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
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
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.