I was flying solo in a single engine Cessna 172, departing from Austin Bergstrom International Airport (ABIA) to two small airports 20 miles away. This trip was categorized as a mini cross country flight as I was gearing up for my final check-ride to get my private pilot license as a student pilot in flight training.
I wasn’t too worried about those two little asphalt runway airports, as I had plenty of practice, but getting in and out of ABIA is a different story. You not only have all the typical logistics to prepare for – fuel, weather and air traffic – but you also speak to no less than three different air traffic control (ATC) operators (ground control, tower, and departure) on three different radio frequencies just to get on your way.
Returning to the airport is very similar, except in reverse order. The pilot contacts arrivals, then gets transferred to the tower for landing sequence, and again back to ground control once you are wheels down. Adding to that maze of a routine, student pilots often feel pressured to keep the pattern and runway clear so the “real” planes can operate without delay.
On this particular day, I took off without issue and was able to find my way to the two small airfields, performing touch and go landing practice. All was right with the world at this point — my interaction with ATC was crisp, I navigated well, and nailed all of my landings. (Note: my confidence is high)
On my return, air traffic was picking up and I was getting sequenced in between two well-spaced 737s. ATC asked me to “expedite” my five mile final approach and land and depart the active runway “without delay.” I also noticed that ATC suddenly flipped the runway on me, so now I was landing in the opposite direction than I took off just 90 minutes earlier. (Note: unexpected changes bring added pressure)
Here’s where things take a turn. I’m now flying straight in on a 3 mile approach from the south and my brain felt a strange sensation. I was quickly losing altitude, and to compensate, I had to add more power in order to control the rate of descent. Adding throttle maintained my altitude, but now my speed was way too high, preventing me from landing at the speed I was used to practicing at. (Note: my confidence isn’t as high, and this is where I should have probably asked for help)
I am now on final approach and I’m in a battle between quickly losing altitude, or going way too fast to land. Of course I picked the latter, otherwise I wouldn’t have made it to the runway. I was under immense pressure to get the plane on the ground and off the active runway without delay. I didn’t want to inconvenience the commercial pilots that faced greater repercussions to changes in their schedule. Distracted with this tug-of-war of too much speed versus too little altitude, I lost sight of the fact that I was floating down the runway, no longer lined up on the centerline, and veering significantly to the left once I was wheels down.
I made a snap decision to drive the plane where it needed to go.
When you are in a small Cessna 172, taxi lights look more like the size of mailboxes. Fortunately, my tactical driving experience took over and I was able to safely avoid the lights, and not wreck the airplane or myself. However, my pride was more than slightly damaged as this entire landing sequence looked like a huge dumpster fire. To top it off, I was called up on the radio and was told to speak to an FAA inspector once I secured the aircraft. They wanted to find out what the heck just happened — and to be candid, so did I. (Note: my confidence is deflated)
I knew during the approach that something was amiss, but I couldn’t mentally process, nor define it. I later learned that I was landing with a 15 knot tailwind — something a seasoned pilot would have handled much better, but I had never experienced a sink rate before. We land into the wind for a reason, as it gives the wings lift, and lowers our ground speed — making the entire landing sequence more controllable.
Where am I going with all of this?
I have learned over the years, both as a student pilot and a security professional, that we need to first manage our pride and recognize that it’s ok to ask for help. We also need to be patient, and to ensure that we plan and follow through as if our lives depend on it — because someday they will. As I reflect on this day that I’d like to forget, here are three lessons that stick with me:
- Pride. I learned a big lesson in flight training that lives with me to this day. When something serious is amiss, don’t be afraid to ask a team member or a mentor for help. Sure, they may rattle your cage for the next 10 years about it and you may appear less experienced than you’d like to admit, but there’s no time for a competitive mindset when it comes to keeping human lives safe. Sweaty palm situations are often the best form of training — but you don’t have to go it alone. You can de-risk your environment by asking advice from those that have been there before. We don’t always have to “fake it til you make it.” In aviation and security, doing that can get people hurt.
- Patience in Planning. In aviation, National Transportation Safety Board reports are full of crashes where pilots said something like “let’s hurry to get there before the weather gets bad”. Or they don’t plan for delays and run out of fuel shortly before they make it to their destination. Pilots have also been pressured by clients to load too much gear, or people without running the weight and balance calculations. Sadly these are usually the planning failures that lead to a crumpled aircraft just past the end of the runway.
- Follow Through. Fly the plane all the way to the ground, maintain control and remain situationally aware. Continue to be guarded even during taxiing, until the engine is off, everyone is out of the aircraft safely, your plane is tied down. Basically, you can exhale when you and your passengers are back in the FBO and clear of other moving aircraft. Many of you know what it feels like to start wrapping up a long security detail. You begin to feel like you can finally breathe a little as things have been going well. That’s not the time to celebrate, nor risk complacency.
With the speed in which the protective intelligence industry is growing, I want to ensure that seasoned professionals pass along key knowledge and lessons learned to the newer practitioners. I want to encourage the next generation to remember that it’s smart to ask for help, and to be intentional about seeking out a mentor and fostering that relationship. There are a lot of knowledgeable people out there with decades of experience that would love to share their insights with the next generation.
We are forced to navigate a volume of critical issues at a pace that is unprecedented, and we need to step back and remember why we are here, and what our primary mission is. It’s ok to admit when you may be facing something that seems out of sorts. I bet chances are you are sitting within arms length of some highly experienced individuals that can assist — but it’s going to cost you. It will cost you your pride. But if you can afford that small cost, asking for help can only benefit you, and certainly the people you are charged with protecting.