A Precautionary Landing Leads To Big Surprise For Pilot

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Flying is great. By using the flying club Comanche, I could combine a Friday morning business meeting in Philadelphia with a weekend duck hunting trip to Swanton, Vermont, on the Canadian border, something that would have been essentially impossible using the airlines. So, on a rainy September morning, after a checking the Westchester County Airport (HPN) weather (marginal VFR), I filed VFR to Philly. A 7:30 a.m. departure would get me there in good time to make an 11 a.m. advertising presentation. Then, after a client lunch, I would be back in the air headed to Vermont by 3 p.m.

As soon as I crossed the Hudson River into New Jersey, the ceiling started to drop until it hit 300 feet with less than a mile of rainy visibility. I was losing my VOR navigation signals (this was before GPS) and was starting to get that “this is not going well” feeling.

I was just about to reverse course and return to HPN when a 1,500-foot freshly mowed field suddenly appeared right in front of me. So, rather than risk hitting one of the many 900-foot TV towers I had just flown past at 300 feet, I decided to land. The landing was tricky since the man on the tractor mowing the field was not quite finished. He could not hear me due to the noise created by the gang of a dozen mowers he was pulling. He also did not see me from under his rain hood as he was focused on the cutting pattern he was creating. I had to keep circling the field until I could set up a short final to clear the 10-foot wall on the downwind end just as the mower was making his turn inside the wall at the upwind end of the field. Of course, I knew I would surprise him as I touched down and he turned to face a 6-foot spinning prop attached to a fast-moving airplane coming right at him. Fortunately, in addition to landing into a pretty brisk wind, I was landing slightly uphill on wet grass, and so we both stopped a good 50 or 60 yards apart!

I thought that was the end of the drama and when I saw him get on his handheld radio. Now, there were no cell phones back then either, but why did he have a radio? Dismissing that oddity, I thought “Great! He is already calling for help. Maybe he thinks I’m out of gas.”

A security car arrived in minutes, and an armed guard got out and immediately asked, “How long have you been flying?” I looked at my watch and said, “Oh, only about 45 minutes, and then I ran into this bad weather.”

“No! I mean how much time have you logged as a pilot? There is an airport 2 miles from here, and you just landed in a state prison yard! This is the New Jersey Neuro-Psychiatric Institute,” he exclaimed. “Sorry, I am just trying to get to a business meeting in Philly,” I replied as I pulled my advertising portfolio case out of the cockpit.

“I need to look in the duffle bag you have in the backseat—and is that a gun case you have strapped in next to it?” he said, looking in the backseat with one hand on his sidearm.

“Yes, well, you see, after the meeting, I am flying to Vermont to go duck hunting and, yes, that is a 12-gauge shotgun, and the ammo and camo rain gear is for the hunt,” I explained as I opened the duffle.

“If you could just call me a cab, I can get to my meeting in Philly, and then I’ll come back this afternoon and fly this plane out of your yard—I’m sure the weather will have improved by then.”

The officer did call me a cab after recording all my ID info and taking lots of photos. He also insisted that I call the New Jersey Department of Transportation (NJDOT) to report my transgression and get permission to fly a plane out of a state prison yard. He thought for sure they would make me take the wings off and truck it to the nearby airport.

After an expensive, one-hour cab ride to Philly, I had just enough time before my meeting to call NJDOT. Of course, they already knew all about my prison yard landing and, after confirming my limited private time (less than 150 hours), they insisted that I hire a commercial pilot to fly the Comanche two miles to the nearby airport. In fact, the officer I spoke to had already lined up a commercial pilot (also his brother-in-law) to meet me at the prison later in the day—but much better than taking the wings off and trucking it over.

So, after a client lunch during which I listened to lots of advice about the virtues of Amtrak vs. small plane travel and ribbing about my piloting skills, I got one of the more sympathetic clients to give me a ride back to the prison yard.

After watching the commercial pilot fly the Comanche off the grass and over the trees, we drove the two miles to the Princeton airport (of course, it was clearly marked on my sectional chart that I must have been too busy to look at—what with watching for TV towers and trying to take advantage of my “good luck” spotting a freshly cut field to land in). I paid the commercial pilot his $200 fee, topped off the tanks and was in the air heading for Vermont within the hour.

