this evening and emphasized this.”
The C-172 pilot confessed he also thought going around might make him look bad.
A wise CFI once told me that, in flying, sometimes doing the right thing ain’t always pretty.