This flight was a primary for multiple events, including my first flight as pilot-in-command (PIC) without an instructor since I received my private pilot license, first passenger flight, and the first time I truly had to exercise my aeronautical decision making skills. Admittedly, I came out of the aircraft somewhat shaky, but safe. I immediately debriefed the flight with my passenger on the drive home, and I have been stuck with the memory of this flight since.
I had received my PPL in the end of June in 2017 as a rising 17-year old high school senior, thanks to an extremely generous instructor who trained me at a reduced rate in his own aircraft. However, once I received my PPL, the airport owners informed my instructor and me that I would need 500 hours before I could fly solo out of the grass strip, so I was unable to thus fly his aircraft to gain more PIC time. This resulted in my extended endeavor to find an aircraft to fly. I settled on a flight school in Milton, Florida, Peter Prince Field (2R4), which had a small fleet of Cessna 172s. I checked out in the 172 in September and began planning for my first passenger flight.
Since I was still a high school student, I was restricted to flying during the weekends when I was not working (my local area of northwest Florida has regular storms most afternoons, so this further restricted flight availability). I finally found a seemingly good day that worked out for both my Dad and me, who was to be my first passenger, hoping that I would be able to take him west along the Florida coast for a beautiful aerial tour.
I elected to rent one of the aircraft that I had been checked out in and flown recently – N7806G, a classic-looking 172. We arrived at the airport about 20 minutes early and I began my preflight: briefly checking the weather (which reported VFR), reviewing takeoff plans, thorough pre-flighting the aircraft, and reviewing paperwork ensuring all maintenance was up to date. We then loaded up, and I continued a thorough engine run up before entering runway 36. I then advanced the throttle, and began to feel the thrill of acceleration.
Takeoff is by far the best part of any flight, and I was ecstatic to be able to share the experience with my father. My plan was to take off and immediately contact Pensacola Approach, since I would be flying in their Class C airspace, then fly 20 miles or so southwest until I was over the coast. From there, I intended to fly above the Emerald Coast at 2500 feet until I arrived at Jack Edwards Airport (KJKA). The initial plan was simply to fly over the airfield and then return to Milton, but that was not the way things were to happen.
The takeoff was satisfying, and I began to anticipate flying over a beautiful, sunny beach with white sands, blue water, and an even bluer sky. To my horror, I instead witnessed a ring of thick clouds, and we were in the middle. The bowl was rather large, so I reasoned that I would be able to still make it to the coast and continue on, since the winds were apparently pushing the clouds away. I continued climbing through hundreds, then thousands of feet, and then switched over from the Milton frequency to Pensacola Approach. I explained my plan and told them it should take about an hour.
As I continued to climb further, I saw that the clouds were now getting larger and larger. I began to move in a more westward heading and ended up flying parallel to the coast. I stayed about a mile north of the clouds, and continued my path, hoping that the weather would be clearer in a few miles. Then, another surprise. My dad’s door popped open, and we immediately felt the wind in our faces. This was not the first time this happened to me, since I had the door open twice during my training (I guess some nearly 50-year old doors old just sometimes don’t like staying shut). My dad was definitely surprised, since having a door open mid-flight is not something most passengers like to think about (albeit at only 100 mph). He immediately pulled the door in, though it did not lock all the way, so I asked him to open it again and try slamming it shut. This seemed to work well, though my dad was still holding on to the door for the rest of the flight, for good measure.
Then my next problem arose. When I contacted Pensacola, I could not understand what the controller was stating. The radio was muffled and scratchy. I asked the controller to repeat, but to no better avail. I could hear myself fine in the aircraft, but not any incoming transmissions. I began to think the problem was related to my headset (being a high school aviator, I only had a cheap pair of headsets that were less than $100). I reported to Pensacola I thought my headset was bad, and I was at least able to make out that they understood what I stated. All the while I was still navigating parallel to the coast and was not seeing any blue sky. Rats.