I spent most of the flight to Swanton reliving my morning flight and comparing it to the safety and comfort of Amtrak. Should I take the train next time? “Start working on an instrument rating” was my answer!

I also spent some time trying to decide whether to enter the unscheduled stop in the Comanche’s logbook as A precautionary weather-related landing at the New Jersey Neuro-Psychiatric Institute for all the other club members to read or not. That’s the way it appears in my pilot’s logbook, but in the end, I decided to enter “HPN to Princeton, NJ, Airport to Swanton, VT, Airport” in the Comanche’s log book.

In the weeks that followed, I thought a lot about VFR flight planning and the importance of penciling alternate routes and possible emergency stopping places along the route on sectional charts. As I continued to fly VFR in marginal weather, I was able to make much better decisions and make them sooner about when to reverse/alter course or land safely, albeit not at my originally intended destination. I never did pursue an instrument rating.

Instead, I continued to fly with carefully marked sectional charts even as GPS and satellite weather streamed to an iPad became more prevalent. During all those years, I diverted to an alternate airport any number of times, but luckily I never had to set it down on a freshly mowed field again, and certainly not one within the walls of a state prison.

Have you had a close call or a cool aviation experience that left a lasting impression? We’d love to share your story in the magazine! We’re looking for stories that are between 1,100 and 1,500 words long that tell a great story. If you’re interested, you can always write us a note outlining your experience and we’ll get back to you right away. The pay is small potatoes, $101, but if your story is chosen, you’ll get to work with our great illustrator Gabriel Campanario and have him bring your memory to life.

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News and Updates – Hurricane Michael: Information for Drone Operators

TheFederal Aviation Administration(FAA) is warning drone owners and operators that they will be subject to significant fines that may exceed $20,000 if they interfere with emergency response operations in the areas affected by Hurricane Michael.

Many aircraft that are conducting life-saving missions and other critical response and recovery efforts are likely to be flying at low altitudes over areas affected by the storm. Flying a drone without authorization in or near the disaster area may unintentionally disrupt rescue operations and violate federal, state, or local laws and ordinances, even if aTemporary Flight Restriction(TFR) is not in place. Allow first responders to save lives and property without interference.

Government agencies with anFAA Certificate of Authorization(COA) or flying underPart 107, as well as private sector Part 107 drone operators who want to support response and recovery operations, are strongly encouraged to coordinate their activities with the local incident commander responsible for the area in which they want to operate.

If drone operators need to fly in controlled airspace or a disaster TFR to support the response and recovery, operatorsmustcontact the FAAs System Operations Support Center (SOSC) by emailing9-ATOR-HQ-SOSC@faa.govtheinformationthey need to authorize access to the airspace. Coordination with the SOSC may also include a requirement that a drone operator obtain support from the appropriate incident commander.

Heres the information the FAA may require:

  • the unmanned aircraft type
  • a PDF copy of a current FAA COA
  • the pilots Part 107 certificate number
  • details about the proposed flight (date, time, location, altitude, direction and distance to the nearest airport, and latitude/longitude)
  • nature of the event (fire, law enforcement, local/national disaster, missing person) and the pilots qualification information.

Experience Versus Complacency in the Cockpit

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While I may be a relatively experienced pilot, that doesn’t mean I know everything and can’t make mistakes. No pilot is ever that good. One of the things that I have always tried to do is to be willing to share when I mess up if others can learn from it. Sometimes this can be embarrassing, but a little humble pie can be a good thing for all of us sometimes.

One such lesson is that a little complacency can quickly trump any experience we may have, even if you haven’t left the ground.

On a flight in our Stinson en route to a practical test I was going to be giving, I noticed a little engine roughness. It’s an old plane, it’s a Franklin engine, and it gets a little temperamental with leaded fuel sometimes, so it wasn’t completely out of the ordinary from what I have experienced before. Fortunately, I was close to the airport I was stopping at, and I landed without event.

