When I got my CFI certificate in 1976 there was a lot of flight training going on, much of it involving Vietnam veterans on the GI Bill. In fact, that’s how I got my advanced certificates and ratings. We had to get the Private certificate on our own, but then the VA would pay for 90 percent of advanced training. The privately owned airport near where I lived had several Cessnas on leaseback, a couple more they owned, and maybe five flight instructors already working there. I went to the owner with my new CFI ticket and asked if he had any work for me.
I knew the owner fairly well. He and I had gotten our private certificates at the same flight school several years earlier, and I bought my first plane from him, a Cessna 150. His family later bought the airport very close to where I was living, N10 (Perkiomen Valley), and he was running it. I had moved up to a C-172, which was based at his field, so I was out at the airport quite a bit.
He told me the only work he had available was covering the night-training portion of the curriculum for the other instructors’ students. At the end of a long day, they were tired and didn’t want to hang around for their students’ night sessions. The truth was they wanted to go to the local pilot’s bar and drink beer, but he didn’t say it that way. He gave me keys for the FBO building and a quick lesson on how to do billing and keep records. I became THE NIGHT MAN, which suited me just fine, since I already had a full-time day job.
One of my first students was a young man who was a partner in a Cessna 150. He needed his 10 night takeoffs and landings in order to keep his certificate from being restricted to day flight only. There was no night cross-country requirement at the time. The plan was to fly over to North Philadelphia Airport (PNE) where they had good field lights (ours were terrible), do nine landings, and return home for the tenth and last one. Mission accomplished.
The weather was beautiful, and so were my student’s night landings. He had no problems at all. This was before I figured out that I should actually be using this time to teach a few things about night flight, like simulated landing light failure. Around and around the pattern we went, him flying, me counting landings — like sheep. The whole thing was very boring.
Pretty soon I started day-dreaming, or should I say night-dreaming? Anyway, I was not paying attention at all. Near the end, maybe the seventh or eighth landing, I was enjoying the city lights, trying to determine if I could see far enough south to pick out the statue of William Penn on top of city hall. As we came over the threshold, I think I was oblivious to even being in the plane. All of a sudden I came to in a hurry. The airplane felt like it was falling out of the sky, because it was. And we were nowhere near the runway. The airplane had quit flying and was dropping towards the pavement. I brought my hand up under the student’s, intending to add power, but I was too late. The plane hit the ground just as my hand touched the throttle.
To this day, that is still the hardest I have ever hit the ground in an airplane. It was bone-jarring. I thought surely the gear would collapse, but after the shock wore off we were just sitting there, seemingly OK, with the engine running. There was essentially no ground-roll. After several more seconds the student began to advance the throttle to take off again. I told him no way; we were going to inspect the airplane for damage. We taxied off and went to a parking area under some street lights.
We couldn’t find anything wrong. The gear wasn’t bent, the airplane sat level, and the prop tips were straight. Thankfully we had hit on the main gear. Why the student had flared so high after making several near-perfect landings, we’ll never know. He couldn’t explain it to me. We made another landing or two at PNE and headed back to Perkiomen Valley. After we tied the plane down, I signed the student’s logbook and went home to bed.
The next day I went to the airport to write up the instruction bill, and decided to have a look at the 150 in full daylight. Uh oh. I guess the lighting at North Philadelphia wasn’t as good as I thought. One of the main gear wheels’ flanges were bent out flat; and the tire bead was exposed on both sides. I can’t imagine why the tire didn’t blow on impact, and have no idea how it held up for 2 or 3 more landings. The mechanic found an old but serviceable Cessna wheel in the shop and had it swapped out in no time.
The point of this tale is to warn flight instructors to always pay attention to what their student is doing. Don’t become complacent. Even the best students can and do make mistakes. There is no more important time to be paying undivided attention to what is going on than during the final portion of the landing phase. Bad things can happen close to the ground; which was then, is now and always will be hard and unforgiving. To this day, when turning final, I put my clipboard in the back seat, sit up very straight, place my hands on my knees and watch intently. I check everything; airspeed, aircraft position, gear and flaps, other traffic on final, and airplanes on the ground. I’ll never have an airplane drop out from under me again, day or night.
Larry Bothe is an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, FAASTeam Representative and Gold Seal Instructor in the Indianapolis, IN FSDO area. He is also a Master Certified Flight Instructor and has over 7000 hours in more than 80 types of aircraft. Larry is part-owner of a 1961 7EC Champ and may be contacted at LBothe@comcast.net.