An angry spirit inhabits this place. It slaps and jars my little ship with contempt. I am accustomed to turbulence, but this is something different. It has personality. The gusts and eddies of its breath do not just shove the airplane around, they strike it with sharp jabs from all directions, like a circling boxer. My head, encumbered by the crash helmet, bobbles atop my shoulders, sometimes raps against the side windows. I am in a boxing match, but I cannot raise my guard and I cannot fight back.
I have a strained relationship with the Pawnee. Over the field it is a stable platform and it turns well. Farmers say that its spray coverage is better than the bigger machines and the owner loves its lower operating cost and ability to get into obstructed fields. But it has annoying traits which include a small hopper and relatively slow airspeed, leading to endless ferrying, and an abysmal roll rate. The angry spirit probes, sees an opportunity, and sets its lips into a grim smirk.
The field is beautiful from a spray pilot’s point of view. One hundred fifty acres with no wires within its boundaries, only a large, self-propelled irrigation line to dodge while spraying. On the east, a powerline runs along a road, perpendicular to my path. On the west and north, tall trees bound the field then follow terrain which falls steeply away. The wind, as usual here, is from the north. It comes roiling up and over the hill then spills sharply over the tree line into the field.
The little Pawnee bobs gently over the crop, climbs briefly to clear the irrigation pivot, then settles again over the field. She is full of fuel and full of material and flies a little like a bathtub in the hot, humid air. As the west tree line fills my windscreen I pull and, for a sickening half-second, feel the airplane mush in the approaching downdraft but it soon recovers, scrabbles out of the hole and labors over the treetops. I have spent most of my zoom and the airplane wallows. I widen and make shallow my turn. It is impossible to hold a constant bank angle; gusts shove the wings one way and then another and I correct, over and again, the stick waving back and forth as I fight the lee wind for command of the ship.
The Pawnee has a small windscreen; I see only the tossing heads of trees below as I turn back toward the estimated location of my next swath. Bouncing along, I restore the bank angle yet again and am hit hard by a stronger gust as I pass through a heading of south-west. My upwind wing is struck by wind racing over the hill and lifted high, increasing my bank to perhaps 75 degrees. My left hand jabs the throttle forward, my right hand buries the stick against the right stop but the Pawnee’s little ailerons are a poor match for the lifting force on my right wing and, even with full control deflection, my bank continues to increase as I begin to descend toward the trees.
At bank angles much over 60 degrees increasing the elevator only increases the centripetal force, committing available lift to accelerate the turn – a bad idea in this situation. Top rudder could be used to raise the nose but at my airspeed the resulting lack of coordination would soon produce a spin. The only way to escape the limbs now growing large the windscreen, is to gently move the stick forward while holding full opposite aileron, remaining below the wing’s critical angle of attack while fighting my way back to a level attitude.
The gust, of course, subsided and the whole episode, which I have perhaps inflated to an epic, lasted only a few seconds but I can still see that dark green hole in the forest into which I was quickly and helplessly turning. Perhaps I was terrified, I just remember being mad. I cursed the little airplane and increased my margins. I grumbled through turn after ragged turn over the wind-swept hilltop. The angry spirit smiled.
During the first load, turns on the east side of the field were smooth by comparison and flight over the field itself uneventful but during the second load the wind began to increase.
I find it a beautiful and natural thing that an airplane should leave the earth and fly about the sky. I find it much less desirable that a pilot should leave his seat and fly about the cabin. Still, as the wind began to accelerate and its waves to solidify, the west tree line had become punishing. Though my seat belt and shoulder harness were fastened, they were clearly not tight enough.
Turning back into field, I cross the treeline and lower the nose. Suddenly I am flung from my seat, my shoulders straining against the harness. A flying bottle of Gatorade whacks my arm; Windex and paper-towels are cascading from the shelf behind my head to my lap and then to the floor. The ground is coming up fast, but it is difficult to work the stick as my body bounces back to the seat. I compose myself as best I can during the spray pass and make a wide turn at the other end, taking time to clean house and tighten each harness strap until it presses into my skin.
So far, I am having no fun, but the work is getting done. The wind over the field is about 12 miles per hour with minimal gusts. It is bumpy here, always bumpy. You could wait a week for calm conditions. If you can put your spray on the crops accurately without drift and without hurting your equipment, you spray.
But today, the spirit is a little angrier than usual. Wind over flat terrain, usually, is not a complex foe. It may come hard and vary in speed, but it is somewhat consistent and, thus, may be compensated for. And so, even though pounded while over the trees, I was and expected to be in a stable environment over the field. Crabbing, perhaps, to stay on swath, and using elevator gently to maintain position, but the ailerons are generally still. This is necessary in any case because the wings and spray booms are near the ground. Lift one wing and the other drops, very possibly into the crop, bringing a sudden and climatic end to spraying activities. And so, I was rattled when, while spraying over the middle of the field, a gust hit and one wing dropped almost thirty degrees. I did not strike but I easily could have. I finished the load at 8 feet and headed back to park the airplane.
This, too, at Gaylord is easier said than done. Over several weeks I concluded that a more suitable name for the little runway we use is ‘the Devil’s Driveway’. It is plenty long at over 4,000 feet but not much wider than the Pawnee’s wings, the asphalt is rated ‘poor’ and a 20-foot slope appears about one third of the way from the west end. You may ask, as I have asked, why the runway was laid east to west when the wind is almost always whistling from the north. You might marvel at the swirling effects created by the broken tree line along the upwind side of the runway. You might conclude, as I have concluded, that the real purpose of this facility is weed out incompetent crop-dusters. It has certainly exposed me.
I noted the other day that the Pawnee’s right main shows a bit more wear than the left and I know why. Most take-offs and landings here are performed on that wheel, the airplane’s nose hunting up and down to maintain the desired angle of attack from one swirling parcel of air to the next. I have made both horrible and wonderful landings here and, from a non-pilot’s point of view, they probably looked a lot alike.
After one very busy but soft and short upwind-wheel landing I cut power and rolled for about twenty feet then suddenly found myself ten feet above the runway with, of course, very little airspeed. I jammed in power and fought my way back to the surface and centerline for another soft one-wheel touch-down and thought to myself “That may be the best landing I have ever made and my loader is probably thinking ‘What an idiot!’”.
Then again, several of my landings on that driveway were the work of an idiot. Once, after a wind shear-accelerated full-stall landing I bounced into space and, while in this vulnerable state, weathervaned into the stiff crosswind and returned to earth headed directly into a runway light. I did what little I could with the left brake and braced for the sickening sound of the spray boom being ripped from the wing. Somehow, I missed the light. I cannot tell you how, except to say that God often has mercy on this fool. I tried to taxi in a nonchalant manner as I twirled around in the grass and rolled back to the loading rig.
That is the last time I attempted a three-point landing on a hard surface in a crosswind with the Pawnee. Between the springy bungees that support the gear, the big bouncy tires, the low wing-loading while empty and its little ailerons, this airplane seems – in my hands – like a bounce waiting to happen.
The light shines in the darkness, but the darkness has not understood it.