The time when I almost landed short
Air Facts Journal

The runway alingment and airspeed were good, but I was drifting below glideslope. My hand was gripping the throttle since the turn to final and I added a little power. The engine did not respond and—how odd!—it seemed the stick got a little heavier. I added some more throttle, but there was no change in power and I absolutely needed more back pressure on the stick.

Stubbornly, I firewalled the black knob. But the RPM had not budged since rolling into the groove, and now I almost needed both hands to keep the nose up. The plane was perhaps 50 feet above the ground, but at least there was a smooth gravel under-run and the wheel pants were off. I had just enough energy to flare with a soft touchdown. I prepared myself for landing short. What an embarrassing end to the second leg of my Private pilot solo long cross-country.

Citabria on grass runway

I had just enough energy to flare with a soft touchdown.

To this point, the journey had been exhilarating. I launched from Oceanside, California just south of Camp Pendleton in the stately conventional gear Citabria I chose for civilian training a few years after Navy flight surgeon primary training in a T-34C turboprop. My route was across the 6,500′ foothills east of San Diego, including notable checkpoints such as the Mt. Palomar Observatory, and then over desert wilderness and the Imperial Valley finally arriving at Yuma.

After my logbook was signed, I departed north toward Lake Havasu where I hoped to see the London Bridge which recently had been relocated there. The terrain was rugged, but my planning, waypoint selection and pilotage had been satisfactory. After just over four hours and 260nm, I was close to my second and next-to-last stop. And I was going to land short.

If you are experienced in the Citabria and Decathlons, you already know how I found myself in this jam. Otherwise, you may be puzzled as I certainly was. With your left hand on the throttle, after advancing it, you expect more power. Except my hand was on the elevator trim knob which has the same shape, feel and travel arc as the throttle, but is located lower, and slightly behind, on the sidewall. With low time in type, and the frisson of approaching a strange airport, a blind reach to the left sidewall could land on either. The lever actuation would be the same but with obviously different results. I had added full down trim and left the throttle near idle.

super decathalon

In Citabrias and Decathalongs, the elevator trim knob has the same shape, feel and travel arc as the throttle.

Fortunately, I happened to glance to the left at my hand, despite rapidly approaching the ground, and instantly saw where it was misplaced. I made a quick tug on the trim and then advanced the throttle which responded immediately. We regained the desired glideslope and made an adequate landing—on the runway.

Some combination of human factors clearly was rampant here including possible expectation or confirmation bias and awkward cockpit ergonomics. No doubt my performance was a bit impaired from fatigue. But what I recall clearly was the cognitive dissonance of physics and aircraft control seemingly diverging from reality and leaving my poor brain in the dust. I was very close to transitioning both hands onto the leaden stick and concentrating on a good power-off into the gravel. Today with my earned experience I would instantly recognize the aircraft behavior as resulting from trim change.

But quoting the philosopher Steven Wright:  “Experience is something you don’t get until just after you need it.”

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