172

It was the spring of 1969, with graduation from Indiana University and the next step toward my lifetime goal of becoming a fighter pilot approaching at a maddeningly slow pace. I was a cocky 22-year-old with 40 hours and a Private Pilot certificate compliments of the AFROTC program, and I was blissfully unaware of all those things yet to be learned about the amazing world of flight.

A couple of my co-ed friends had—with little difficulty—convinced me to show off my new skills by flying them home from Bloomington to Detroit. “No problem!” It is said that God smiles on drunks and fools. Well, my guess is that he was laughing out loud as I strutted around the rental Cessna 172, showing off my preflight skills and helping them stuff their things into the nooks and crannies for what was to be a two hour new adventure for all of us. Neither of them had flown in a light plane before.

Now you may think this is going to be just another story of mechanical problems, low fuel, inadvertent IMC, etc. But no, in fact the flight up to DTW went remarkably smoothly, though as I look back on it I am embarrassed at my performance and surprised I didn’t hear from the FAA for some of the thoughtless mistakes I made. Ignorance is bliss!

172

An airplane is a great way to impress a young lady… at least that’s what young men often think.

Flight training 50 years ago was considerably less demanding than today. My logbook shows that the checkout flight in the 172 a couple days earlier had lasted all of 40 minutes. If it had a transponder (which my 150 trainer didn’t) no one ever told me what it was nor how, when, and where to use it.

Arriving in the DTW area with the ATIS written down, I called Approach—probably well within the TCA (forerunner of Class B). I was clueless as to how patient the controllers were being with me at the time, though one exchange still sticks in my mind:

DTW RAPCON: “Cessna 2711 Lima, report the Learjet on final in sight.”

Me: “Well, I can see a little white speck at my 10 o’clock.”

DTW RAPCON: “That is him, follow the little white speck and contact tower!”

The landing was good enough to impress the girls and the FBO was a short taxi away. After parking and unloading, we walked in to meet their parents while the plane was refueled. It was past lunch time so I grabbed a sandwich and soda from the available vending machines. Here is where the real adventure begins.

After eating half of the tuna sandwich I had bought, I threw the rest in the trash because it didn’t taste very good. With my mind on the “big airport” challenges, I quickly put it out of my mind. I was absorbed with patting myself on the back about how well things were going. I was oblivious to the chuckling echoing through the firmament.

Taxi, takeoff, and departure were uneventful. I leveled out at 2,500 ft. and proceeded to backtrack on my original route.

Finally clear of the Detroit area, I tried to settle into the routine of following roads and railroads back to Indiana and things were going pretty well. Then, sometime after passing Toledo, I started to feel a little queasy.

It was a typical spring day with the usual level of convective bumps along the route so initially I figured I might be feeling the effect of those and gave it no serious thought—for a while. Maybe 15 minutes or so later, my stomach really started to revolt.

Of course I hadn’t ever thought of including barf bags for my passengers (I had never carried passengers before).

Back in the late ’60s, the scenery between Toledo and Ft. Wayne consisted almost entirely of corn fields. Large corn fields! When there was no question as to what was going to happen next, I slowed down, opened the—thankfully large—window and emptied my stomach into the crop below me.

I thought this would ease my troubles. WRONG! I continued further into dry heaves, which imposed some difficulty in controlling the plane while leaning out the window. Just about the time I was thinking I would start to feel better I began to get light headed and develop tunnel vision. Honestly, up to this point I was not worried, just physically miserable. Now, with my vision fading it occurred to me that I could pass out. That could be fatal!

Vending machine

Death by vending machine?

I decided it would be better to set down in the nearest corn field rather than have the plane crash on its own. So slapping myself on the cheek I slowed, put out full flaps, and aimed for the softest looking spot ahead of me. Taking big gulps of air, I let down to about 50 ft. above the tassels (now plainly in view). At this point I added some power and stopped the descent. I thought, Am I feeling a little better? After about 30 more seconds, I was sure I was! I added full power and began a go-around. I started a climb back up, but then things took a turn for the worse. Again the same symptoms began to return. Once again I headed back down for the corn. The same scenario pretty much repeated itself. Climbing back up again from this second aborted landing, I felt a little better and proceeded direct to the Ft. Wayne VORTAC and airport. My mind was set on making it all the way back to BMG.

I called FWA tower, requesting overflight at 2,500 ft., and was cleared as requested. More laughter from the heavens. This time I must have heard it because just then another round of nausea hit: without hesitation, from directly over the airport, I requested to land immediately. Tower cleared me to enter downwind for runway 23 and asked if I needed assistance. I think my voice gave them a clue. Of course I turned them down. Probably wasn’t my best landing, but after parking I was able to walk—barely—away. The line boy took one look at the side of the plane, then at me, and said not another word.

