One of my most memorable flights was my long solo cross country during my PPL training. Leaving from my home airport of Heritage Field in Limerick (KPTW), my first planned stop was Lancaster (KLNS). Taking advantage of a nice tailwind, I planned to then head to Somerset (KSMQ) across the river in New Jersey, before heading back to Limerick to wrap up the 162 nm flight. The two hours that I spent in the cockpit of my little Cessna would turn out to be two of the most valuable hours in my flight training.
All of my standard, student pilot pre-flight activities went smoothly. The weather briefing looked good. Winds were reasonably calm; visibility was amazing. All things being equal, it was a near-perfect day to fly. At 9:00 am local time, I pushed the throttle to full and rolled down runway 28 at Heritage. So far so good. The Cessna 172 climbed out at Vy beautifully and, before long, I had reached my cruising altitude of 3,000. The sky was glass. Once I had trimmed the aircraft and adjusted my mixture properly, I could have taken a nap. The air was that smooth.
At ten miles out (after getting the current weather), I called Lancaster tower and he put me on a straight in for runway 26. At three miles, he cleared me to land and I absolutely greased it—a landing that my instructor would have been proud of. Remaining on the tower frequency, I taxied back to 26 for a left downwind departure out to New Jersey and the second leg of my long solo cross country. Everything up to this point had been mind-numbingly routine.
A lesson drilled into my head from day one: never get complacent. Always fly the airplane… don’t let the airplane fly you. Mercifully, those words stuck with me throughout my flight training (and still to this day). For the remainder of my flight, complacency might have led to a markedly different outcome.
Taking off from 26 at Lancaster, I noticed a slight crosswind; nothing more than a slight drift to the south after rotation. The Cessna climbed beautifully—they always do when there’s no instructor in the right seat—and I made my left turn on course toward Somerset. After reaching cruising altitude (again, 3,000 ft) I settled in for the long leg of the trip. My timer ticked, ticked, ticked, and I kept nailing checkpoints within 10 seconds of my flight plan. This flight was as easy as I could have imagined. The next checkpoint was the Delaware river: the border between my home state of Pennsylvania and New Jersey. Tick… tick… tick… boom. Checkpoint nailed. I was good.
The first bumps came about ten seconds after crossing into New Jersey. Nothing huge; just some moderate chop. A gentle hand on the yoke kept my aircraft on course and my pulse normal. A few more miles in, just north of Flemington, the chop got worse. Much worse. A pocket of turbulence forced me into a 15 degree—although it felt a bit more like 60—bank to the left. I corrected gently and maintained straight and level as best I could. Another jolt pushed me to the right. I could feel the plane yawing hard about five degrees left and right from my intended course. As judiciously as I could, I applied opposite rudder to correct. Now the pulse was quickening.
As a rational human being, I reminded myself that never in history has a Cessna 172 broken up in flight. And I was sure that Cessnas had been flown in worse weather than this. The pulse slowed. THUMP. The pulse quickened again.
For a moment, I thought—yes, I legitimately thought this—that a skydiver had hit the roof of my plane. My flight bag jumped out of the seat and nearly hit the ceiling. I imagined that I dropped about five feet in altitude, although it felt like 500. I had to fight the urge to slow the plane down. I don’t know why I instinctively wanted to fly slower, but I knew that it wasn’t the right thing to do. I was now at my descent point, according to my sectional chart. But I will freely admit that I was now using ForeFlight on my iPad to get where I was going. I had kept it off until the THUMP. Now I needed all the help I could get with navigation, because my focus had shifted to controlling the aircraft.
The descent was choppy; not the worst I’d experienced, but enough to feel. Soon I reached pattern altitude. The weather at Somerset was clear, but a bit windier than I had expected. I was setting up for runway 30, and the winds were out of 310 at 12, well within my envelope. I entered on the 45 and turned downwind. I accidentally extended my base a little and needed to correct. About a half mile from the threshold, I had my Cessna on a solid final approach. More words from my instructor resonated: when in doubt, a little high and fast… you can always go around if you’re too high or too fast… not when you’re too low or too slow. High and fast it was, then. Normal final approach speed in this particular aircraft is 65 mph. I was traveling about 70. On short final, the pulse quickened again as I had my first experience with wind shear.
Now I’m sure that most (if not all) of my readers have encountered wind shear at one point or another in their flying careers. For the small percentage of you who have not, imagine an invisible hand pushing your nose into a dive at a couple hundred feet above the ground. At least that’s what it felt like to me! High and fast saved my landing (and perhaps my life) that day. I applied not-quite-full power and brought the aircraft out of its divinely-inspired dive. A quick correction to the right brought me directly over the threshold at 70 mph. Power to idle… and… touchdown. I now realized how much I was sweating. I would have to change my shirt when I got back to Limerick.
Once clear of the active, I started to taxi to 30 for a westerly departure. My hands were a little shaky and very sweaty. Before I could get to the runway entrance, two aircraft (a Piper and a Cirrus, if memory serves) had to perform go-arounds. My ego puffed up a little bit, seeing these (presumably more-experienced-than-I) pilots falter in such chop. Mercifully, takeoff and climbout were both uneventful, apart from some moderate turbulence. A twinge of panic began to set in as I reached cruise: would I experience the same severe bumpiness that I had felt coming in? I gripped the yoke a bit tighter than I should have and turned on course. The Delaware River grew larger in my windscreen and the turbulence continued.
Once across the Delaware, the heavens calmed down; some light buffeting here and there, but nothing significant. Once again, the pulse returned to normal. I approached Limerick from the northeast, entered on the 45 for a right downwind to 28, turned base, turned final and touched down with little-to-no fanfare. Equally as uneventful was the taxi to the ramp where I completed my checklists and shut my little Cessna down. I had made it.
So how did this flight affect me? In several ways. First (and without question most significantly), always remain vigilant. No matter how calm and routine things seem, the world can change very quickly. Had I approached Somerset with the same level of attention that was necessary to tootle into Lancaster, there is no way I would have landed safely. Second (and without question my instructor’s favorite lesson), always remember what your instructor told you! The little lessons drilled into my head from my first discovery flight onward kept me safe during this flight. Controlling your emotions during periods of stress is critical. If you are not in control of yourself, you are not in control of the aircraft! Third, don’t be afraid to err on the side of caution. Had I not taken the approach into Somerset high and fast, I may not have been able to land safely. By erring on the side of caution, I was able to keep control of what would have been an uncontrollable situation.
And finally, don’t fly in New Jersey. Pennsylvania air is much smoother.
And if you do fly in New Jersey, bring a spare shirt.
Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org