I've been thinking a great deal about trauma lately. I'm not completely sure why, but the topic has been invading my thoughts for weeks. As I've read and thought more and more about it, I've started to recall several traumatic stories from my personal life...events that changed me in both positive and negative ways forever. Over the next three weeks, I want to share these stories with my readers in the hope that something I write will help them deal with their own traumas. Keep in mind, these are stories I have rarely told anyone.
The first story began on an early summer morning in 1992. A friend and I were both working on our commercial pilot licenses and decided to fly from Weyers Cave, VA (the Shenandoah Valley Regional Airport), to Myrtle Beach, SC, for the day. I would fly down, and he would fly back. The weather on takeoff was great and forecasted to be sunny and clear. It was a perfect day for flying!
The flight down was uneventful. Upon landing at Myrtle Beach, I instructed the lineman to top off our fuel tanks and quickly proceeded to the front desk of the FBO (Fixed-Base Operator), where my friend and I picked up our courtesy car. In those days, if one purchased fuel from the Myrtle Beach FBO, the purchase came with a car that could be used for the day at no cost. We took the car into town, grabbed a quick lunch, and then made haste to the beach, where we soaked up the sun for the better part of the afternoon.
Around 3:00 PM or so, we jumped back into the car and sped to the airport. We wanted to launch as soon as possible in order to avoid flying into the night. Soon after arriving at the airport, we pre-flighted the airplane and took off, northbound for the Shenandoah Valley with my friend at the controls as pilot-in-command. Again, the flight started off uneventful...but that would change in the vicinity of Raleigh-Durham, NC.
As we approached the Raleigh-Durham area, we began hearing PIREPS (Pilot Reports) on our VHF radio from other aircraft flying nearby. The reports were of moderate to severe turbulence at higher altitudes, no doubt the result of increased atmospheric convection precipitated by the hot summer temperatures (it had been quite hot that day). Some of the reports were from large, commercial aircraft, which was a bit disconcerting. We were flying a Cessna 182. Although technically a high-performance airframe, it is still small and, thus, easily buffeted by even minor turbulence. The prospect of severe turbulence in the area was not at all comforting for my friend and me. But we pressed on, cavalierly assuming we could avoid it by remaining at lower altitudes and utilizing our superior piloting skills.
We were wrong. Just south of Raleigh-Durham, we began experiencing what I would describe as severe, clear-air turbulence. We dropped our speed to maneuvering speed and tried to ride it out, but it seemed to get worse with the passage of every second. Realizing that our airframe and, indeed, our very lives were at stake, we decided to let down at the Raleigh-Durham Airport, wait for the convective activity to die down as the afternoon temperatures cooled, and travel back at night. We received landing clearance from Raleigh-Durham, lined up for final approach, and began our gradual descent to the runway.
The approach seemed to be going well at first, save the occasional teeth-shattering jolt. However, on short final, all of that changed. At about 100 or so feet off the ground, the plane suddenly--with absolutely no warning--plummeted earthward, violently struck the runway, and bounced high into the air, though still seemingly flying (i.e., not tumbling or cartwheeling). To this day, it is one of the most physically traumatic experiences I've ever had, and to this day, no one knows why the plane just stopped flying (we were on a fast approach, well above stall speed)! I immediately looked over at my friend, who looked back at me and frantically asked, "What do we do?" Knowing that we still had plenty of runway ahead of us, I responded, "Land!" But to my horror, my friend pushed the throttle full forward (to maximum power), which caused the airframe to start shuttering savagely. It was as if someone had grabbed me with both hands by the shoulders and started shaking me back and forth. I can still remember the terror I felt as I realized that my friend's chosen course of action would either result in our airplane breaking apart in flight or crash landing in downtown Raleigh-Durham. I didn't know why the airplane was shaking so violently, but I realized it wasn't gaining altitude and we were in a very dangerous portion of the flight envelope.
So, I instinctively knocked my friend's hand away from the throttle, pulled the power back to idle, took control of the yolk (i.e., airplane steering wheel), and landed the plane myself, with only a few hundred feet of runway to spare. Of course, the air traffic controllers had seen all of this, so they closed the runway, dispatched fire and rescue to our location, and called the Federal Aviation Administration and National Transportation Safety Board. Fortunately, my friend and I were uninjured. But the same couldn't be said for the plane. After shutting the engine down, we immediately determined why the plane had shuttered so when my friend powered up. We had curled the prop (along with other significant damages)! When the airplane initially struck the runway, the two blades of the propeller had apparently dug into the surface and folded in on themselves asymmetrically, thus becoming useless and unbalanced. It's similar to what happens when one removes a single fan blade from a ceiling fan. Now imagine that fan turning at 2700 RPMs!
I'll admit, the event shook me up a bit. It took a week or two before I wanted to go flying again. But it taught me something about myself that I had not realized previously: I can handle high-pressure, high-stakes situations. Please don't misunderstand what I'm saying. I'm not lauding myself for wresting control from my friend and successfully landing the plane, nor am I proclaiming some sort of superhuman focus or competency. I'm simply stating that when the chips are down, I, like everyone else, am capable of handling things skillfully, logically, and safely, if I keep my wits about me and do not overreact. Had I frozen in that moment when my friend asked, "What do we do?" or had we tried to climb out and go around, there's a good chance I wouldn't be writing this blog today. But because I remained calm and thought logically, we survived to fly another day.
Of course, I'd be a liar if I claimed to handle all situations with such skill. Unfortunately, I've overreacted plenty of times in my life and made countless foolish decisions. But on that day in 1992, I did it right. And it reminds me that I can do it right again tomorrow...if I stay calm and think.