Close Calls: A Sudden Battle with Nature PDF Print E-mail
Written by Anthony Nalli   
Thursday, 24 February 2011 10:17

The summer of 2009 had been fun and interesting for our pilot and his wife, as they "stretched their wings” and flew longer distances to visit friends and relatives. In mid summer, they decided to fly out and visit family in northwest North Dakota, a drive of more than 10 hours by car. But, by airplane, they could leave mid morning and join them for lunch at the local ice cream shop!

Our pilot was flying a rented Piper Warrior, which he had flown often. After an enjoyable weekend with their relatives, they departed for the flight home. About two hours into the flight, they decided to take a break, and so our pilot landed at a municipal airport in the town where his wife used to teach school. As he began the approach, she jokingly commented that if he goofed up the landing, Oakes, North Dakota, had a hospital.

A cold front was moving through North Dakota, but “the weather briefer had assured us that we would not be close to the front on our flight home,” claimed our pilot. As they approached the Oakes Municipal Airport, they could see the line of clouds in the distance, about 15 miles ahead, in our pilot’s estimation.

The winds were light, and the landing was a "squeaker." Our pilot taxied up to the FBO, and the two stretched their legs while enjoying the beautiful weather. As they climbed back into the airplane, the air was almost calm, with only light gusts.

The windsock showed a slight breeze out of the southwest, and runway 12 was the logical choice for takeoff. Our pilot taxied into takeoff position, certain that the 60-ft by 3,600-ft paved runway would leave plenty of room for a comfortable departure.

The light breeze was almost on the airplane's nose, and as our pilot applied full power, the airplane accelerated down the centerline with little need for any rudder pressure. As they approached rotation speed, our pilot eased back on the yoke to let the airplane fly itself off the runway. But to his surprise, the front end didn't lighten as usual and, instead, seemed to be squatted on the runway. Then, suddenly, the airplane began moving off the centerline toward the left.

Our pilot applied right rudder and right aileron, but they continued toward the left side of the runway. With the end of the runway closing fast and the left side of the runway now only a few feet from the left tire, our pilot pulled back on the yoke, and, to his relief, the airplane finally rose into the air with the runway edge under the belly. Now in the air, they continued to move rapidly to the left, despite full right aileron. Then, without warning, the nose pitched up, and the airplane began to climb rapidly!

Said our pilot, “I am physically in good shape, and I pushed forward on the yoke with all of my strength, but couldn't move it.” They continued to climb in a nose-up attitude and were losing airspeed fast. At this point, the airplane was only 80 to 100 feet off the ground. Our pilot knew that if he didn't level the airplane off quickly, they would stall and have no room for recovery.

“I glanced over at my wife, who sat staring at me with wide eyes,” recalls our pilot, “and I said, ‘I don't know what's happening. I can't level the plane off!’” His mind flashed back to her comment about Oakes having a hospital.

Our pilot pushed his back against the seat, and continued to push forward on the yoke with all of his strength. “After what seemed like minutes, but was probably only five seconds, the yoke finally began to move forward, the nose leveled off, and the plane began to pick up speed,” our pilot recounts.

“I continued in a gradual assent to gain airspeed, then eased back on the yoke to climb to a safe altitude. My arms felt like spaghetti, and my hands were shaking. I looked over at my wife, and she returned my nervous smile.”

What went wrong? Our pilot’s only explanation (in his own words) is that “as we approached rotation, we went through a microburst. The downward pressure on the plane, then being blown left, then upward, seems to follow the classic wind pattern of a microburst. The front had passed through earlier, and, apparently, the wind shear was activated on the front's trailing edge.”

Our pilot concludes, “I don't know what I could have done to avoid the incident. It was sudden and without warning. But, I am thankful I had my Wheaties for breakfast!”

Fly safe(r).

From the December 2010 issue of Cessna Owner