Today I was able to take my second solo flight.
This time it started as a dual flight, my instructor and I went to the west practice area, did some maneuvers, then came back in. I showed him three perfect landings, and he got out and sent me on my way to the west practice area by myself.
At first it was a great flight. Everything happened according to plan. Somewhat surprisingly, I did not jump straight into the sky like I had the last time but climbed very comfortably at 70 knots.
At 900 feet I departed west, crossed over into the west practice area, switched the radio over and then I played around. I turned around “the turning tree,” I crossed over an adorable creek, I did everything by the book, making radio calls for every turn. For a brief moment, flying was actually fun.
Right on target I made my call back to the tower to enter Delta airspace, reporting position, altitude and weather info. They told me to report on the downwind and I was good to come in, so in I went.
Just a few minutes later it occurred to me I was going incredibly fast. I looked over at my RPMs, normal range, I looked at my altitude and wasn’t climbing or descending so I figured I was just enjoying a tail wind and would be there in no time. Whew! This flight was going swimmingly better than the last solo.
Still, I was nervous about Delta airspace. The tower was busy. I could hear it all the way in. Every communication sounded like a take-out order read back and happened as fast as an auctioneer speaks. I was breathing deeply and reminding myself I had trained for this.
Then it happened.
Suddenly everything sounded a little different. I frantically scanned all of my engine instruments. They all reported in normal range. I checked my headset plug ins. Secure. Then a rush of wind came into the cabin…out of the corner of my eye I caught it. The passenger door had popped wide open and was now swinging wildly in the wind – the 130 knot relative wind!
At that moment – the moment my jaw dropped right out of the plane – I heard the tower call my tail number and ask my position.
What?! When do they ever do that?! Why?! Can’t they see me from their window?! Don’t they have my transponder?!
I have been taught in cases of emergency the rule is to aviate, navigate, THEN communicate. I wasn’t to the airport yet, and I was wrangling a derelict door back to the side of the plane…the tower could wait.
Still not yet able to grab the door on one of it’s passes closer to me, the tower came back with my tail number and asked if I was over TV Highway.
Fun fact, kids, I have lived in Oregon less than a year and believe it or not, I don’t have every single road memorized yet, especially considering I bike to and from work less than 5 miles from my apartment. So while my panic level was at about a 4 with the loose door, the tower thinking I was potentially somewhere else entirely from where I believed I was brought me up to about an 8. (Where the hell is TV Highway?!)
It was beautiful in Portland today. There were planes everywhere routing in and out of Delta airspace, not to mention nearby PDX.
So I gave up on the door for a minute and got on the radio and this was about how it came out: [click] “Cessna 64942!…I think I’m over Baseline Road [click] I think over Hillsboro????! I’ve got an [DON’T SAY EMERGENCY! DON’T SAY EMERGENCY! DON’T DECLARE AN EMERGENCY OVER A FLIPPING DOOR!] open door!” [click]
The tower came back: “ok.”
That was it.
Back to the rogue door before any number of random things students have lost under these seats find a way to drop on an innocent jogger below.
Finally I caught the door and wrangled it back to the side of the plane, but no matter how hard I pulled, it didn’t latch shut, it just stuck to where I could see a sliver of light through it and there it remained the rest of the flight, taunting me with the notion it could randomly depart again at any given second.
Then the tower said what I thought was my tail number and told me to report on base. Maybe it was my tail number. Maybe it wasn’t. I still have no idea. I was shaking like a leaf from head to toe. So I radioed back that I would report on base (completely forgetting to include that I was a student pilot soloing like I’m supposed to tell them).
Then I heard my tail number over and over again. I would ask the tower to repeat, but the tower was unresponsive. “Hmmm….must not have been for me. I feel like an idiot.” Thinking on it as I write this tonight, I’m pretty sure I was so panicked I responded to everything that had a “9er” in it as if it was for me.
With the confidence of a turtle on a fence post, I entered the downwind. Still asking the tower to repeat their last instruction….that wasn’t probably for me, but I sure thought it was.
The tower did not respond to me.
Was my radio transmitter out too?!
I reported my base turn, just in case. The tower then responded that someone was clear to land, but I wasn’t 100% sure who – apparently you can get tunnel hearing when your panic level leaves the charts. I was scanning the sky like a hawk for anyone else coming in to land.
The passenger door began to squeak at me as I turned final.
I executed the approach as best I could, still shaking uncontrollably. The PAPI told me I was high, now low, now high, now low, now good, now low….full flaps, airspeed 60 knots.
“I can do this. I can do this. I can do this. I can do this.”
I held the flare for what felt like forever. Then, once again, I started climbing. I released just a little pressure and waited and instead of gently touching down on the ground it bounced. Again! Then it started to turn sideways. I aggressively gave opposite rudder but it just wasn’t working out, I was bouncing and turning more and more with each bounce. “Ok, go around. Full throttle.”
I got on the radio to announce a go around, but the plane would not leave the ground. Instead of climbing and trying again, I was going full speed and accelerating right off the runway into nearby obstructions. I couldn’t get it back to the center line to save my life no matter how aggressively I pressed on the rudder. But it did occur to me at that moment I was no longer bouncing. So I killed the power and applied full brakes.
Now during this near death experience, my thumb was on the radio the whole time. So instead of the go around I was planning to announce, the tower (and everyone else on that frequency) got to hear an assortment of very high pitched expletives. When I finally released my thumb, the guy in the tower, with the calmest voice I’ve ever heard told me: “It’s ok, just land on the runway in front of you, pull off whenever you can.”
So I did. It took a while to slow down….many many taxi ramps later I turned off of the runway, thanked the controller, and switched over to ground.
I pulled past the hold short line and stopped. And for the next little while, the only movement in the plane were the tears streaming down my cheeks.
I contacted Hillsboro ground with my best attempt at a non-quivering voice, followed their instructions back to the tie down area and saw my instructor standing at the end of the lot.
My stomach sank. I had let him down again. He trusted me with his credentials and reputation as an instructor, and I botched the landing a second time.
Once again he was really cool about it. He said it wasn’t so bad and neither of us were in any trouble. The plane was fine and other than my pride and nerves, everything was in tact.
It was a few hours before the shaking stopped. I still cry a little when I think about it. How it was equal parts humiliating and terrifying. How at one point I was certain I was going to crash.
Fun fact, my previous post where I had a mechanical problem with a plane during the run-up was this exact same plane. This is actually the third time I’ve had a problem with this particular plane. I can comfortably declare Cessna 64942 dead to me. I will NEVER agree to fly it again.
My next lesson is Tuesday. If I try to pilot a plane again. Ever. Right now I’m not so sure.