Traffic patterns are all the same everywhere in the world. Take off, gear up, downwind, gear down, flaps down, base, final…engine, or no engine.

I came to Reserve Officers School without a single hour in powered aircraft. My flying experience was on different kinds of gliders, meaning, my engine was the updraft or thermal lift and when this was gone, the altitude was my source of propulsion. But altitude was a commodity that was sometimes burning fast, so one had to be quick thinking and resourceful if the flight was to end where it began – at home airport.

And there I was – in the cockpit of an aircraft weighing two tonnes and a half, powered by a jet engine capable of delivering a thrust of approximately half the normal take-off weight. We have already started to fly solo, but before our instructors would let us fly away from their sights, we were doing endless traffic patterns….

By the end of the first few days, I thought I have tamed the beast – it was flying exactly as I commanded, I was pleased by my performance, hitting the numbers exactly (speed and altitude for each segment), it was just the landing that was giving me some trouble. Not that I was not precise on touchdown, it was that strange feeling of manipulating the throttles…I was not accustomed to that. In a glider, you make the calculation, and once turning to base, few options remain on how and where to touch down. Remember, the only thrust one has in a glider is the altitude, so the decision on when to do each segment of a traffic pattern is crucial.

Our instructors were sitting in a small cabin near the touchdown point, with the list of the participants in traffic patterns, judging our final approach, landing, and take-off. They had a hand-held radio station, just in case, if someone gets in trouble, and intervention from them would be needed. There was no escape from their sharp eyes…they have seen it all and every mistake we made couldn’t have passed unnoticed.

It was almost the end of the flying day, and five of us were in the early afternoon traffic pattern. And it was a hot summer afternoon. It was so hot, that sweat started to pour down my forehead when I put my helmet on the apron. I thought I was dreaming – this was not possible, where did all that liquid come from? It was pouring so intensively, that it filled my mouth and was dripping on my flying suit. And when I closed the canopy, it became unbearable. I was already dehydrated and slightly dizzy when taxiing toward the runway. There was no air conditioning, only a very rudimental air vent, but it was working only when the aircraft was moving fast, during taxiing it was only delivering more hot air into the cockpit.

After a few traffic patterns, I was able to cool down a bit, as the air was blowing through the vent. I felt like I was in the glider – it was a summer day, the sky filled with countless cumulus clouds, and when gliding, I always opened the vent and sometimes even pushed my hand out, just to divert the stream of cold air where I wanted. I couldn’t do that in Galeb…..too much work in patterns and the vent was nowhere near like on the gliders. My attention deteriorated. I was not thinking 100% clearly. Thirsty, dehydrated, tired. And then it happened.

The first three-quarters of the pattern were executed more or less ok. I dropped the gear on time, lowered the flaps, reduced speed to 240 km/h, looked over my right shoulder (I was landing on Runway 13), waited for that 45-degree angle between the wingtip and touchdown point, turned to final, dropped speed to 210 km/h, flaps full, power set to 75% and….shit….I’m too low! My glider pilot logic suddenly kicked in, I totally forgot, that there is an engine, delivering more than enough thrust to correct attitude, but no….the sun, heat, and stupidity prevailed. Next thing my glider pilot survival logic woke up and I even slightly reduced the angle, so as not to lose speed (speed is life!). My comprehension of the situation was rapidly shrinking and I was totally focused on bringing the glider safely to the ground. I was holding the throttle the whole time! The runway was approaching fast (210 km/h is fast), I started to flare and in split second I was relieved – I was going to land more or less on the runway! My gliding self-consciousness has told me, that runway is grass and this is what I see in front of me. Phew! Going to make it! Yeah!

Touch down was almost perfect, I didn’t hear tires screeching, nor felt 2.5 tonnes of metal touching a hard surface. What I heard were two loud bangs. Holly shit! What did I hit on the runway? Is everything ok with the plane? “6-2 continue!” I heard it over the radio. Everybody in our unit had his own code, mine was 6-2, which was read as six-second. Well, if the wise men in the cabin said to continue, everything was obviously in order, so I kicked the throttles to full power, waited for speed to build up, and took off again. I was back in powered aircraft modus.

On downwind, I glanced over my right shoulder, to check if I was correctly aligned with the runway, and to my horror, I saw a large cloud of dust some 20-30 meters before the runway. I thought someone crashed and I started to count the aircraft in front of me, so I would calculate who it was. But nobody was missing.

I made another touch-and-go and then some more.

There was no ambulance, no fire brigade, and the instructor in the hut kept his calm voice all the time. Apparently, there was no emergency.

After landing I taxied to my parking position, and as soon as I switched the engine off, the mechanic disappeared under the wings. My instructor came and asked how it was. Pretty well, I answered. I was actually quite pleased with my performance.

After flying activities, we all gathered in the conference room for debriefing. It was short, and nothing special was reported so we were released to our de-briefing rooms, where instructors would de-brief individually their students (each had two). My colleague and I were already there, chatting while waiting for him to return from the main building. Doors opened, and he sat in front of us and asked us if everything was ok. We looked at each other, shrug our shoulders, and nodded. He then turned to me, with the biggest grin on a face you can imagine, and asked: “are you sure?”

My jaw dropped and my heart was pounding as he explained to me, that one of the approaches was too low and that I landed before the runway, lifting the large cloud of dust behind me…

So that were those two loud bangs! Gear hitting against the edge of the runway!

In that instant I just wanted the ground to open, so I would disappear in the sinkhole forever…I was embarrassed beyond comprehension, I thought they were going to send me home and I will be eternally cursed for that.

When he asked me, what happened, It all came back to me…I didn’t dare to speak of glider pilot mentality, so I just mumbled “I don’t know…” and that was it. He just laughed, and I remembered forever and ever – if you have a working engine on your airplane – use it!

Categories: Sky Stories

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