Flight Lesson #7 or “That’s the Night That The Lights Went Out in Manassas”

It was windy. Man, oh man, was it windy. Probably too windy for a student pilot, but I had Chris, my flight instructor, sitting in the right seat making sure that the wings stayed on top and the wheels on the bottom. No sweat.

I looked over the weather about 30 minutes before takeoff on the fancy weather computer that the flight school has. At the time, it wasn’t too windy, but it was about to be in 30 minutes or so. And that’s now. But it’s not windy enough to warrant a “no go”, just something of which to be aware.

Preflight is now pretty easy for me. So is taxiing to the runway. I’m also growing more comfortable with radio calls now. I still get a little flustered if I run into something unexpected. And with the new headsets clamped on each ear, I can actually hear what’s going on. So when the tower cleared me for take off, I revved the engine, taxied out onto the runway and let ‘er rip.

The airspeed indicator is the instrument on the top left of the two rows of instruments called a “six pack.” That’s the one that’s probably most critical on take off and landing. As I roll down the runway, I am learning to keep a close eye on the airspeed indicator and keep the aircraft moving straight and true down the center line. No problem.

Until the Cessna’s wheels left the pavement.

Once reaching the appropriate speed, I pull back on the yoke to rotate for take off. At the very instant the wheels lost contact with the ground, the strong crosswind gusted and blew the airplane to the left abruptly and startled the hell out of me. The runway is 100 feet wide, and I went from the center line (roughly) to flying over the grass in literally the blink of an eye.

Good thing I didn’t blink, ’cause I’d have missed it.

“Whoa! That wasn’t supposed to happen!” I exclaim loudly and try to correct, but the wind doesn’t want any part of it. Finally, I get the airplane back on course, thanks in no small way to Chris’s coaching and encouragement. It’s a little bumpy, but acceptable and we proceed out to the practice area.

One of the good things about the instructors is that they are very flexible in tailoring any given lesson to the needs of the student, while staying faithful to the federally approved course syllabus. Before we left, I told Chris that I wanted to practice under windy conditions some of the maneuvers I had learned in a previous lesson when the winds were nonexistent. No problem there either. There was plenty of wind.

I needed to become more familiar with the landmarks of the practice area so I don’t get lost when I am out there one day all by my lonesome. So we did a little sightseeing as well.

When it was time to go home, I turned the aircraft northeast and headed back toward Manassas. As is the procedure, I called Potomac Center to get clearance to enter the DC Special Flight Rules Area. The controller came back with the anticipated information and then told us that Manassas Tower was out of contact.

Out of contact? How could this be? Weird.

We proceeded toward Manassas anticipating the communications anomaly would be resolved and we’d be on the ground in no time. When we were at the appropriate point, I keyed the radio and said “Manassas Tower, Cessna 35354, 7 miles southwest for the west ramp.”

(Was that a cricket?)

Nope, not a single cricket at pattern altitude. Manassas Tower was not talking to anyone. So we switched to the Manassas Ground frequency and repeated the call. The controller answered with two words: “Stand by.”

The next voice we heard on the radio was the controller announcing to anyone who was listening — and there were undoubtedly many — that everything was on hold and that departing planes would have to return to the ramp. He said that they had no radar, no computers, no nothing, except for the one working radio on which he was broadcasting. Then he called us and cleared us to land.

Chris tried calling the school on their assigned frequency, but they didn’t answer either. Strange. Something was going on, but we had no clue what it was.

We proceed in. I made the left hand turn and lined us up on the runway. This time, I had a better time keeping the plane on target. This is in part because Chris had covered three of the six pack which had forced me to look outside the airplane. (Best thing he could have done for me.) The wind was making the airspeed indicator vary quite a bit and I did my best to hold her steady. When I felt as though I was coming in a little low, I added power to adjust my glide slope without having to be prompted. In fact, the whole lesson I was adjusting this and that nudging the plane in the direction I wanted it to go instead of pushing it. I was really feeling the plane this lesson instead of trying to force my will upon it. This was far easier and far less fatiguing.

I get to the runway numbers and pull the engine to idle. At this point, when you are about 5 feet or so off the runway, the pilot is to pull back on the yoke in the attempt to keep the plane flying until the airspeed drops and the plane settles in, which it did with little fanfare.

There you go. A second unassisted landing, and this time in some rather odd conditions:

1. Virtually no help from Manassas Tower.
2. Some serious wind.
3. A smattering of nausea from the motion of the maneuvers.

Once on the ground, we pulled up to the school, parked and walked in to a darkened office space. No wonder no one was there to talk to us when we called — the power was out all across the airport.

I turned in the paperwork and did the post flight critique. It was a terrific lesson in that for the first time, I wasn’t fighting with the airplane to make it fly. I was working WITH the airplane. Huge difference.

I hopped in the Prius and headed out around the end of the runways. As I was going out, it occurred to me that this had been a VERY good day. Not only did I land the plane myself, not only did I work with the plane instead of against it, not only did I make an acceptable approach by eye…

Wait a minute. There are supposed to be lights along the runway which tell you if you’re on the glide slope or not. I don’t remember using them. Odd, because you’re supposed to and they are really, REALLY hard to miss, particularly if you’re a nervous student pilot. But the power was out.

And so were the glide slope indicators.

Wow! I landed COMPLETELY by eyeball this time. Couldn’t rely on the existing navigational aids ‘cause there weren’t any. Double bonus!

So now I have my first aviation tall tale to tell. Next time I tell it, I think I’ll put myself in a bigger airplane. Something like a Gulfstream jet. Or a helicopter. And I’ll say that the winds were just shy of hurricane strength winds. Yeah, that’s the ticket!

But any way you slice it, this was a pivotal lesson. To the credit of my instructors, much of my training came together today.

I like to think of it as One Giant Leap for Dankind.

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