The morning of my first solo cross-country, I must have checked the weather 20 times before leaving for Teterboro Airport (TEB) in New Jersey. The conditions were nearly perfect, with light, variable winds, limitless visibility, and no sign of turbulence. I had pored over my flight plan the previous night and re-checked it in the morning. I was confident that my attention to detail left little to chance.
What I did not know was that I had been assigned a Cessna 172R Skyhawk that had been having alternator failures during the previous weeks and was scheduled for service. Through human error, that plane was given to a young pilot going out on his first solo.
It was one of those days where you feel as though the tides part for you. There was no traffic on the George Washington Bridge and even the ever-congested Teterboro Airport was experiencing lighter than usual volume. I couldn’t have asked for more beautiful weather and the heat radiating from the tarmac warmed me pleasantly as I performed my preflight inspection of the aircraft.
I was exceedingly careful with this portion of the flight because N4751F was a Cessna in the fleet that I had not yet used. The man with whom I trained was absolutely fastidious about preflight inspection, therefore I had great confidence in my results that day. The reading of the ammeter was normal and, with great purpose and importance, I placed my flight bag in the cockpit, then climbed in.
I was handed from clearance to ground with haste and before I knew it I had performed a smooth takeoff and was leaving the vicinity of the airport. I was startled by the lightness and handling of the aircraft without an instructor in the passenger seat. The climbing power seemed ferocious. I waited patiently until I was out of controlled airspace, removed my headphones and listened to the whir of the prop.
That combination of exhilaration and peace is one of my biggest reasons for flying. My plan was on my kneeboard, my chart on the passenger seat and I was heading north above a sea of green trees, bound for Sullivan County Airport (MSV). Suddenly, all of the lights on my instrument panel went dead. As quickly as they went off, the lights returned.
I was certainly glad to see them return, but in no way comforted. What had, until then been an exercise in tranquility, had instantly been transformed into extreme paranoia. I knew that the flicker was a bad sign, but after a check of all of my systems everything seemed fine. I decided not to call anyone, and rather to treat it as an anomaly and try to land the aircraft as soon as possible. I was reluctant to deviate from my prescribed course because I had been so diligent and careful in its planning but I began looking for alternate landing strips close to my route of flight.
Then it happened again, and this time the lights went off and stayed off. Panic began to rise from the bottom of my spine. All the gauges were dead. No Radio. No GPS. No VOR. There was only the prop and steering left. The worst outcome was the first to come to mind and I saw myself trying to put the plane down in one of the clearings that dot northern New Jersey. I decided at that moment that I would not succumb to my panic. Instead, I gathered my wits, ran through my checklists, picked up my chart and began to locate visual references along my route of flight.
In that moment, I had gone from a novice in great danger to one of the heroes in a St. Exupery novel who delivers airmail with only his sense of direction and knowledge of topography, not even a map! I was still frightened and tense but I was suppressed by my focus on success.
The course I had plotted the night before was true, and there were hardly any winds aloft to calculate. These factors left me right on course towards MSV and with all my attention trained on the details of what was outside my windows, soon the runway at Sullivan County was in view. Through my elation at the familiar sight, I still had enough wits about me to over-fly the field at 3500 feet to establish the traffic pattern – for that I nod to my instructor, who force-fed flight safety to me every lesson. There was no one in the pattern so it was merely a check of the windsock to determine runway viability.
My final, unpleasant surprise of the flight was entering the downwind leg of my pattern and realizing that flaps were also alternator-driven and I was without them. The landing being the trickiest portion of the flight for most beginners, this made me very tense. At twenty knots above landing speed, I entered final approach and decided I had to put the plane down. It wasn’t pretty and anyone watching would have had a chuckle or two at my expense, but I landed that plane. There I was, on my first solo cross country, at the tail end of one of the great challenges and great adventures of my life. I’ll admit that once I taxied and chocked, I did a little cursing in the direction of the aircraft but that was more out of relief than anything else.
I was flown back to Teterboro by a very worried instructor. Once there, I learned that the aircraft had been having alternator failures for a few weeks prior and was scheduled to go in for service. Somehow, the system broke down and that plane was given to me. To this day, I realize that luck, as much as skill and planning, is what brought me safely to the ground.
I also learned a great lesson for flight and many other endeavors: never trust anyone but yourself. If I had of taken the initiative to check the history of the aircraft I would have averted the problem on the ground which is the hallmark of the capable pilot. As it turned out, the experience I gained and the lessons I learned as a result of my near catastrophe are irreplaceable. There is nothing an instructor can do in the cockpit to replicate a situation like that but my instructor had prepared me for it well and I came through much better for it. I would not, however, wish it on my son when I send him up for his first solo. He’ll be doing the pre-preflight check.
- The pre-preflight inspection: know your plane’s history - November 15, 2018