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Woster: Relax, it's only flying, right?

The stories I read call the incidents “near misses.’’ That has a more benign sound than “near collisions,’’ I suppose.

Terry Woster
Terry Woster

I had never heard the term “wind shear’’ until a single-engine airplane carrying me and three others hit one near the Sioux Falls airport years ago.

A back-seat passenger in a four-person aircraft, I sat on the left side. The pilot made a gentle turn, preparing to line up with the runway. The turn caused the wing on my side to dip, which gave me a wonderful view of the landscape at the edge of the city.

Suddenly, the airplane just fell from the sky. l watched the ground rush toward us. I don’t remember uttering a sound. It is possible I howled in terror. If the other two passengers shouted or spoke, I didn’t hear them. I knew we were going to crash.

The pilot applied more throttle and dipped the nose toward the ground. Somehow, that maneuver helped the wings catch air or whatever wings do. We roared nose-first toward the earth for a second or two. Then the nose lifted, and we were flying again.

“Wind shear,’’ the pilot said. She took the aircraft around again and we landed without incident.

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I recently read a short Federal Aviation Administration article about wind shear. “Wind shear,’’ the piece said, “is a change in wind speed and/or direction over a short distance. It can occur either horizontally or vertically and is most often associated with strong temperature inversions or density gradients. Wind shear can occur at high or low altitude.’’ Reading about one is not nearly as terrifying as flying into one.

What got me to thinking about that crazy approach to the runway was a story on the news the other morning about a near-collision between two airplanes at Boston’s Logan airport. The story I read said a private Learjet took off without clearance, and a JetBlue aircraft had to take evasive action to avoid hitting the other plane.

That was the most recent in a string of near misses at major airports this year. The stories I read call the incidents “near misses.’’ That has a more benign sound than “near collisions,’’ I suppose.

Earlier this year, a FedEx cargo plane landing at the Austin airport came within 100 feet of a Southwest passenger jet. That incident happened shortly after a similar near miss at JFK in New York.

That time I encountered a wind shear near Sioux Falls, I was still young enough to think I was invincible. Even so, the image of the ground rushing up at my face would sometimes pop into my mind at idle moments, and a few times in dreams.

During my career in news reporting, especially in the early years with The Associated Press, I flew frequently. Flying never bothered me. It was nothing more than the easiest way to get from one place to another. In Pierre in the 1970s, I often had my choice of a jet from Western or North Central. Those were the days, huh? Western had those champagne flights. North Central had a late evening flight to Rapid City. That came in handy a few times in my news work.

I don’t recall a single unexpected or dangerous moment on any of those flights, long or short. Besides the wind shear, the only other out-of-the-ordinary flight I ever had was a trip to Gillette, Wyoming, when the landing gear stuck on the four-passenger plane and we belly landed at the airport.

Much of that flight from Pierre had been marvelous. A few clouds dotted the sky, sliding along the cabin of the airplane past my window. Not far from Gillette, the pilot said we had lost electrical power. That meant no radio, no gauges (like for fuel level) and no power landing gear. We tried cranking the gear down manually. The crank would not budge. We buzzed the field a couple of times and then plopped down on the runway with a loud, sharp impact.

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We exited the aircraft quickly and walked toward the hangars. Halfway there, a rescue vehicle roared toward us from around the corner of the building.

I flew several times after that, both commercially and in private airplanes. I never again, though, felt completely comfortable in the air.

Opinion by Terry Woster
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