While taxiing in, I did a couple quick magneto checks and got the feeling that it may have just been a sticky valve that was causing the roughness. Not a terribly hard fix, but one that was going to leave me calling my wife for a ride home until I could get a maintenance professional to properly diagnose and fix the issue.

I parked the plane, did the practical test, and called my wife for a ride home. This is where my decision-making process started to become complacent.

While I waited for her to arrive, I decided to go outside and try to run up the aircraft again and “get more information about what it was doing” so I could pass that information along to the maintenance provider.

The plane was parked on the ramp. Not planning on flying anywhere, just doing a little engine run, I left the chocks in place. I know. Bad decision already here. It gets worse.

I got in the plane, started it, noticed the same roughness and wanted to see if it continued at higher RPMs, if I switched magnetos, if I tried carburetor heat, or if changing mixture settings had any positive or negative effects.

While I did this, I needed both hands to manipulate the throttle and the other controls. That means I didn’t have a hand on the yoke. Another bad decision.

I had also failed to notice that while I had done the test earlier, the winds had gone from about 040 degrees at about 4 knots, with a building blocking the winds, to a 160-degree direction, leaving the aircraft pointing straight into gusts that I later noted reported at 24 knots at their peak.

While I was “just doing a maintenance run,” I had gotten complacent about considering many of the things I would probably have paid more attention to if I were actually going to be flying. It bit me. While I focused on the engine issue, I didn’t focus on all the other environmental factors that were happening, and while I held the brakes and the main wheels were chocked, suddenly something felt very wrong.

The tail was lifting.

I had done hundreds of run-ups like this before and never had a problem, but I had never had all these factors come together at the same time.

With a full-power engine runup, a 24-knot gust and a complacent pilot not holding a yoke back, there was enough lift to pick the tail up. It was even enough to have the propeller just barely strike the pavement before the gust settled and, with it, the tail back to the ground.

I reduced power as quickly as my mind registered that it needed to be reduced, but it was too late.

It happened fast. I felt sick. I was in a little bit of disbelief that it had even happened. A competent and proficient pilot who even just wrote a book about tailwheel flying had allowed this to happen. Uggh.

Feeling defeated, I pulled the mixture to cut off, and the engine spun to a stop. Magnetos and master switch off, I climbed out to see the slightly curled tips of the prop on the Stinson.

I felt like I had let down a member of our family. I had hurt our airplane through my complacency.

Okay, I know there are lots of things I should have done differently here. Not left it chocked, not done the full-power runup into the wind that was now gusting or had the yoke back, had a second person in the plane to help with this process, to name only a few things. But all of those are singular things that could have helped avoid the problem in this situation.

The bigger lesson is that just when we think we are doing something simple, something we may do regularly, if we get a little complacent and don’t follow best practices, it can result in pretty negative impacts. A little cutting of corners, even with the best of intentions, can cause us to miss the one factor that will cause any experience we have to become nullified by our disregard for even seemingly unrelated concerns. Thanks to a good maintenance provider, and some expenses, we are well on our way to returning the aircraft to service. But it was a hard reminder for me.

Interestingly, but not surprisingly, one of the more common complacency-related problem areas we are starting to see more is related to mobile device or electronics usage. Not unlike when we drive our cars, mobile devices and telephones are equally problematic and distracting to pilots when operating aircraft. These devices are fantastic tools when used for aviation-related tasks such as charting, but when we also use them for other tasks during flight operations, it can lead to problems. More accidents and insurance claims are starting to find pilots who admit they were texting, checking email or other similar activities when something bad happened. The same holds true of new avionics systems as pilots go “heads down” and get “buried in the box.” A little complacency of attention can result in taxiing a wing into a hangar door, or clipping a runway light, or a close call with other traffic as you were texting your ride home from the airport instead of looking outside for traffic. Even when an aircraft is on autopilot, our attention should first and foremost be on operating the aircraft. Any break from this attention for non-flying duties really needs to be short or wait until we are back and stopped on the ground. We may be able to get away with some complacent pilotage many times, but all it takes is once to have it end up becoming a much bigger problem.

