Friday, February 25, 2005

Close Calls

Lakeview actually wasn't all that bad. It's remote, but kinda pretty. The motel's internet connection was down, but somehow I wasn't surprised.

I had a close call tonight while flying the Chieftan on our last leg. Portland Tower put us on a right downwind for 10R, intending for us to follow company traffic on a right base. However, a Horizon Q200 was significantly faster than the company traffic, leaving little room for tower to squeeze us into. They resequenced us for landing behind the Horizon flight, but ahead of an Ameriflight Be99. There wasn't a lot of room between the planes, so I followed the Q200 pretty closely, leaving just enough room for him to get off the runway before I landed. I was aware of the potential for wake - most of the approach was flown above glideslope - but wanting to get off the runway for company traffic hot on my heels, I aimed for the very beginning on the runway.

Sure enough, I got caught in some very strong wake from the Q200 at about 30 feet. It wasn't turbulent; just a smooth, ever-increasing rolling moment to the left. I used more and more aileron to counteract until I was just about to the stop, when I realized I might not be able to keep from getting flipped upside down. I brought in some power to try and get above the wake, and had almost full rudder and aileron deflection when we finally flew out of it. I pulled back the power, landed, and got off the runway on my planned exit.

Following the Horizon flight so closely, and then trying to land early, was a stupid error in judgement on my part. It's not that I lacked the knowlege in how to avoid wake turbulence; I'd learned everything I needed to know before I got my private pilot license. It's just that with all the traffic around, and the tight sequence I was given, my attention was elsewhere. I would've done well to ignore the airplane behind me and either land long or give the Q200 more room; or, better yet, refused the sequence when I thought it was too tight.

This incident highlights the role of experience in the shaping of a pilot. Good training goes a long way towards making a good pilot, but experience is equally invaluable. You learn so much from your missteps, mistakes, and downright close learn things that can never really be taught in a classroom. It is with good reason that experienced captains are skeptical of "500 hour wonders" coming to the right seat of airliners almost straight out of school. Sharp as they may be, they still have a lot to learn - and many of them don't even realize it. It's easy to get cocky and complacent at 500 hours - you've got all the ratings licked and you're comfortable in the airplane, ready to settle in for a lifetime of competent captainhood. A few thousand hours later, you've scared yourself enough times to know better. You're more honest about your abilities and limitations, and more aggressive in seeking out weak spots in your flying and ironing them out.

Of course, there are always the experienced pilots who never do learn from their mistakes, and are just as dangerous at 10,000 hours as they were at 500. Everybody knows at least one of these, and nobody wants to be them. The key is to keep learning from your mistakes, and accept that learning is a lifetime process.