I walked directly into the FBO office, found the pilot lounge, lay down on the floor under a table, and went sound asleep (passed out?). Four hours later, I awoke feeling considerably better. I have no idea if anyone there ever checked on me. Following a short trip to the bathroom to splash water on my face, I walked back out to the plane. Someone had rinsed it off, but I didn’t even bother to thank anyone—the arrogance of youth!

Lessons learned:

  • You never know what may come up during a flight. I now carry two large, freezer-weight, Ziploc bags in my flight bag.
  • Be careful what you eat or drink before a long flight.

If I had actually set the plane down in the corn, it most likely would have flipped, then been lost to view among the rows of stalks. Because I had no flight plan on file, no one would have had any idea where to search. These days, I always file a flight plan. Now, ForeFlight eases the whole process considerably.

There is always more to learn about flying. Take the time to listen and read about the experience of others.

O.C. Hope
Latest posts by O.C. Hope (see all)
10 replies
  1. Martin Weaver
    Martin Weaver says:

    I got queasy just reading this. It must have been one of Jim Torphy’s airplanes, and I’m glad I didn’t rent this one. Greetings from KBMG, O.C.

    Reply
  2. MICHAEL A CROGNALE
    MICHAEL A CROGNALE says:

    I was a student pilot on a solo cross-country from the, now defunct, Hopewell, VA airport to Franklin on a hot summer day. Flight down was uneventful. On the way back I began to experience what I thought was really strong turbulence and got nauseous from the bumps. As I pulled the power back to descend into the Hopewell are I hit a string thermal and gained about a thousand feet. I was really fighting back the puke. I told God that if He would let me land safely that I would never get in one of these damned things again. I walked into the FBO and my instructor took one look and asked me what happened. I told him and he told me to lie down for a bit. Like you I woke up 4 hours alter and was fine. He asked how I felt and when I said OK he said take the plane around the pattern a few times and see if it comes back. So I did and now, 19K hours later I am glad of his sympathy and soul advice. Guy’s name was Dennis Sparks. I lost track of him years ago. Hope he’s still with us.

    Reply
  3. Erik Edgren
    Erik Edgren says:

    Good article. As a farmer and pilot I want to point out the common misconception that landing in tall corn will likely flip the airplane on its back. Corn is brittle and will likely snap off and act as an arresting net. This is for tall green corn. Tall light brown corn is also brittle but also very flammable.

    Fully grown soybeans (dark green) are quite viney and likely will flip you on your back. Once the leaves fall off they ate the better choice for forced landings.

    If you frequently fly in the midwest find a farmer and ask them to show you the difference.

    Reply
    • Steve
      Steve says:

      Still lots of cornfields between Toledo and Fort Wayne, but hwy 24 would probably make a much better emergency landing spot. Great story!

      Reply
  4. Dan Fregin
    Dan Fregin says:

    Long time ago, the trip was from Chico to Bakersfield – wait till late afternoon – return. So I had lunch at the cafe that was then at the old terminal and about a half hour later they showed up early ready to come back to CIC. The first wave (180 degrees from nausea) hit at what would have made an approach to Modesto the quickest way to a restroom, but it soon went away. But then it hit again and Stockton was the next target, but again it quickly went away (wherever ‘away’ was). I almost had it made except for another one that made Marysville make-able but subsided enough that I got on the ground at CIC and to the hangar. As I rolled to a stop, I told the lead passenger (an exec. V.P.) that I had first shot at the restroom, that one of the nearby trees was fairly safe, and that the nearest other option was in the terminal (about a block away). About a month later we had another trip to BFL where they told me the cafe had shut down permanently about 3 weeks ago, so who knows what I actually ate during their last week.

    Reply
  5. Dan Edwards
    Dan Edwards says:

    Hey OC, great story and superbly entertaining. I was once a young foolish high school private pilot, having soloed on my 16th birthday. Too bad I didn’t get to fly you before you retired, I did get to fly with a few Thud drivers at Continental, and I mercilessly tormented them for Thud stories, my all time favorite airplane. I remember your training articles in Golden Contrails and other places. I’ve been a 787 LCA for 7 years with one year to go. Thanks for the story. I’ll look forward to more.

    Reply
  6. Scott Powell
    Scott Powell says:

    Great story! Kind of makes me nervous about my next lunch trip…I’ll throw a ziploc in my flight bag. Great idea.

    Reply
  7. Marlies Campi
    Marlies Campi says:

    Having sick bags on board wouldn’t have spared you the nausea caused by a rotten sandwich
    You where able to fly the plane and land, that’s the most important
    Good flights!

    Reply

Leave a Reply

Want to join the discussion?
Feel free to contribute!

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *