Centerline, centerline, centerline
Air Facts Journal

It was a beautiful May day as we grabbed the tow bar to pull the 1981 Cessna 182 out of the hangar. The sky was clear and a million with light winds out of the north. And I had even managed to install the car seat correctly the night before to expedite our departure.

Over the years, we had flown from our base at New Orleans Lakefront Airport (KNEW) to the beach towns across the Florida panhandle a number of times. But this trip was special. For the first time in my life, I was going to fly my daughter somewhere.

As I went through the preflight inspection, my wife strapped my daughter into the car seat and climbed into the airplane herself. We started up the engine, got the weather, asked the tower for our instrument flight plan, and began to taxi from the T-hangars on the east side of the field down the familiar route of “Hotel, Echo” to runway 18 right for a departure to the north with a turn to the east.

After an uneventful run-up, we were cleared for departure with ATC confirming they would call our turn to the east. After one last check to my left to make sure there weren’t any yahoos on an unapproved short final (old habit), I took the runway then pressed the throttle in to full power.

Even though this was late May, it was early enough in the day that the temperatures and density altitude hadn’t climbed to outrageous heights—yet. With a little forward pressure on the yoke, I was able to keep the airplane on the runway to continue picking up airspeed as we arrived at my target of 60 knots for takeoff. As soon as we hit 60 knots indicated, I lightly pulled back on the yoke and the airplane popped right off the ground. Lakefront Tower called our turn to the east and switched us to 133.15 (standard New Orleans departure frequency when departing/arriving from the east of the city) and we began our climb to 7,000 feet.

Takeoff from runway

As soon as we hit 60 knots indicated, I lightly pulled back on the yoke and the airplane popped right off the ground.

As an extra precaution with my daughter on board, I had filed and received a route that kept me closing to land as we flew east along the shoreline. The first waypoint was Gulfport International (KGPT), then TRADR and finally VARRE. The flight was uneventful—a good thing! The only excitement was when my daughter tried to pull the headset off my wife’s ears to make a radio call of her own. As we transitioned from Mobile to Pensacola Approach, I was able to grab the weather report at our final destination airport Destin Executive (KDTS).

As I tuned the ATIS for Destin Executive, I was glad to hear there was no ceiling reported. Destin Executive sits just south and east of Elgin Air Force Base (KVPS). When the ceilings come down, I’ve had the pleasure of getting placed into a lengthy hold to accommodate commercial, as well as military traffic, working in the area. No ceiling so no hold for us today!

The only thing that caught my attention was a 90 degree crosswind coming from the east that was gusting to 11 or 12 knots. Approach switched me to Tower. Destin Tower told me to expect a right base for a landing on Runway 12.

As I maneuvered into the traffic pattern, I was #2 behind a Citation on a straight-in final and my pulse started to beat a little more than usual. My hands got a little clammy as they sometimes do when I’m coming into land. Although this time, my mind was focused on my daughter in the back seat.

Turning base to final, I found the crosswind to be gusting as advertised. It was there one moment, but gone the next. Transitioning from short final into my flare, I saw that the few extra knots of airspeed that I carried bleed off just like I planned. Not so perfect… my downwind wheel touched down on the runway first. Pointing my thumb into the wind to get my ailerons around I counted one…two…three, and still, no upwind main touching down. At that point, I decided to go around.

Cessna landing

After several seconds wtihout both mains on the ground, I decided to go around.

I added full power and gave a slight pull back on the yoke and was off the ground. I then gave a little forward pressure on the yoke to build up airspeed 20 feet above the runway and then I planned to climb up into the traffic pattern. I took out one notch of flaps at a time.

“Going around runway 12,” came out of my mouth over the Tower frequency.

My heart is pounding at this point. I’ve got my baby in the back seat. The overwhelming desire to be safe and also to be on the ground was tugging at my chest. My left crosswind became left downwind very quickly. My hands were clammy on the controls. My wife was doing her best impression of a tree and sitting perfectly still, not saying a word.

“Number two cleared to land, runway one two behind the Citation jet,” was the call from Tower.

From left base, I turned final. Again, my wife is doing her tree impression. I’m feeling the pressure to safely get us on the ground. From short final, I transitioned to rounding out in the flare. Chirp chirp came both mains followed shortly after by the nose wheel. We’re down safe and sound! As I reach over to dump all the flaps to 0 degrees (a suggestion from an old CFI to clean up the wing quick when dealing with cross winds), I lean over to the right. My left hand follows which means instead of full deflection on the ailerons, I’m now aileron neutral.

The gusting wind from the east returns, pushing the aircraft toward the right side of the runway. In a matter of a few seconds, the grass infield fills my windshield. I didn’t get the thumb into the wind and I didn’t immediately get on the left rudder pedal to steer us back to the centerline. Years of training ignored in an instant which means we are now headed into the infield.

As we cross the runway edge into the grass, I have the thought to pull back on the yoke to protect the nose wheel as well as for aerodynamic braking. After a few hundred feet, we come to a stop before the the Alpha 3 taxiway. My heart is thundering out of my chest and my wife turns to check on our daughter who we find is giggling with the biggest smile on her face.

airplane in grass

In a matter of a few seconds, the grass infield filled my windshield.

“Cessna, are you okay?” The Tower asks on the frequency.

Turning around to look back through the windshield, I see a King Air holding short 50 feet in front of me on taxiway Alpha.

“Yes, we are. Let the King Air taxi past, we are headed to the FBO.”

After we safely taxi to the FBO and shut down, I can’t believe that I just did that. So, what did I learn from this experience that I can pass along to other pilots?

Developing bad habits happens to all of us:  While my SOP to pull up flaps on a windy day isn’t a bad one, I had gotten complacent in maintaining my upright posture while my right arm moved to the flap lever. A week later, I went up with a CFI who asked me, “Why do you keep pulling right after you land? Why aren’t you strong on the rudder pedals to steer us on centerline?” I had gotten away with this motion so many times that I had failed to pay attention to the control inputs that matter the most—namely, the rudder and ailerons—to keep me on centerline. That was poor airmanship on my part. There was no excuse for our flight ending that way besides me not living up to my abilities as a 300+ hour rated pilot.

Train with a different CFI at least a few times per year:  If you’re like me, you were overjoyed to ditch the CFI bills after finishing my Private Pilot certificate and then the Instrument Rating add on. It had been over a year since I received dual instruction. And I had been training with the same instructor for years prior to that. Now, I make dual received a priority every single year. That includes flying with an instructor at least once or twice a year and changing instructors to get different perspectives.

Ask for what you need as PIC:  In hindsight, I was feeling the pressure of this flight before we left the ground in New Orleans. My daughter being safe was a top priority for me. After I safely performed a go around on the first landing attempt, I should have asked for what I needed to calm myself down for a second landing attempt. An extended downwind to take a breath. I could have asked for a heading and altitude, popped on the autopilot and calmed myself down. If I really hated the crosswind so much, I could have diverted to another airport. All of these options were on the table. I needed to breathe and think about what I wanted to happen next.

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