It’s been a while since the day I missed the runway at Oxford Airport. I’ve done a lot more flying and I’m a lot more competent. But my first near-miss (no damage was done except the loss of a runway light) is not an incident I’m likely to forget in a hurry.
The Saratoga is fast in the circuit and if it’s busy, I spend half my time trying not to sneak up on the 152s pottering along downwind like a Sunday driver in a tweed cap.
On that fateful day, I was thrilled to see that Oxford circuit was nice and quiet: there was a touch of a crosswind which meant that most of the students were grounded for the day.
I spoke to a friendly instructor at PFT who confirmed that it was fine for circuits, just not optimal for new flyers who were still trying to get their confidence up. I’d done crosswind landings in much worse weather so I wasn’t very concerned.
It was a beautiful day, brilliant blue skies and clear views of the Cotswolds below me. I hummed to myself as I zipped around the circuit a few times. I knew there was a crosswind and I was taking it into account but I wasn’t particularly worried.
Except then I missed the runway.
I’m still not quite sure what happened. I called final as I bore down towards the threshold. The approach was a little bit messy but tolerable; I decided to carry on. I pulled up as I reached the transition point and noticed a slight float.
I considered full power and going round as I knew the plane would lose speed fast and she could be a pig to land. Then I felt her begin to sink back to the ground and I thought, “No, this is fine, I’ll land it.”
Nose up, wheels about to touch, everything seemed OK. Then I blinked. Where did the runway go?
I was lined up perfectly but 10 feet to the left of the numbers. There was no time left: I touched down with the left wheel on the grass and the right on the runway, the nose wheel bumping along the edge.
There must have been a slight gust of wind that shifted me sideways as the plane was low and slow. I steered back onto the runway and vacated at the first opportunity.
Once parked, I crawled under the plane to see if the tyres and connecting bits looked normal. It slowly began to dawn on me that, although I looked at the underside of this plane every flight, I didn’t actually feel that confident about how it all hung together and whether it still looked right.
Ben, an instructor who I’d flown with previously, happened to be in Oxford that day and walked out to the plane. “ATC just phoned. You took out a runway light. Are you OK?”
“I’m fine, I just don’t know about the plane.”
“Go to Operations and apologise. I don’t know if they will charge you or if it’s covered on their insurance or what. They want to talk to you. Take responsibility. Afterwards I can help you find someone to check it out.”
Luck was with me: while I was waiting to cower before a random air traffic controller, I saw Mark, the engineer who services the plane.
“Hey, good to see you flying, no time to chat, I’m on my way to Brittany,” he said as he rushed past me.
“I broke the Saratoga,” I said. He froze mid-step. I knew he would.
“Come on, show me.”
He looked it over, shook his head at a nick in the nose wheel, then pronounced the plane airworthy. “But watch that tyre, we need to get that fixed soon. Look at it after every landing, if you see any spreading or fraying, stay on the ground and call me.”
I was amazed he has that sort of faith in me; deep-down I felt that I had proven that I was still a student, not to be trusted with responsibility. I nodded seriously and he smiled at me. “It happens. You must have come down soft, those lights crack easy, they don’t want there to be any resistance. The nick happened after the light cracked and you rolled over it.”
A couple of pilots were standing around me now, I re-iterated what happened, no one seemed to think I deserved my licence ripped out of my hands. “It happens.”
“Plane’s in one piece, you’re in one piece, well done,” a man with a Scottish accent said with a pat on my shoulder.
I almost smiled.
I still had my apologies to do, though. I went to the man in Operations to tell him what happened.
“Just past the numbers. Left side.” It seemed important to me that he knew I was landing on the numbers, even if I was, well, off-set a bit.
“Just a second. ” He called ATC, nodded a few times and hung up.
“It’s OK,” he told me. “They’ve already cleared it up.”
I blinked at him. I wasn’t actually offering to dash out to the runway to clean it up with a bucket and a broom. “Oh. Good.” I wasn’t sure where to go from there.
“There might be a bill. Never had this happen before.” I winced as he tutted at me. “Anyway, we’ll let you know. Taking her up again for more circuits?”
I shook my head. I’d had enough for one day. What I really needed was a stiff drink. It wasn’t that I always landed perfectly but, if it looked questionable, I’d always gone around. This was my first truly bad landing.
“Plane’s in one piece, you’re in one piece.” I recited the words to myself as I walked away. At the end of the day, I knew I was lucky.
The “This happens” reaction is exactly what I’d expect from any reasonable pilot. I could even name at least two instructors who had similar experiences with runway edges or runway end. I still regard them as highly qualified and fully trust them.
This is a very honest account of something that must have been quite unnerving at the time. But I’m not surprised at everyone’s reaction. It does happen and more often than you think. I’ve known instructors and very experienced pilots misjudge landings and come a cropper. I had a nasty ground loop after a crosswind landing shortly after getting my PPL and everyone took the same approach with me. What you’ve done is exactly right – put it down to experience, learn from it and move on.
Thanks for the positive comments. It’s taken a while for me to be able to look at the situation and see it as a learning process rather than a simple failure.
Sylvia – I’m a very new pilot and I’ve found my landings quite exciting from time to time too. I just count myself lucky that none of them has attracted external attention – yet!
It’s really good to see another pilot show the responsibility and integrity to admit that things can easily go wrong – and face the results.
I think there’s always support in the flying community if you can do that…
I agree, I think if you make a point of taking responsibility (for your actions, for your plane, for your flight) then that makes a lot of difference.