Death can come at any time, from above or below, but life requires putting fear aside
By Brandon Lingle
September 6, 2016
Five months after the September 11 hijackers completed their flight training in Florida, I was on my first solo flight. Three quick jaunts around the pattern and with three good landings, I’d be done.
Classic California flying weather: clear blue sky, light onshore breeze, no turbulence, and a gray wall of fog shrouding the Pacific in the distance. Alone in a ’75 Piper Cherokee—basically a VW bug with a propeller, tail, and wings—on final approach to runway 30 at Santa Maria Airport, I steered toward the fat white center line and worked the throttle, trim, and flaps to stay on glide slope. As I descended from 1,000 feet, my eyes scanned the instruments—air speed, altitude, vertical velocity—and the runway. Everything seemed fine.
Four square lights on the left side of the strip shifted from four white (too high) to three white and one red (slightly high) to two white and two red (on track). The old saying “Four white, fly all night; four red, you’re dead,” echoed in my head. Radio chatter, the only tether to the ground, filled my headset. My mind replayed mantras from Dave, my flight instructor: “Fly the airplane. Can’t will it to the ground. Be patient. Breathe. You don’t like something, go around. Ditch the bitch.” Dave was watching the Cherokee, the only plane in the flight pattern, through binoculars from the tower.
Two red and two white as I passed the threshold, and the world expanded and gained depth as the ground rushed up. Time warped and slowed through the last 15 feet. Finally, the main wheels punched the tarmac. The plane shuddered. A curtain of dust fell from the upholstered ceiling. A bounce, no time to think, then like a rodeo bull the nose pitched up and over, and the gear pounded the runway again. Instinct kicked in. I cut the throttle and pushed the yoke to the ground. No use, the nose popped skyward—a boxer’s view after a nasty uppercut. A third strike and the Cherokee quaked and rebounded. A second later, the plane dropped flat. All three wheels hit hard and stuck. Slightly off centerline, I gained control and taxied from the runway to the tower.
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Brandon Lingle is an Air Force officer whose essays have appeared in The New York Times’s At War blog, Guernica, and The North American Review, among other publications. These views are his alone.