Saturday, April 30, 2016

The Fork-Tailed Devil

Because of its climate, New Mexico is considered a flying paradise.  We have on average 300+ VFR (visual flight rules) flight days a year here.  Wide open spaces, few controlled air spaces (except for White Sands) and several left over large WW2 runways provide lots of room for flying adventure.  Add the lack of any appreciable moisture and it is easy to see why the state has a higher ratio of planes to people than almost any other state. 

It helps a little that New Mexico does not charge an ad valorem tax on aircraft—one of the few tax laws New Mexico gets right.  Lots of California companies keep their corporate jets in New Mexico—the cost of flying back and forth to California is less than the property taxes that would be levied if the planes were kept on the west coast.

We have a lot of aging old warbirds hangared here, too.  The Commemorative Air Force (formerly the Confederate Air Force) has quite a few museum quality planes based in our county, one of which is a P-38 Lightning.  Painted completely black, it doesn't fly much, but is in great condition.

Occasionally, however, the museum people do take that hangared "dragon" out of the museum and let it stretch the kinks out of its wings…

So there I was one fine day, cruising along at 5500 feet, flying a 4-seater Cessna—number 738UF to be exact—turning downwind for a landing on runway 26.  (Or, as a flight instructor used to say, “Nothing between me and the ground but a thin blonde...”) 

The wind in Las Cruces is nearly always from the west, and runway 26 means 260 degrees, almost perfectly east/west.  I have made that landing, at that airport, on that runway, hundreds of times.  Unlike at "big city" airports, there is no control tower, so pilots self-announce on a common radio frequency called "Unicom". 

Picking up the microphone, I thumbed the button and announced, "Las Cruces traffic, Cessna 738 Uniform Foxtrot, a Cessna 172, turning base on runway 26, full stop, Las Cruces."

What I had done was to announce to other planes in the area that I was a small plane about 1000 feet above and slightly south of the airport where I intended to land and not take off again (as opposed to a popular practice called a “touch-n-go”, a maneuver that pilots use to practice landings and maintain their proficiency.)

The traffic pattern is a large imaginary rectangle, roughly a thousand feet above the runway.  You enter the pattern—usually, by making a right turn into downwind (the long arm of the rectangle parallel to the runway that you are going to land on).  By the time you turn to base, you should have the plane fairly well trimmed up to land.  As I do this, I mentally go through the time honored GUMPS check.

GUMPS is an acronym for a safety checklist before landing:

Gas—The fuel tank selection is on "Both", and carburetor heat is on.  This is no time to have the engine conk out, as the plane would be too low to recover.  Undercarriage—They say that every pilot, sooner or later, will land with the wheels up.  I don't believe this, if for no other reason than it costs a lot more to rent an airplane with retractable gear.  The particular plane I was in that day had fixed gear, but I glanced out the window to see the left wheel—and, well, I had at least one wheel...  Mixture—The air/fuel mixture should be "full rich".  Propeller—The plane did not have a variable prop, but nevertheless I dutifully checked to see that it was still there.  Seat Belts—Well, I had put it on before I took off, and I damn sure hadn't left the cabin, so it was still on (but I tightened it just a little, to be sure). 

So, I was good for a perfect landing!  When I turned final, the plane would continue its descent to just past "the numbers" onto the beginning of a very long runway.  (Long enough that I could have landed, taken off...and landed again!  Trust me, I've done that, and so has every other pilot who regularly flies out of that airport.)

So, I was going to just drift down to the runway, pull the power, and try to just hold the nose of the plane off the ground as long as possible and just "grease the wheels..."  And then, I heard...

"Las Cruces traffic, this is X-Ray 123 Tango Lima, a Lockheed P-38, on extended final to runway 26, full stop behind the Cessna, in sight.  Las Cruces."

That meant that somewhere east of me (and not that far away) was a P-38 (THE P-38, since there is only one in the south half of the state!)—coming straight in for a landing.  He was not going to enter the pattern, but was going to make a long straight approach to the runway.   This was okay, since it is not a controlled field, and many pilots, especially those flying commercial planes, elect to do this in order to save fuel.  While it's not exactly recommended, every pilot—including me—has done it.

I thought, "There is a P-38 going to land at my airport!  And I am going to miss seeing it land, since there is no rear visibility in a Cessna!"  Even if I hadn't been a little busy (first rule in aviation:  Fly the plane.  Fly the plane.  Fly the plane.), there is no way to see through your own tail.

"Las Cruces traffic.  738 Uniform Foxtrot declaring a missed approach, proceeding upwind runway 26, full stop.  Las Cruces."—That was my next communication with the other air traffic.

No longer landing, I pushed the throttle back in and as the plane responded and began to climb, I began to raise the flaps.  As soon as the plane had regained a little altitude, I turned crosswind—a little too early (it's an uncontrolled field, after all), and shortly afterwards used the radio to announce that I was going to re-enter the downwind pattern, (also just a little too soon). 

I was now facing the approaching fighter plane, but to the south of, and several hundred feet above, the aging war bird.  And there it was, a spectacular twin-engine Lockheed fighter plane, a few hundred feet lower and just north and east of my position.  She was sexy enough to make a bishop kick a hole in a stained glass window.

Of all the places to watch a P-38 make a perfect landing, the best place is from the air...and it was!


  1. Mark, is this story the truth, or is it a "True Story" unencumbered by facts? If real, it is extremely cool!

  2. The story is true. The Cessna 172, 738UF, belonged to a close friend, and more than once I would take it up just to "fly around the flagpole" in order to maintain proficiency. The Cessna is, sadly, no longer around, but the P-38 can still be seen at the War Eagles Museum at the Santa Teresa Airport. Here is the link to their webpage:

  3. Cool. Love P-38s. Got to watch the then Confederate Air Force do a show at their home base in Harlingen. Those are way more spectacular than their shows on the road. Well worth attending.