Saturday, July 23, 2005

Drawing from Life: Dramatic Tension

I've mentioned before that a writer needs to be a keen observer of the world around him so that he can translate his experiences and observations into stories. One of the more difficult things to do, however, is to find the real-life sources of dramatic tension that are so necessary for good stories. Yesterday I received some of that in spades, so I thought I'd record what happened here as an example.

I am a private pilot. I fly little Cessna 152 (2 seat) and 172SP (4 seat, more power) high-wing airplanes. Because I only fly about twice a month, I'm a pretty good pilot, but I'm not a Great Pilot (although I know from experience that when I fly every week I'm a very good pilot. Being something of a perfectionist when it comes to flying helps a lot). I normally fly the 152 just because it's cheaper and usually it's just me in the aircraft, but I try to stay current in the larger 172 in case I need to take my family somewhere. In order to stay current (for rental purposes, not FAA purposes), you can't go more than 60 days without flying that model aircraft. My 60 days would have run out today, so it was important that I go out and log some time in the aircraft.

I showed up at the airport, signed for the aircraft, and walked out onto the flight line to start the pre-flight inspection. The plane was only 30 hours away from its next required overhaul, so I took my time with the inspection, double-checking to make sure everything was as it should be. Being a fuel-injected aircraft, the systems on the 172 are quite a bit more complicated (and the instruments are in different locations) than the 152, so I made sure I went through the checklist very thoroughly. There was no wind at all, and since it was still very early in the morning, the temperature was only up to about 97 F. A perfect day to grab some landing practice in the traffic pattern.

I checked the field's weather on the radio (it's called ATIS -- Automated Terminal Information System) one last time, and once I was sure I had my ducks in a row, I called Ground Control and asked for clearance to taxi to the active runway. I was cleared to the runway I had used throughout most of my flight training, so I counted that a fortuitous sign. I was still not completely comfortable with the aircraft as I taxied to the runway -- recall I hadn't flown this plane in two months -- but things were coming together. I simply had to consciously make sure I was doing everything right, whereas in the 152 the procedures are almost instinctive to me. Engine run-up went fine, though I noticed the heat was making the engine run a little rough at idle (higher temperatures mean the air is less dense, so has less oxygen in it for the engine to burn). Not a problem, really, so long as it didn't completely quit when I chopped the power at landing. While it coughed a little, it didn't look like it was going to let me down, so I switched over to Tower to let them know I was ready to go.

"Glendale Tower, Cessna 35389, number one at Alpha One, closed traffic."

"Cessna Three Eight Niner, position and hold runway 1, traffic is a Cessna Skylane remaining in the pattern."

"Position and hold, traffic in sight, Cessna 389."

Hmm, I thought. A lot of traffic in the pattern today. Mostly students, probably, so I'd better keep a close eye out -- students do really dumb things sometimes.

"Cessna 389, cleared for takeoff, right closed traffic approved."

"Cleared for takeoff, right closed traffic, Cessna 389."

I made a last check of the instruments, smoothly pushed the throttle all the way in, and roared down the runway. Now, the 172SP has a lot more power than the 152, so she was wanting to leap into the sky. I held her nose down until we accelerated to 55 knots, then rotated back and we soared skyward. I saw the Skylane ahead of me turn right into the next leg of the pattern, so I knew I was clear. There were seven aircraft a pattern normally designed to accomodate four, so the Tower controller was extremely busy. My first time around the traffic pattern I had to stretch out my downwind leg so that a student who was on a too-long final approach could get his act together. This put me too high and too far out when I made my turn to the base leg. I came around for my own final approach, put the flaps down, checked my airspeed and engine RPM, and made a smooth, but slightly left of centerline landing. Not too shabby, but the next one needs to be better, I thought.

I taxied back to the runway (I don't generally do touch and go's because I like to have time to think about and critique my performance. It also lets me get some takeoff practice as well.) and got ready for takeoff again. Wind was still calm, the wind sock was completely flat. That student had thrown off my routine a bit, so I was concentrating on keeping my head together. I took off, and as I passed the tower on the downwind leg, I realized that there was no one in the pattern. I had heard some calls from pilots saying they were departing for Goodyear (a nearby airfield), but didn't think much about it. All of the sudden, I was alone in the air. That's odd, I thought. I didn't carry this to its logical conclusion because I was still concentrating on getting back into my routine with this unfamiliar and overpowered aircraft.

I turned onto the final approach path, dropped the flaps, and BAM! I hit a sink that put me in a 750 feet per minute descent -- and I was only 500 feet off the ground. As my stomach crawled back out of my throat, another gust of wind knocked me hard from the right side, blowing me way over to the left side of the airfield. At this point, I knew something was wrong, but I didn't yet know what.

I didn't even consider trying to salvage the landing. I was in trouble, and I knew it. I quickly called Tower and let them know I was going to wave off the landing and go around, while at the same time, I gave the engine full power and started taking the flaps out. Fortunately, I had the presence of mind not to just yank the flaps up. At my low airspeed and in what I was suspecting was a rapid wind shift, I'd stall the plane and fall out of the sky. The plane was struggling to get back in the air. I needed airspeed, and I needed altitude, and I needed it right then. The mental fortitude to force myself to slowly bring the flaps up one notch at a time came from nothing but rigorous and repeated training in simulated go-arounds during flight school.

When I finally got the flaps up, I was halfway across the runway and back up to about 500' above the ground. I was okay, the plane was back in a flying configuration, and we were gaining altitude rapidly. I called Tower and asked for the current winds, which the radio was still labelling "calm". There was a pause before the controller got back to me.

"Ummm. Cessna 389, winds are now 090 at 12."

What??? "Cessna 35389, roger the winds." Jimminy H. Christmas on a popsicle stick...

Now I knew I was really in trouble. The plane was stable, I had plenty of gas, but I'd never tried to land this thing in a 12-knot crosswind blowing almost 90 degrees to the runway. 15 knots was the strongest crosswind even the professional test pilots had ever tried to face in this plane. Not only would the winds be slamming me to the left the instant I made that turn to final, but I also would have essentially no headwind to slow the plane down as I tried to put it on the ground. Added to all was the fact that I was still not comfortable with the plane and wasn't at all sure my skills were up to the challenge. I briefly considered going to look for another place to land the sucker, but with no car at the other airport and no way to get home, that would be problematic at best. As I turned downwind, I started putting together a plan, knowing that with the winds shifting as rapidly as they were, there was a very good chance I was about to become an FAA statistic. Briefly, I regreted going flying in shorts, wishing desperately I had on my fireproof Nomex flight suit.

I stretched out my downwind leg, so that I would have plenty of time to get my head together on the approach. It occurred to me that student pilot may also have been in trouble, and his instructor had him extend just to help him get the plane on the ground. I now realized that's probably why they had called it a day. The controller, who was now aware of the winds, was giving updates to the aircraft coming in from other places -- most of them decided to seek greener pastures. I began to wish I had woken my wife up to tell her I was leaving, just in case I didn't make it down. I had a perfectly healthy aircraft with a full tank of gas. Unless I totally bombed it at the very end (which was where the landing would be most difficult anyway, unfortunately), I could always wave off and go somewhere else. If the sink didn't hit me at the wrong moment. If I didn't get blown off the runway before I was slow enough to stop. If I didn't simply do something stupid and screw up royally.

The pucker factor was rather high at this point.

I made the turn to base, the last one before heading onto the final approach. The wind was banging me all over the sky. All along the downwind leg, I had been mentally reviewing crosswind landing techniques -- something we don't get much opportunity to practice here in Arizona. Crap! I forgot to check in with Tower on downwind -- I don't have clearance to land yet! Not only that, the controller thinks I'm going to taxi back to the runway when/if I get down. I got on the radio and called, "Cessna 389, this will be a full stop and back to parking, sir."

"Cessna 389, roger, thank you. Cleared to land."

It's going to be a full stop all right. But how hard of a stop? Okay, so here's the plan: We'll use only one notch of flaps and land hot. Too slow with only 10 degrees of flaps and we'll stall. Faster means less blowing off the runway. Less flaps means an easier go-around if I need it. I hope the gear on this bird can take this. I hope I have enough runway. I hope ...

I turned to the final approach path and tried to get lined up on the runway. A "slightly left of centerline" landing this time would likely be fatal. Wings rocked into the wind, rudder forcing the nose back straight. I made continuous adjustments to keep myself on centerline. So far, so good ... Because I was in a cross-controlled "slip" (rudder one direction, wings the other), I was dropping like a stone. Not only that, if my airspeed dropped too much, the resulting cross-controlled stall would put me in a spin even the professionals couldn't recover from. I gave it extra power in case I hit that downdraft again. I glanced at the airspeed indicator. Bloody hell! 100 knots! I can't do that! I'll crumple this thing like aluminum foil!

I backed off on the power and resisted the urge to raise the nose, which would have caused me to stall and end my little adventure in a river bed a mile short of the runway. The airspeed dropped to 80 knots, about 20 knots faster than I usually land, but within parameters. You can do this, Kilo. Just stay with it.

200 feet. 100 feet. Still lined up. 50 feet. Start the flare, bring the nose up. Land on just the right wheel. Here we go...

Right main down. Bring the left down! Get the nose down! Easy, easy, gentle corrections. Too much correction now will kill you... Damn, we're fast! Three wheels down, easy on the brakes! There goes midfield, running out of runway...

"Cessna 389, turn left at Alpha Seven, taxi to the ramp, monitor Ground."

"Left at Alpha Seven, taxi to the ramp and monitor Ground, thank you very much, sir. Cessna 389."

"Cessna Three Eight Niner -- nice job."

My legs were shaking so badly as I taxied back to parking that I could barely steer (you steer a plane with your feet when on the ground). I pulled into the parking spot, shut the engine down, and just sat in the cockpit for a moment. I'd stretched my flying ability today, something I wouldn't normally do intentionally. Could I do it again if I had to? Yeah, I think I could.

But not today.


I'm not saying you should become a pilot just so you can get your heart beating faster every now and again, although if you write science fiction, I can't think of a better way to get a feel for real space flight. But have you ever been in an auto accident? Or better yet, narrowly missed being in an auto accident? What were you feeling at the time? Write it down! These kinds of experiences are gold for writers, right along with feelings of unrequited love, the death of a loved one, and thrill of winning first place in a marathon. If you want your characters to feel the raw emotion, it's absolutely critical that you be able to feel it yourself first.

Your characters will hate you. Your reader will love you.

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