I began troubleshooting the problem. My dad was having similar problems, and so I learned it was likely too much of a coincidence to be both headsets. I then theorized the air vents were blowing on my mic (this previously happened to me on an instructional flight), so I moved my vents around to every possible angle, but to no avail. My dad then attempted the same with his, but still no difference.
I then made out on the radio that the controller was asking someone to switch frequencies. I did not hear the tail number, and reasoned it probably was not me. Then the controller repeated again, so I responded that I would switch over. The controller immediately called back and told me to stay on the frequency, and that he was talking to a different aircraft. Due to my radio issues, he had to be repetitive, and I could tell I was beginning to annoy him with my frequent requests for repeats and occasionally misunderstanding his instructions. At this point, I began evaluating myself. The weather was only getting worse, and there seemed to be a wall of clouds a few miles ahead. The door had given its share of trouble, and now I was annoying a heavily-tasked air traffic controller. I was flying into a deteriorating situation.
At this point I then figured out how to fix the mic problem. I realized the air was still coming in the aircraft from the door (which was still not fully shut), and it was hitting my Dad’s mic. I unplugged his microphone and told him that I would be able to talk with him, but that he would probably have to physically communicate with me if he needed to. As soon as I unplugged the mic, the static vanished. At least one problem solved. I was then asked to switch to a different frequency, so I was no longer dealing with an annoyed controller. However, as soon as I switched over, I realized that the wall of clouds in front of me was not giving way to anything pleasant. At this point, I determined that the weather was deteriorating, and I made a mental switch from a relaxed leisure flight to a get-on-the-ground-ASAP flight.
I informed the controller that I would not be able to make it to KJKA, that “clouds were in the way,” and I would be promptly returning to 2R4. The controller quickly instructed me to maintain VFR, and to proceed as required in order to do so. I completed a turn around and saw scattered clouds in my path back to the airport. I informed the controller I was climbing to 3000 feet in order to maintain cloud clearance, and he immediately informed me to maintain VFR. I was relieved when I finally had 2R4 back in sight, and the controller let me switch over frequencies. Now I simply had to land the airplane safely.
I entered the pattern for 2R4, and realized I would need to land on runway 18. I entered the right downwind leg and began to prep for landing. Slowed down, flaps down, pattern calls made, and preparing for some rather gusty winds associated with the inconvenient weather. As I entered the base leg, I saw I was high, so I pulled the throttle and continued a full-flap descent. Somewhere in the mix of gusty and erratic wind controls, I lost track of airspeed. I saw that I was about five knots slow, and shoved the nose down and increased the throttle to recover. Next, I continued on final, but overflew my intended touchdown point. I eventually settled down onto the runway after an elongated final, and after a solid, uncomfortable bump, smoothed out and taxied off. Definitely not my best landing. However, my dad and I were safe, and I did not damage the aircraft, so in that sense, it was a good landing.
When I walked back into the FBO, the crewman inside commented on how the winds could not decide where they were going. Since I was already in the pattern, I had stuck to the runway I was set up for, though the winds were apparently shifting in all sorts of directions – explaining the unusual crosswind controls. Once I paid and was on my way driving home, I debriefed the flight with my first passenger.
My assessment of my flight: fair. What I definitely could have done better was to conduct a more thorough weather briefing, and probably could have turned back around sooner. However, on the positive side, I believe that I was calm and did not panic when I had a multitude of undesirable events arise. While flying with a door partially opened, with a static radio, with an annoyed controller in deteriorating weather, I remembered from my studies that every aviation accident is a chain of events. As soon as I lined all of these up, I realized I should end the flight before it ended me. I firmly believe that I made the right choice, but the next question that follows, is how much sooner should I have made it?
My lessons learned: conduct a thorough briefing, be ready for anything, and use your resources. My best resource on this flight by far was ATC. Without their assistance in allowing me to deviate in order to maintain VFR, I may not have been here to be able to write this story. Although I had somewhat irritated the first controller, understandably so, ATC provided immediate help to anything I needed, as they strive to do to every pilot.