April 10, 2018. I had just taken off from Aurora, Missouri (2H2) heading toward Grove, Oklahoma (KGMJ), flying at an altitude of 4,500 feet. I was a student pilot, and this was my first solo cross-country experience. I had flown this very same route a week earlier with my CFII. Everything seemed to be a pretty standard day; the weather was nice. I had performed a preflight on my C172M; all was well. The one big mistake I made I had no way of knowing or preparing for, but it happened all the same.
First, a little background, I was a student pilot with aspirations of becoming a commercial pilot. I had roughly 30 hours in a Cessna 172M Skyhawk, training at a Part 61 flight school – all pretty standard for a student pilot (in my opinion anyway).
Now back to that mistake. A rather large but unknowing mistake I made was the decision to eat lunch 30 minutes prior to takeoff.
For most pilots, eating lunch doesn’t exactly qualify as a medical crisis and reasonably so; however, for me it did. I had taken off, flying dead reckoning from 2H2 to KGMJ. I had noticed I was having difficulty focusing about 15 minutes into the flight. That was the first sign I should have recognized. Difficulty focusing is rather annoying when flying by dead reckoning, but I didn’t think much of it and continued flying. After all, I was a student pilot flying a solo cross-country for the first time – I assumed my excitement was getting the better of me.
Continuing into the flight, I began to realize I didn’t recognize the landscape, which was odd since I had flown the same course a week earlier. This led me to the conclusion I was off course. Not being able to hold a heading went from a minor nuisance of watching my compass sway 5 degrees in either direction, to being unable to get it back on a heading at all! At this point, I was somewhere over the Missouri/Oklahoma border (I could tell that much by the interstate that ran along the side of it). I had fully realized something wasn’t quite right at this point, but I still didn’t know what. I was very confused to be sure, half aware of what I was supposed to be doing but unable to do it.
I recalled my CFII saying that I could use the lakes surrounding Grove as a checkpoint. As I looked around, I saw the lakes appearing off to my right side and set my plane back on course. Happy to have that straightened out, but still a little rattled by my own confusion, I began making my way over to what looked like an airport. Crossing midfield and making a descending turn back into a left downwind, I completely botched the approach. I was about 1,000 feet above the traffic pattern trying to make it down after the descending turn.
It was in my traffic pattern when I got really scared. Abeam the numbers, I slowed to 90 miles per hour and put in the first notch of flaps. Making the base turn, I realized I was way too high to make the runway. Without thinking about it, I put in all 40 degrees of flaps. I was about 1,000 feet off the ground on final when I made the call to do a go-around. I’m glad I had enough sense about me to do that much. Now my problem was that I couldn’t gain altitude and confusion had turned to complete disorientation. I put in full throttle and pitched down to gain airspeed, but I was unable to pass 90 miles per hour. Pitching back to see if I could recover some altitude got my stall horn blaring!
Cruising at about 60 mph now, I had to pitch down again. At about 500 feet above the lake, panic had begun to set in. I was looking for a crash-landing spot when I looked behind me and realized my flaps were all the way down, which led to my next mistake. I took all my flaps out at once. In either my confusion or panic, I hurried to make a decision that cost me another 200 feet of altitude. Thankfully, I had enough altitude to gain back some airspeed. I recovered to pattern altitude and made a safe landing on the runway.
On the ground safe now, I knew something was very wrong. When I stepped out of the plane, I could barely stand. Very dizzy and disoriented, I sat down in the general aviation building and drank some water. Eight days later, when I went to a doctor (I didn’t fly for those eight days to be sure), I was diagnosed with type 1 diabetes. Thanks to the lunch I had eaten, I was in diabetic ketoacidosis, the symptoms of which include cognitive confusion. All of this was a fatal hit to my flying career, but it was a lesson I learned in not only aeronautical decision making, but in the importance of managing my newfound symptoms.
It’s worth mentioning that I have been flying since that experience and have managed my symptoms well enough to fly safely. I have never had a problem with diabetes affecting my flying capabilities since I was made aware of it. If anything, I have become much more cautious after this experience and my condition is always a part of my go/no-go decision. I did not do nearly as much as I could have to get down safely that day, but by the grace of God I somehow did.
In closing, the last points I want to make are these: there is no place for panic in a cockpit and there is always something more we can do as pilots to ensure we get on the ground safely in an emergency.