I was a student pilot nearing the end of the training for my private pilot’s license. The last big thing to be completed was my long cross country. In my case it meant a flight from the Cuyahoga Co. Airport in Richmond Heights (CGF) to Port Columbus (CMH), from there to Toledo Express (TOL) and return to CGF.
I was at the airport early, finished my preflight, had a brief consult with my instructor, and was on my way. I soon found myself crossing the town square in Medina. The weather was glorious. In my lifetime I have never seen such weather in northeast Ohio. The ceiling and visibility literally were unlimited and not a breath of wind.
All this notwithstanding, as I reached Medina the engine went into automatic rough. My imagination went to work and I began to wonder if I should turn back. Fortunately for this story I took control of the situation and continued south, realizing I would never have better conditions and that it was just a brief episode of nerves.
Things began to get interesting. I was about to learn a valuable lesson about checkpoints—namely, don’t use railroads or high tension lines. From the air they look exactly alike and as luck would have it I chose the wrong one and begin to get off course.
To compound my problem, my first landing required clearance into controlled airspace.
This was not forthcoming and as I fumbled with the radio I was farther off course. I flew directly over a small GA airport. It didn’t correspond with my flight planning so I overflew it and continued south. Not for long.
I was lost, and it occurred to me that a smart guy would return to the airport, admit it, and ask for help.
I landed and saw a flight instructor reviewing a flight plan with a student. I asked him if they made fun of lost student pilots at that airport. He replied, “Hell no! How can I help?”
I explained my predicament. It turned out I was in Newark, Ohio, not all that far from my goal of Port Columbus. When I described my difficulty with the clearance the CFI said, “You didn’t say the magic words.”
“US Air.” The airport was a hub for the airline and their traffic had priority.
I was advised to climb to 3,500 ft and get on the radio and not take no for an answer. It worked. A half hour later I was getting out of the airplane at Port Columbus.
Another issue was a problem with my transponder. A quick phone call to my CFI and I had a revised set of instructions. I was to proceed to an uncontrolled airport near Toledo where the transponder wouldn’t be a problem. After fueling the airplane I got clearance to the active runway, where I was number two to take off after a US Air 737. There was another one behind me, followed by a King Air. In a middle aged 152 I was out of my league.
The 737 in front of me took off. ATC told me to expedite my takeoff. My reply? “Unable, wake turbulence.” The controller’s irritation was obvious. Then I was vindicated. The captain of the 737 behind me keyed his mike and said, “Good call, 031.”
He took his time releasing me to my on-course heading. I had some scrambling to do revise my navigation and head for the second airport.
The weather remained beautiful. I enjoyed watching the fields and farms rolling past beneath me and I was never unsure of my position for the rest of the flight.
The landing at Toledo was an anticlimax, and the rest of the flight was simply a matter of following the lake shore back to CGF. If I could have gotten enough fuel in the airplane I would have flown to Paris. Soon came CGF. A quick radio call and I was cleared to enter the pattern and land. By now it was early evening. I opened a window and taxied the airplane to parking. My CFI was waiting. After a debrief and a handshake I was on my way home.
The flight was a turning point. This was the final requirement before taking my my checkride just a few days later.
I went on to meet all my childhood heroes in flying. I was fortunate to fly a group of outstanding antique airplanes and I wrote a couple of books on aviation history that remain in print years later.
None of this would have happened if I had allowed my anxiety over Medina to get the best of me.
Show good judgment and common sense and don’t quit.
Editor’s Note: This article is from 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: [email protected].