Going Around

The landing wasn't bad. It met the minimum requirements. The wheels hit the ground with no more than a gentle bump, and I stopped before the end of the runway without having to stand on the brakes. Nothing broke and nobody got hurt, or even close to it. Nonetheless, as I walked toward the little FBO building there was something gnawing at me. I even had a phrase for it.

"The pilot's failure to initiate a timely go-around." That's how the National Transportation Safety Board would have put it if things had gone worse. And they certainly could have. I pride myself on using no more than half of most runways, and lately have been working on spot landings, putting the wheels down, gently, right where I intend to. I don't always succeed, but that's always my goal. Eating up most of Plum Island's pavement made me feel like a tennis player who'd just whiffed an easy shot. The difference is that in aviation, faults put the player one step closer to bending metal.

This was an entirely unforced error. I screwed up. I can pinpoint the moment it went wrong.

It had been over two months since I'd last flown the Cessna 152, and considerably longer since I'd practiced short-field landings in it. The FAA talks at length about "time in type" and "recent flight experience," but until you've felt it yourself, it's hard to believe that a short break from flying a particular airplane can make a big difference. The plane had also gotten a rebuilt engine and a new radio since I'd last flown it, so there were some changes to get used to.

None of that seemed to matter much as I made a routine takeoff from Northampton and headed east toward Plum Island Aerodrome, the place I'd had to skip on a previous Bay State Challenge flight. The cruise speed seemed a little better and the radio sounded clearer, and the little trainer and I were enjoying getting reacquainted on a lovely, clear day.

Plum Island Aerodrome on a VFR sectional chart. Image courtesy Skyvector.

I'd prepared carefully for this flight. The runway at 2B2 is 400 feet shorter than the rental contract allows, but Northampton's airport manager had given me a special dispensation to take the 152 - and only the 152 - there. Carrying one scrawny pilot, no luggage, and two thirds of a tank of fuel, the manual says the plane could land in less than half the runway length at Plum Island. With flat approaches over the nearby marshes, it looked pretty easy.

I listened to the ATIS broadcasts from Lawrence and Beverly, confirmed that the winds were light and from the west, and visualized my pattern for runway 28 at Plum Island. I just needed to find the field. The GPS said I was nearly atop it, but all I could see was marsh land and a few houses.

The airport suddenly popped into view almost underneath me, and I announced on the radio that I was overflying it and setting up for 28. A Cessna 182 on amphibious floats was also entering the pattern, getting ready to use the crossing grass runway.

Turning south to finish my descent and circle back, I lost sight of the runway. When I found it again, I entered the downwind leg. By the time I'd finished the extremely short pre-landing checklist (carburetor heat, mixture, seat belts), I was abeam the numbers. The amphibian was somewhere behind me, on downwind for the other runway.

Entering the base leg, it seemed like the wind was puffing out of the east instead of the west. I continued the approach anyway, thinking it would shift around again shortly.

Final approach found me higher than I like, with the runway coming faster than it should.

The amphibian announced his base leg for the crossing runway.

Someone in the FBO warned that we were landing on crossing runways. No problem, I'd be down and out of the other plane's way before he got to the threshold.

Especially at this speed.

The fence at the threshold disappeared below me - further below than I'd wanted it to be.

Here were the numbers.

My brain sent an ambiguous message to my right hand: throttle forward? Go around?

No, we've got this. Glide down.

Flare. Too fast. Float. Float some more. Land.

The amphibian announced his final approach.

Flaps up, yoke back for aerodynamic braking.

Foot brakes.

I crossed the other runway and came to a gentle stop before the end of the pavement. After waiting for the amphibian to finish his touch-and-go, I taxied to the ramp. A ten-knot easterly breeze was holding the wind sock parallel to the ground. Another plane was entering the pattern, getting ready to land on 28. I told him I'd just landed with a ten-knot tailwind, and he might want to try the other direction. He turned and set up for runway 10.

There were several warning signs, but there was one particular moment where I clearly made the wrong call. Did you catch it? It was when I thought about going around. When I was first learning to fly, my instructor tried to drill this idea into my head: if you ever think it might be a good idea to go around, you should. He was right.

Fortunately, I had a chance for a different kind of do-over. The flight back to Northampton was uneventful, and a couple of weeks later I booked the 152 again. This time, I stuck to the local area and focused on practicing basic maneuvers. Returning to Northampton's pattern after a very productive practice session, I set up to land on runway 14, the same direction in which I'd taken off an hour earlier. Another aircraft was also approaching the pattern. As I turned from base to final I realized the wind had shifted, and it was now at my back.

The runway was coming faster than it should. The fence at the threshold disappeared below me - further below than I'd wanted it to be. Here were the numbers.

I pushed the throttle forward and went around. A few minutes later, I chirped the wheels right on the numbers of the opposite runway, and slowed with plenty of room to make the first taxiway.