I grew up playing Microsoft Flight Simulator. I was first exposed to Flight Simulator 98 on my dad's computer, and soon graduated to MSFS 2002, and then later MSFS 2004 (my computer was never powerful enough to run FSX when it came out). I was the nerd who, in 5th grade, would sit for 5 hours as I "flew" to Hawaii on a Friday evening after school (years later I would actually create a course on flying private jets to Hawaii because I couldn't find one anywhere else). I had logbooks, and I completed the old AOPA online training courses and printed the certificates. I had printed approach plates in a binder. As far as I was concerned, I was a professional 5th grade pilot, with a limitation on my certificate stating "Personal Computer only." Girls probably weren't impressed, but all my mom's girlfriends thought it was adorable. A win? Beggars can't be choosers.
You can imagine my horror, then, when years later, on my first day on the job as a certificated commercial pilot - dropping skydivers out of a Cessna 206 - I completely destroyed a brand new tire during landing and found myself sitting helplessly on the runway in a puddle of disbelief and humiliation.
If you have ever made an oopsie while flying someone else’s airplane - particularly if it is one that handicaps the airplane on the runway - you will know the feeling I am talking about. Your stomach drops through the seat. You feel hot, and your eyes get wide, and you don’t know what to say. You can’t believe it. “This can’t happen - not to me!”
As pilots, we train for all kinds of incidents and emergencies, including engine fires and engine failures. There is a beautiful saying, which sums up pilot training better than any other: “We don’t rise to our hopes; we fall to our training.” In other words, hope is not a strategy. You will probably revert back to whatever training you had, but you probably won’t magically inherit Bob Hoover’s energy management skills when your engine fails. If those abnormal maneuvers and procedures were taught thoroughly and practiced sufficiently and recently, those are what you are likely to execute.
But when was the last time your CFI had you practice blowing a tire on landing and ending up unable to move? When was the last time your CFI even talked about that? No one told me what to do if I experienced something like this. There was no training to fall back on here. This wasn’t something that had been practiced. And yet, there I was. Picture a Cessna 206, which is slightly larger than a 182, sitting lop-sided on a runway, unable to move because its left main tire was shredded. The engine is still running. Inside sits a stunned pilot, whose years flying a virtual Airbus to Hawaii was supposed to prepare him well enough that there would be no incidents or accidents - certainly not on day one!
I never thought I was god’s gift to aviation, and I was conservative with my flying. I was safe and studied hard. I was humble, but all the indicators pointed to the fact that I was competent enough: My instructors had only good things to say about me during training. I never failed a test or checkride. I was able to prepare for and pass two separate checkrides in a single day (commercial multi followed by commercial single-engine). I was reasonably confident in my abilities as a pilot, and because flying was my life-long dream, I made sure to do what I had to in order that I could be the best pilot I could possibly be.
So how on earth could I be the guy who blows a tire on the first day of his professional flying career?
This is the point I want to get across to up and coming aviators, because it is something that I see all the time on message boards and forums. Shit happens. Period. We all make mistakes, we all screw up, we all get caught off guard or complacent. Sometimes it is truly not our fault, and sometimes we had something (or everything) to do with it.
In my case, here is what happened. In the month prior to this incident, I had been doing a lot of multi-engine flying in a Piper Apache while training for my multi-engine commercial checkride. The brakes on twin-engine aircraft are quite robust because they need to be able to stop a fairly massive wad of metal, particularly if on a short runway. My training airport had a runway of under 2500 feet, so I was used to laying into those brakes pretty well!
The Cessna 206 I was flying during this incident was extremely, extremely light during landing, for a number of reasons. Skydiving businesses want to fill their airplanes with as many jumpers as possible. Each drop costs them a fixed amount in pilot time, fuel, and aircraft wear, so the more people they cram into the aircraft, the more money they make per flight. They are constrained not only by the physical size of the aircraft and FAA maximum passenger limitations, but by aircraft maximum takeoff weight limitations. Aircraft performance is affected by weather, and on hot days, a runway might not be long enough for a fully-loaded aircraft to takeoff. So in order to keep the aircraft as light as possible - and to allow for freedom of movement - they remove every seat in the aircraft except the pilot seat.
They also minimize the amount of fuel on board. Daytime VFR fuel minimums require 30 minutes of fuel remaining every time you land. And in order to keep weight down, in addition to the 30 minutes of fuel, the aircraft will only bring enough gas for 1-2 runs at a time.
On this particular day in May, I was finishing the last run before needing to add fuel. The airplane was empty except for me and a little over 30 minutes worth of fuel.
I was landing on a 3,400-foot runway, which had a taxiway turnoff halfway down the runway, at about 1,700 feet. For some reason, I wanted to make that bisecting taxiway upon landing. My memory recalls that upon touchdown, I laid into the brakes - as I had been doing on the Piper Apache - and immediately I heard a squealing sound for about 2-3 seconds, followed by a “pop” sound and an awful aircraft vibration and slight yaw to the left.
What I suspect happened was that I may have been on the left brake during touchdown. Or, the aircraft was so light that any intense brake pressure might have been enough to fully lock up the brake, and I literally burned a hole straight on through the locked up tire after applying too much brake pressure, too fast.
Whatever happened, the evidence is undeniable: I messed up. Pilot error strikes again.
The airport is a quiet, un-towered little airport in the Willamette Valley of Oregon, and thankfully no one was in the pattern. The first thing I did was turn off the engine and make a radio call, warning anyone in the pattern that I was stuck on the runway. The skydiver operator heard this radio call, and told me over the radio that they would come out and help. What I saw next was an army of skydivers rushing the field, heading towards me. I will never forget that sight.
I will also never forget the endless (and well-deserved) hell that the skydivers and owners gave me as 7 or 8 of us lifted the left wing up off the damaged tire and pushed the airplane off the runway and onto the taxiway. I felt like crawling into a hole and never re-emerging. Some pilot I am, screwing up like this on my first day. Time to surrender my pilot’s license, I’m not cut out for this, and I have no business flying anything more than a computer desk.
A new tire was placed on the aircraft, and we were back in business. The owner of the company was so gracious. I offered to pay for the cost of the brand new tire that I had destroyed, but he refused to allow it. He told me that it was incredibly important that I get back in the airplane and move on. He undoubtedly had skydivers lined up to jump and no pilot around to fly the airplane except me, so it made sense that he would ask me to fly again that day, but I felt that his encouragement was genuine and that it really was important for me to get back on the horse so that I wouldn’t dwell on this incident.
So I did. I got back in the airplane, and made a few more runs. No further incidents. Since those days, I have moved on to flying Citations, CJs, Hawkers, and Challengers, and with the exception of a blown tire on takeoff in a Hawker (caused by an unplanned 5-day stay in -50F weather in Arctic Canada on our way home Amsterdam...an incredible story for a later date)...no blown tires since!
When you make a mistake while flying - and you WILL - that is okay, because we are all human. When you don’t live up to your own high expectations for yourself while flying - and this WILL happen - that is okay too. As I sit here writing this on my layover in Dallas, Texas, I recall greasing the landing in strong crosswinds yesterday. It was textbook perfect, and I felt most pleased with myself. Days before that, on a clear, zero-wind day, I slammed that airplane into the ground so hard I think I left dents in the pavement. Not my best work at all. But bad days happen, and all pilots - professional and weekend warriors alike - should become comfortable with this fact. We all screw up, and the important thing is that we 1) acknowledge our contribution to the event, 2) learn what we can from it, and 3) get back in the airplane and move on.