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“Never let your alligator mouth overload your canary brain.”

– Ben Johnson, Chief Flight Instructor, Iowa Aviation, Inc. 1972

I had volunteered to fly Bill in from Des Moines earlier in the day and had spent the rest of it waiting at the Dubuque airport for his return. Bill was a political hopeful and was attending a picnic to garner support for his upcoming run for Lt. Governor. The airplane, an older model Cessna 182 and unfamiliar to me, was borrowed from of friend of his. I had never flown it before, nor had I bothered to pay much attention to its panel layout. Those were details meant only for bush-league pilots, not me. I was a flight instructor with 500 hours. Besides the weather was good. Contrary to the original plan of a 9 pm departure, it wasn’t until after 11 pm, that Bill showed up. By that time, I was more than a little miffed and in a big hurry to get home.

In addition to being a political hopeful, Bill was a student pilot and should have had more respect for a flight instructor! I might have let him fly home if he had just let me know he was being delayed. But I was too steamed up, we wouldn’t land until 1 am. “I’m going to teach him some manners,” I thought. I won’t let him fly!

After takeoff, I turned toward the glow of Cedar Rapids off in the distance. No need to set up the navigation radios, I was in too big a hurry. I’d just fly visually. After all, I was a flight instructor with 500 hoursand I wanted Bill’s “lesson” to begin.

The September night sky was nice and smooth at 6,500 feet so I set up cruise flight and slowly began to “cool off.” But I still didn’t say much to Bill; I wanted my message to sink in. After all, I was an instructor and I’m supposed to teach. If my lesson has to be in manners, okay by me!

City lights

Home sweet home… or is it?

After a few miles, I called Cedar Rapids approach control to get radar flight following. They said we were too far out yet for identification and to call back in a few miles. I “roger-ed” the call. In the meantime, I still hadn’t said much to Bill; I wanted to add to the effect and I think he got the message because he got out a cigar and started to chew on the end. I admit: I was really hoping he’d ask me if it would be okay to light it up. My answer was all set for delivery, but he just kept chewing on it instead. All the while, the glow was getting brighter from the city outline ahead, and the lighted grid of streets within it became more discernible.

My 500 hours hadn’t prepared me for what followed. Out the corner of my eye, I realized the growing uneasiness in my passenger had grown into squinted eyes, open mouth, but no cigar, right hand with cigar,waving and pointing into the night. At that same instant, it occurred to me this might be connected to a series of clues I’d been collecting in my head. Chief among them were the several radio contacts with Cedar Rapids that had failed to establish our position and had been getting progressively weaker in strength.

Another one: there was a highway that seemed to run north and south out of the city we were approaching. I was looking for Interstate 80, and it ran east and west at Cedar Rapids. I was a flight instructor with 500 hours, many of those hours spent in this part of the state. Yet, what I was seeing, and what I wanted to be seeing, were definitely not the same. That fact didn’t escape Bill, the student pilot, and he only had a few dozen hours. Have I mentioned I had 500 hours?

“What the HECK… that’s not Cedar Rapids, that’s Moline!” It was, I admit, an epiphany.

There simply is no place for a flight instructor, with 500 hours, to hide in a four-seat Cessna, especially away from a student pilot who only has a few dozen. The word “low” doesn’t describe how I felt. I had been caught in the classic trap, the rush to get airborne had put me in a box.

But my 500 hours in flight instructing new pilots had taught me one thing: be flexible, be adaptable. So I was. I lied.

“I’m more tired than I thought!” I quickly pronounced. That went over as well as it deserved. There was no hope for either of us buying it and I had to just let it die a slow death. To make matters worse, he was now flying the airplane and turning us west. I don’t know how that happened, but it happened! My big flight lesson had begun, but I was the student.

About an hour later we entered the traffic pattern for our home airport of Dodge Field and Bill turned over the controls to me. “I’m more tired than I thought,” he said.

But this time when I heard that statement, I believed it. The rest of the flight was, as they say, “uneventful.” I tied down the Cessna while he gathered up his belongings and left. I went looking for an oil stain to crawl under.

Mark Martin
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6 replies
  1. Bob
    Bob says:

    One of the first Qs I put to my students before SOLO is:

    If a runway has two thresholds and we measure the distance between those thresholds in units of feet, yards or meters…How do we measure the distance between a challenge and a formality ?

    In units of _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _ _

    It’s what 91.103 compliance is all about.

  2. Mike L.
    Mike L. says:

    Mark. Enjoyed your article and your candor. It made me recall a round trip flight I made years ago from Dubuque to Des Moines, also quite late at night. And you’re right—Moline, Cedar Rapids, Rockford—that’s about it for city lights in view from KDBQ. I was concerned about the potential for fatigue, as it was very late and it had been a long day. But it was a clear moonlit night, and I “discovered”, on the AM band through my ADF, a show called “Coast To Coast”, hosted by George Noory. On those flights, I learned about alien encounters, extra terrestrials invading Atlantis, and other scientific facts. It kept me wide awake for my round trip and I’m still laughing about it. Google the show and you’ll see what I mean. Again, thank you for sharing your story about flying over and around Iowa.

  3. Mike D.
    Mike D. says:

    “I was looking for Interstate 80, and it ran east and west at Cedar Rapids.”

    Ah… I80 runs east/west about 10 miles south of Cedar Rapids. Right along the north edge of Iowa City.

  4. Neil Archer
    Neil Archer says:

    Dodge Field and Ben Johnson what a combination. If you could land at Dodge at night you were good. We spent several hours trying to do loops in a Cessna 150 aerobat, after the seat broke we quite. I enjoyed flying chart with Ben. After Iowa A moved to DSM.
    THANKS Mark for the memory jog
    Neil Archer

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