Well, there we were, motoring around the pattern for Runway 13L at Boeing Field — nothing unusual about that. It was a day near the end of June, 1994, and in the left seat this time was my new star student Ken on his fourth instructional flight (fifth if you count his $12 “intro” ride with Jimmy a couple weeks earlier). Ken was finishing up at the University of Washington and on his way to a job with a Big Six accounting firm in New York.
Ken was learning to land the airplane, and as we came around on downwind I was trying to anticipate what sage advice to give him. The key to flying the approach is to be able to visualize the point where your glide path intersects the runway, and to control it; the key to landing is to foresake that point in favor of looking at the far end of the runway instead. In between is your instructor repeating some nonsense about “right rudder.” Ken was flying the airplane and listening and responding to the tower.
The tower was also talking to a Boeing jet on its way in from the north, and the notion dawned on me that this must be the brand new 777 inbound from Everett and that we were going to have a very good view of its historic debut here at BFI. I looked out over the bay and spotted it. It didn’t seem particularly big, at first. Ken acknowledged our landing clearance and the tower’s caution for wake turbulence from the Boeing heavy landing on the parallel runway.
One thing that an airplane does as it flies along is to push air downward; interestingly, this effect is most noticeable when it’s going slowly, as for landing. An airplane that weighs 150 tons, empty, is likely to do a lot of this pushing. The result is like a traveling microburst, combined with a horizontal dust-devil spreading outward from each wingtip. Our little Cessna was actually doing the same thing, just on a much smaller scale.
On both of our last two flights Ken and I had had a chance to talk about wake turbulence, because of some arriving or departing jet, and I mentioned again that we would simply stay above the big airplane’s flight path: even without a crosswind to blow the “dirty” air our way, the airliner’s wake would fan out over the airport and across our path. As we turned on base and then final we watched the Triple-7 slide in below us on the parallel runway, touch down and roll out. I noticed a puff of smoke where the wheels had first touched, and thought what a convenient marker it made. We would land beyond that point, where the jet’s wings would no longer be making lift.
We returned our attention to our own landing. When we were well down on final the wings gave one violent little wag. I was saying, “Well, that must be the last little bit of wake turbulence. . . ” when I was interrupted. We suddenly found ourselves rolling rapidly to the right, headed off course over the grass toward the long runway, and able to discern small objects on the ground beneath us. I grabbed the yoke, kicked the top rudder pedal and jabbed at the throttle. A few exciting seconds later we were again over the short runway, shiny-side up, and affirming the tower’s wake turbulence advisory. I told them we were going around; they may not have seen our bobble, since they had such an impressive show to watch right in front of them. On the other hand, I was sure that for everybody on the east side of the field, north of about Galvin Flying Service, our performance would have been center-stage.
The danger was past, Ken seemed unshaken, we still had some time in the airplane, so we shot a few more touch-n-goes. As we were tying the plane down, Ken said to me, “I guess I shouldn’t tell my mother about this, right?” I told him that, as usual, his instincts were correct. A mother’s intuition is a powerful force, however, and she later asked him if he hadn’t been in that airplane, and of course he had to tell her, so the secret was out.
Ken says our wings went past vertical, and while beginners tend to exaggerate these things I think he may be right: bank angle is easier to estimate than pitch. I also don’t know how close we got to the ground, but I do remember thinking we were probably going to strike it. One interesting side-note is that the C-150 we were flying had long-range tanks, which were usually filled to five inches below the caps; but somebody had recently topped off both tanks, which means that the record for “biggest fireball–150/152” was briefly within our reach.
It was an unusual week for me. On a flight with another student we had engine trouble soon after takeoff. And then one morning shortly after leaving my house on my motorcycle I was hit by a guy in a pickup truck.
My main concern during this period however was to escape notoriety. One of the earliest precepts instilled in me by my first airplane instructor, Jeff Paul, was the importance of not getting your name in the paper. The spirit of this commandment involves the operation of the equipment in a manner that does not draw attention; at this point I had only the letter to fall back on, that is, obscurity. Good pilots are the ones who use their excellent judgment to avoid having to use their excellent skill. Our plan for avoiding turbulence had sounded clever enough, but it was clear in retrospect that a go-around at pattern altitude would have been smarter still. Judgment and skill were starting to shade off into luck. I was eager not to invite comparison.
Byron Acohido from the Seattle Times called me at the airport a couple of weeks later. He had already talked to my office-mate and self-appointed publicist, Rollin Gray, and seemed to think that he had ahold of a spectacular action-adventure story. And then the David-and-Goliath angle can’t just be ignored I guess. And it was, well, the middle of July. I know dog-days when I see them.
