Today’s day-time training was going to be all about landing and taking off at non-ideal sites. So called “Performance take-off and landing”. E.g. taking off and landing on grass turf, soft ground, short runways or runways with 50ft obstacles at one end. We raced through the various scenarios without too much difficulty. It really wasn’t that complicated.
At night, we went straight back on the patterns and landings. I felt more focused and more positive and all though the wind was marginal for what students are allowed (solo) with a 9 knot cross wind factor I managed to land safely every time. Gerry had offered that we went to Bartow where the lighted runway would be much more favourable to the wind but the stubborn me decided that since I had to learn to land in strong cross winds anyways this seemed as good a time as ever. After 30 minutes Gerry looked at me and told me(!) “You are doing the solo circuits now”. Fine. I felt much better with myself. I had to do 10 solo take off and landings at night to fulfil the criteria. So off I went. “Beginning 1” I counted in my head as I took off. I made the pattern and was on final. Geez, some cross wind. I had my right wing down and left rudder fully deflected both slipping and crabbing at the same time. Really nice landing and since students aren’t allowed touch and go it was a full stop, back on the taxi way and “Beginning 2”. When I got to 4, another school plane (A Cessna) joined the pattern. It was doing dual (with instructor) touch and goes and could thus get through the whole pattern a lot faster than me, as they did not have to stop and taxi back. At some point, while I was on base I heard them call “Downwind, for full stop”. Oh joy! I would have the pattern to myself again. I landed, counted “6 done”, taxied back and held short as they had just landed (while I was taxiing back). I looked down out my side window along the runway… nothing. “Winter Haven Traffic, Warrior 32401 lining up runway 04 for immediate departure, Winter Haven Traffic” I called. No reaction from anyone. I lined up and looked carefully down the runway. Nothing. Power forward and I was racing down the runway accelerating to my 70-odd MPH take-off speed…. AND THERE THEY WERE! I have no idea why I originally couldn’t see neither them nor their lights when I looked down the runway but I missed them completely. What does it always say in the accident reports? It’s never one thing but a combination of things that go wrong. Apparently Gerry had been screaming into his hand-held radio: “401, HOLD YOUR POSITION”. Obviously his transmission didn’t work, as I didn’t hear anything. As I was zooming towards the Cessna it left the runway onto a taxiway and I was airborne well before I reached them anyway. The radio call came quite clearly (but calmly): “You should hold your take-off run until runway is vacated”. It wasn’t Gerry, but obviously one of the other instructors. S***! I could be in so much trouble. I did the last 4 landings a bit shaken but still OK. As I pulled in I was almost expecting a police car waiting for me. Instead Gerry was there congratulating me on some quite good difficult cross wind landings. As we walked back to the school he asked me about the incident. I told him what had happened from my perspective and he asked me if I had heard him on the radio. “Yeah Gerry, I heard you ask me to hold, but I thought it was none of your business…. Of course I didn’t hear you.” He seemed relatively happy with that. I was quite happy for passing another milestone but I was shaken and took the near-miss down to useful experience that cold save my life in later flying. Next day, one of the instructors quietly came up to me and told me he was the one. He apologised for being so slow getting off the runway but re-iterated I shouldn’t have started my roll. I informed him that I would never have started rolling had I seen him but the truth was… I didn’t see him until quite late. Everyone seemed pretty happy about this. I seemed to be the one person most upset about it. My CAA check flight is tomorrow with a CAA examiner and ex-BA jumbo pilot, Paul. This incidence didn’t do my confidence any good at all. Geez, it’s scary. What have I gotten myself into? Walking back to my apartment I also noticed my left knee was hurting from pressing the rudder pedal so much and so hard in order to compensate for the cross wind. It was really sore the next morning too. But I still did it! Not just did I manage 10 landings at night but in the worst conditions I had encountered yet. I was getting very close now.