Flying is a technical and demanding occupation or hobby. If we do it right, it can be highly rewarding. If we get complacent, it can cost us dearly monetarily or even physically. As pilots, we can learn from others’ mistakes. I will happily share mine with anyone who wants to learn from them to make themselves safer as a pilot by not repeating the ones I have made.

The lesson here? No matter how much we think we are on the top of our game, experience doesn’t trump complacency.


Staying proficient is important, so be sure to visit our Risk archives, where the best instructors in aviation help you fly smarter and safer.

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News and Updates – FAA's Hurricane Michael Update

The Federal Aviation Administration closely monitors forecasted hurricanes and severe weather events and prepares FAA facilities and equipment to withstand storm damage. We prepare and protect air traffic control facilities along the projected storm path so we can quickly resume operations after the hurricane passes. Enabling flights to resume quickly is critical to support disaster relief efforts.

Commercial Travelers
Because of Hurricane Michael, airlines are likely to cancel many flights in the direct path of the storm and the surrounding areas. Flights that are not cancelled may be delayed. Once Hurricane Michael makes ground fall, airports may be listed as open but flooding on local roadways may limit access to airports for passengers, as well as the employees who work for the airlines or at the airport. As a result, every aspect of your trip to the airport, including parking, checking in, getting through security and boarding may take longer than usual.

As always, check with airlines about the status of your flight before you leave for the airport. Major carriers provide flight status updates on their website:

Please continue to check the status of your flight with your airline, not the FAA. You can also check the status of some major airports in the storm path by visitingFly.FAA.gov, which is updated regularly. You can also checkcurrent travel advisoriesprovided by most U.S. airlines.

Air Traffic Control
FAA control towers in hurricane-prone areas are designed and built to sustain hurricane force winds. Each control tower has a maximum wind sustainability. When the winds approach that level, controllers evacuate the tower cabs. They may remain in the building on duty in a secure lower level, and are ready to go back to work as soon as the storm passes.

We also protect communications equipment and navigational aids to the greatest extent possible. As the storm approaches, we disable airport surveillance radar antennas to allow them to spin freely, minimizing potential wind damage. This limits damage to the antenna motors and allows radar coverage to resume quickly after the storm passes.

Drone Users
The FAA warns drone operators that they will be subject to significant fines that may exceed $20,000 and civil penalties if they interfere with emergency response operations. Flying a drone without authorization in or near the disaster area may violate federal, state, or local laws and ordinances, even if aTemporary Flight Restriction(TFR) is not in place. Allow first responders to save lives and property without interference.

General Aviation Pilots
Standard check lists are even more important in and around severe weather. Be aware of weather conditions throughout the entire route of your planned flight. A pilots failure to recognize deteriorating weather conditions continues to cause or contribute to accidents.

What DHS and FEMA are Doing

What the U.S. Government is Doing

One Huge Reason Boeing Won The USAF Trainer Jet Program

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Boeing has been awarded the USAF contract for building the next gen trainer to take the place of the much beloved but aging Northrup T-38 Talon trainer, a product of the 60s and the first supersonic trainer ever.

Boeing’s entry, the T-X, will play a big role in future Air Force training. Plans are for Boeing to build at least 351 of the jets, nearly 50 simulators for them and all the ground equipment to support them.

The Boeing TX
The Boeing TX has been chosen as the new trainer jet for the USAF.

The airplane is being called a “clean sheet” design, but it’s not really. Boeing’s entry was designed in partnership with Saab and is said to leverage design and components from Saab’s Gripen fighter and Boeing’s F/A-18E/F Super Hornet. And it’s undeniably cool looking. Like the T-38, the T-X is fast, just over Mach 1 with the power provided by a single General Electric F404 turbofan with afterburner. It will also be capable of aerial refueling, which will provide yet more training opportunities for pilots looking to transition from the advanced trainer to the Lockheed Martin F-35 or F22.

The big takeaway from the program is its cost of $9.2 billion. Not that it’s a big cost but that it’s about $10 billion less than the Air Force estimated the fighter program would cost. We’ll see Boeing and Saab can make good on that price tag. The new jet is expected to enter service in 2023. Boeing will build components for the T-X in the United States, but it has yet to announce where the manufacturing facilities will be based.

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