When I was between solo and fully qualified, I was putting in an hour of circuits and bumps, trying to get my landings right. I was in a Cessna 152 this day and was happily trundling around the old Geelong Airport circuit (now closed). This particular 150 was of the older variety and had a full 40 degrees of flap available – something that will become important later.

On that airfield, the cross strip meant you had to come over the Torquay Road, avoid some badly placed power lines and drop on to the displaced threshold – which had been moved courtesy of those power lines. So, I was happily in the groove: Final approach. Full flap. Picture in the front window looked right. Stay high for the power lines. Drop on to the displaced threshold. Flaps up. Power on. Repeat. I noticed the cross wind was getting up a little as the wind swung to the north, but not enough to bother me. Two more bumps, then we could call it a day.

On the next final leg, I noticed the cross wind had picked up a bit more, but nothing I couldn’t handle (the unbound confidence of the new pilot). Dropped over the threshold, wheels down, flaps up, power on. Rudder to compensate. But instead of accelerating down the runway, the aircraft leapt straight back in to the air. I was now a dozen feet off the ground, just above stall speed. More alarming still was that the crosswind was biting hard and I was already at the left edge of the field and we were sinking. The most prominent thing in my field of vision was the fence near the runway intersection.

Time slows down at moments like this. I remember clearly thinking I could either try to fly or land. An experienced pilot could have got that aircraft safely back on to the runway and landed it. I wasn’t that pilot. I elected to fly. I gave it a tiny bit of back pressure while willing the engine to give it everything. We staggered along just above stall speed before starting to accelerate. The trusty and forgiving 152 got me out of it. A very agitated new pilot finished another circuit, landed, then walked back to the office on wobbly legs.

So, what happened? The first mistake I made was in shoving the flap back to zero then ramming the throttle in. On that model Cessna it takes quite a while for the electric flaps to retract. So, I was probably making full power as the flaps were still at 30%. Secondly, I had failed to realise just how much the crosswind and headwind had picked up. Finally, the decision to fly was almost certainly wrong. Looking back, a bit of rudder would have put me back on centreline and there was a lot of runway available.

I learned a couple of important lessons that day. Firstly, don’t dismiss the wind sock changing. Ever. Secondly, don’t get cocky. Like when you shove the flap lever up and hit full throttle without thinking through the consequences. Finally, don’t make heading skywards your first choice.

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