Byron started out asking me about what happened to the airplane, and I said I couldn’t quantify things like altitude and roll rate. Then he began asking me very specifically about my actions at the controls. I could tell that he had in mind one of those view-from-the-cockpit dramas, you know, the two actor-pilots look silently, knowingly at each other and then pull back on their control wheels with all their might, narrowly avoiding the jagged ridge, etc. I told him there are better stories in flying today. I didn’t want to be known for getting out of situations like this, I wanted to be known for not getting into them, but where’s the press then, eh? He wanted a picture of me and/or my anonymous student with the airplane, or just the airplane flying around. I protested that If the story is wake turbulence, it doesn’t matter which little airplane is getting tossed about. I said vortex generation was being well covered in the aviation press. He said that the Times, with its mass circulation here, probably had a larger knowledgeable readership than the trades. He really wanted a picture. I told him this was our worst-looking 150 and not a chance.
Byron tried to get me to say that having both huge and tiny airplanes at a busy airport like BFI was a big problem. I told him I thought it was an important, vital feature, and that we just needed to be smart about how we handled it. He hung up. He called back at some point and asked my friend Tom whether 150’s have knobs or levers for their throttles. Thus the climax of his story: “To avoid crashing, McKee turned the control wheel to the left and depressed the throttle knob, revving the engine to maximum power.”
The story ran on the front page of the Times on July 14, 1994, several columns wide above the fold, beating three stories about the O. J. Simpson investigation. A number of the Times’ knowledgeable readers were probably startled by the headline, “Did wake of 777 put Cessna in spin?” A spin is something entirely different, but maybe Byron didn’t write the headline.
In the next few days I heard from people I hadn’t seen in years — but not many of them wanted to sign up for flying lessons. I also heard from KIRO TV, who actually seemed to want to set the record straight, but by this time I felt even less like talking to the press. They wanted to send somebody around with a camera. I told them no. They wanted to talk to somebody about wake turbulence, so I sent them to Scott Gardiner at the Flight Standards District Office. Reuters called, and eventually someone from US News and World Report.
A few weeks later I gave a stranded pilot a ride from Arlington to Seattle. His name was Tim Powers and he said that he was involved in the 777 test program. I told him that in my small way I had also been involved. He told me that he thought he remembered that on the flight in question the program included holding the 777’s nosewheel off the ground on the landing roll. Of course, I thought, just my luck: soft-field landing practice, those wings still producing lift well after the main gear was on the ground.
Dave called me the first week in August to say he’d seen my name in a national magazine. The story wasn’t really about me — it was about turbulence in the local economy — but they had spelled my name right at least. My flying career reduced to a metaphor for stagflation or something. I didn’t know how long it would take me to live this down, but I was glad to have the chance.
After a while I thought of a few things that might be worth saying about our experience after all.
First, If you’re avoiding something with your aircraft, you might as well avoid it by more than a few feet. When flying beneath the floor of the local Class B Airspace, I expected to be at least 500 feet below, where that was possible. Why not with some other invisible thing like wake turbulence?
Flight instructors spend a lot of time drawing lines on whiteboards to explain things, but it’s a mistake to think of the world just in schematic terms. That line representing the landing jet’s glide slope has three or four dimensions. If an airplane’s wings are even ten feet off the ground when they stop making lift, then the trailing aircraft has to be ten feet off the ground at that point to clear the jet’s wake, and, with a 3 degree glide slope of its own, it will reach the runway two hundred feet beyond there, even without an inch of extra clearance. That’s without considering variables like wind speed and direction.
That first nibble at the wings didn’t mean we were headed for disaster, but it did mean that we hadn’t understood the situation well enough to predict the outcome; which means we should have acted at that instant to get out of it. I think this may be the most important lesson.
Ken soloed after his seventh flight. One day a couple weeks later he got to the field early and did his first solo cross-country. On his way back from Bayview he paused to circle above his folks’ house near Duvall, until they came outside and waved. By the time he got back to Boeing Field I was there, and I signed him off for his second solo cross-country, and he flew to Hoquiam and back. He got his private license on August 30, 1994, about ten weeks after our first flight together. That’s the story I wanted people to hear.
- Fairy tales begin, “Once upon a time. . . .” Sea stories begin, “This is no ****.” Flying stories begin, “There I was . . . .” This one is copyright 2021 by Scott C. McKee, all rights reserved.
- Runways are named for their magnetic direction, rounded and then divided by 10. Hence the reference to Runway 13: our runway was pointed straight at Mt. Rainier. Approach from the other direction and you would see 31R. But the magnetic poles are always moving, and so compass variation changes. The runways haven’t moved, but so much time has passed that they are now named 14/32.
- My buddy Rick was born in the saddle, but reached middle age feeling that he didn’t know how to drive a team properly. He found instruction at Ken’s family’s farm, demonstrating again how aviation has made the world smaller.