Wing view
4 min read

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.

Wing view

All those landmarks look the same from 3000 feet.

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.”

“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].

Tom Matowitz
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12 replies
  1. Peg
    Peg says:

    I’m trying to remember if the Old requirement for long cross country included towered fields. Mine was to Binghamton and Elmira NY (Towered) from Oneonta, a nontowered field. My husband, likewise, had Fort Wayne and South Bend in 2006. Was this really a requirement, or am I imagining it, and if so, did it change? My students now don’t have to…

    • Steve
      Steve says:

      Peg – checking the requirements shows the following:

      Solo: 10 hours minimum of solo flying in a single engine airplane on the Private Pilot areas of operation including:
      5 hours of solo cross country flying;
      1 solo cross country flight of at least 150nm total distance with full stop landings at 3 points and one segment of at least 50nm between T/O and landings; and
      3 T/O’s and landings to a full stop at an airport with an operating control tower.

      So the 3 T/O’s and landings at a towered airport apparently don’t have to be on the long cross country, but it’s a good way to knock of both requirements at once. My flight instructor sent me from Kendallville (non-towered) to Toledo (class C towered), then to Fort Wayne (class C towered) and back to Kendallville, with the requirement that I make at least two T/O’s and landings at one of the two towered airports (this was in 2019 when I obtained my PPL).

  2. Steve Vana
    Steve Vana says:

    I have Legacy of Flight, lots of good information there. I grew up at Burke Lakefront where my uncle was the manager (I was the airport kid on days off of school).
    I did my primary at Ohio U in ’75. I was on a round-robin night X-C to PKB-ZZV-OU after I got my ticket when I became disoriented on the last leg. I called PKB for a DF steer and they gave me a heading correction. I soon reestablished my position by recognizing lights in the distance. Never hurts to ask for assistance. My sister lives under the CGF traffic pattern and I get up there when I can from my home in MD. Loved the Red Baron restaurant when it was there.

  3. Tom Matowitz
    Tom Matowitz says:

    Hi Steve,
    I’m glad you like Cleveland’s Legacy of Flight. I had fun researching and writing it.
    Asking for assistance when needed is one of the best lessons I got out of that flight.
    I hate to think how it would have turned out if I had ignored the Newark Airport and continued south.

  4. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    Back in my student pilot days, i was getting taught to fly by VOR, before progressing onto GPS. Well, there was a problem with the unit in the airplane i was flying at the time. It was loosing the signal after 30-35 miles. Unfortunately, the area i was flying close to was the class B of Chicago. On my way back, i ended up right close to said airspace. Since i grew up in the western suburbs, i decided to fly by visual, and shut off the bloody VOR unit. Read the water towers, found RT.64, and flew it west back to DuPage County airport. Told the owner my issues and problems the very next day. I did a rookie mistake of chasing the needle. Have not made that mistake again!

  5. Joel Godston
    Joel Godston says:

    GREAT ‘True-To-Life’ story Tom. I vividly recall my, “Student Pilot Learns an Important Lesson”. It was when I was in US Air Force pilot training learning to fly the T-33 aircraft. I was flying solo on formation flight with another T-33 that had a student pilot and instructor in it. Before take-off you always check fuel transfer from all fuel tanks to the fuselage tank that supplies fuel to the engine… the activate pressure to the wing tip fuel tanks before take-off. I responded to the instructor’s, “….come-on Godston, let’s go…”, by not activating the pressure to have fuel transfer from the wing-tip fuel tanks to the fuselage fuel tank. Well, after take-off at about 3,000 ft. AGL the engine ‘quit’, so I became a T-33 glider…. touched down right on the numbers with a perfect landing… received 150 merits for doing a GREAT ‘dead-stick’ landing….and a thousand demerits for ‘heads up and locked’, for not activating the pressure to the fuel in the wing tip fuel tanks…… Lesson Learned!

  6. Tom Matowitz
    Tom Matowitz says:

    Thank you Joel, for your kind assessment of my story although I don’t think it compares to a dead stick landing in a T – 33 ! I’m glad we both learned a lesson and lived to fly another day.

  7. Tom Matowitz
    Tom Matowitz says:

    I agree completely. It was just what I needed. After watching the 737 take off I wasn’t going anywhere for the moment. The captain’s remark ended any further debate, and it was an excellent thing from the standpoint of relying on my own judgment and not allowing myself to be browbeaten into doing something I knew to be reckless.
    All’s well that ends well.

  8. Chris
    Chris says:

    I used to fly into Port Columbus frequently on business in either a C172 or a C182. I found the CMH controllers at the time to be impatient and rather terse with small GA aircraft. I did not hesitate to tell them to slow their speech down when it was too fast for a relatively new pilot from the South to understand. Eventually I was able to hear as fast as they spoke, but I never did get used to their rudeness…


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