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By Mike Davenport, EAA 89102, Langley, British Columbia
October 2019 - For those of you, like me, not brought up in the Catholic tradition or schooled in Latin, you may not be familiar with the title phrase "mea culpa." It means "through my fault," or basically "oops, my fault." Surely, we've all had a mea culpa moment in aviation. — Ed.
"Experience is a hard teacher because she first gives the test, the lesson afterwards." — Vernon Law.
Flying can be particularly unforgiving during the testing of the inexperienced. Thus, we learn what not to do — if there is to be a next time.
Having flown on a private licence ever since earning the privilege back in 1981, I do have some experience with windy conditions. In fact, I experienced my first crosswind landing while on my flight test. I had no idea how to deal with it, and to this day I can't tell you if I landed the C-152 or the examiner did. Once out of flight school, I transitioned to tailwheels and have rarely flown a nosewheel since. Learning has been a way of life for me, with much of my flying done on sensitive little homebuilts and cranky antiques. Each has required procedures, and these needed to be learned and retained. Having said that, there is no end to the learning required and available if we are willing to assimilate what is offered.
In my case, I think that I have learned several new lessons as a result of a recent trip to and from Oshkosh across Canada's prairies and through the mountains to Vancouver.
Stinson 108 CF-EZB tied down at EAA AirVenture Oshkosh 2019.
Winds were an issue for this taildragger pilot right from the beginning. Lulled into complacency by tailwinds and their associated high groundspeeds while eastbound, I still knew in the logical part of my brain that there would be a bill to pay when westbound. And indeed there was. Groundspeeds that had reached 154 eastbound were reduced to the mid 80s westbound, which also added fuel stops.
It wasn't all a free ride to the east either. It seemed that the winds were always across rather than down any available runway. A couple of these runways are regularly used by large airliners and they don't seem to care. However, it was a little different for a 72-year-old Stinson 108 and its 75-year-old taildragging pilot. I chose to overnight in Regina both ways because of the winds. Once safely on the ground, it was decided by the lead hand at the FBO that the Stinson would be far safer overnight in the hangar parking between a Citation and a Gulfstream than it would being tied down outside. I should have taken a picture.
Getting back to the issue at hand, which was those winds. The town of Pincer Creek is located in the Alberta foothills on the eastern slope of the Rocky Mountains. The mountains just to the west of the airport top 9,000 feet, and southerly outflow winds into the valley create some interesting mechanical turbulence, especially for the uninitiated. For example, I now know that the Crowsnest Pass just to the west has recorded winds of upwards to 80 knots and aircraft have been forced down by turbulence between Pincer Creek and the town of Blairmore. Those who know the area say, "A nice day in Blairmore is like winning a lottery." Others, like yours truly who didn't know any better at the time, go there, and with fairly predictable results.
Somewhere near Pincer Creek.
Back to Pincer Creek, the runway in use was uphill, which was a good thing but was also about 20 to 25 degrees out of the prevailing high and gusty winds, which was not. Question: Why do runways always seem to be out of the prevailing wind?
Taxiing was even more interesting than the landing, if such a thing is possible — and it was. It was very difficult to turn out of the wind, and the maneuver required careful use of all the flight controls, power, and brakes to avoid getting rolled up into a ball. During the right turn to crosswind, it was hard left aileron followed by down elevator, combined with full right rudder and locking the right brake during the full power turn to downwind.
Once finally at the ancient self-serve fuel pump on the ramp, I found its operation required that one read carefully the provided crib sheet and make out a paper credit card form. I hadn't seen one of those in more than 20 years. My guess was that they don't get much call for fuel there, and now I think I might know why.
Once fueled up, the departure was even more of an epic than the arrival. Local advice indicated that the winds would abate in about 25 miles when past the site of the Frank Slide. Not on this day.
Takeoff was made as diagonally as possible across the runway to try to minimise the crosswind a bit. That seemed to work, but gaining any altitude was difficult due to the extreme turbulence. Ahead lay a wind farm with its attendant windmills, and at one point, serious consideration was given as to how one might go between rather than over them. Fortunately, that wasn't necessary.
For the next 30 minutes or so that it took to finally get out of the area, I was continually hammered by severe turbulence. The Stinson's attitude and altitude changed constantly, varying from level through 90 degrees of bank and 45 degrees of pitch and sometimes concurrently. On more than one occasion, I had the nose up with full climb power and flaps while still going down at over 500 fpm. While all of this was going on, the g-meter registered plus 2 and minus 1. Once finally into smoother air, I recall being thankful that, among other things, my baggage was still well secured under a cargo net installed just for the trip.
In retrospect, what do I think that I should have done differently? Well, with the benefit of hindsight, perhaps I could have planned my fuel stop for somewhere else, like Cranbrook, British Columbia, or once having fueled in Pincer, taken off and headed back to the east away from the mountains in order to climb above the local turbulence before turning back to the west. Another time I might also question the local knowledge in a bit more depth than I did this time.
That day I had flown more than nine hours during a day that had begun at 4 a.m., eaten very little, drank less, and somehow still managed to arrive safely home and put a usable aircraft back in the hangar.