Runway 29 approach

Years ago, as a low-time, VFR-only pilot, flying a borrowed Cherokee 140, I invited a coworker along for a flight from Concord, New Hampshire (CON), to Carrabassett, Maine. There is a small, unattended field there, Sugarloaf Regional (B21), into which I had flown before. Another coworker had a camp in the Bigelow Preserve, and we hoped to overfly his camp and take him for a scenic flight over the Flagstaff Lake area.

As the day of the planned flight drew nearer, I could see that the weather might not cooperate, with a scattered cloud layer forecast over that area but with good conditions south and west. On the day of the flight, I decided to launch and see what developed, knowing that I would be above the clouds with plenty of fuel to get to home to CAVU conditions.

Sure enough, as we got closer to Sugarloaf, the cloud layer was filling in below us, and even though there might have been a chance to get through one of the big holes, I was not about to play around like that, especially with the terrain in that area. I was, and still am, a very conservative and safety-conscious pilot (though the rest of the story may suggest otherwise).

We flew around a bit, and then headed for home, deviating a little to the east to avoid some clouds at our altitude. Not wanting the day to be a disappointment for my coworker, I remembered a small airport into which I had previously flown, Limington-Harmon (63B), which has a nice little restaurant on the field. I suggested we stop there for a late breakfast.

Ten miles out I made my first call on the CTAF, followed by another call five miles out. I didn’t hear anyone else on frequency, which wasn’t too odd, as this was a fairly quiet airport. But I double-checked the frequency and made sure my radio was functioning.

Runway 29 approach

It looks open, right?

We entered the traffic pattern, and on left downwind to runway 29 we saw an area in the grass at the edge of the woods surrounded by yellow caution tape. Huh… wonder what that’s about. We landed and back-taxied, and could now see it was a wrecked plane that was cordoned off. No one around, just the plane. Curious.

We parked down at the approach end of the runway and went into the restaurant. We were sitting at the counter enjoying our breakfast, and the woman serving us was chatting us up. She asked where we were from, and we told her that we had flown in from Concord.

“You landed here?” she said. “The airport is closed! There was an accident here this morning and the FAA is on their way!”

Panic. A barrage of thoughts bombarded my brain all at once: What do I do? What’s going to happen to me? Will I lose my certificate? Maybe I can quickly depart, and no one will know (I quickly rejected that thought). As I sat with my mind racing, the TV behind the counter was showing the local news, with the big story being the accident at the airport. Oh man. How could I have done this?

I decided the best course of action was to wait for the FAA to arrive, ‘fess up, and face the consequences. A black car arrived and drove down to the accident site, and we set out walking beside the runway toward it. The walk, while only about half mile, seemed much longer as I pondered my fate. When we got there, there was one man sitting in the car beside the plane (I can’t remember if he was FAA or NTSB). I explained what I had done, half expecting to be slapped in cuffs, but he just shrugged and said, “We didn’t close the airport, the airport owner did. You’ll have to ask him if you can leave.”

We walked back to the airport office, but the owner had apparently left for a bit. We went back to the restaurant, where the woman asked us what we discovered. We updated her and explained that we were going to wait for the owner to return, and request permission to depart. She said, “Well I’m his wife, so I can make that decision. You guys can take off.”  We wasted no time getting out of there.

I spent a lot of time reflecting on my mistake. I hadn’t planned on landing there, so I hadn’t done any of the pre-flight planning I would ordinarily do, which would include checking NOTAMS. It was a spur-of-the-moment decision; the sort of thing you can do on a road trip, but not when flying.

I later discovered that the accident was a fatal one. And I could have caused another fatality, had someone driven or walked onto the runway, knowing that the airport was NOTAMed closed. Never again would I be so cavalier in my decision-making.

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].

John Cotton
Latest posts by John Cotton (see all)
21 replies
  1. Steve
    Steve says:

    The big question is was the ATIS updated to say the field was closed. Nothing wrong with a last minute diversion especially in your case due to weather. Today with ForeFlight that would have been caught before you even entered the pattern. Cool story and one that will surely be remembered!

    Reply
      • John Cotton
        John Cotton says:

        That’s correct, I relied on the ATIS at nearby Portland (PWM).

        And yes, Steve, today ForeFlight would have certainly caught that! I never fly without it now.

        Reply
    • Jean M
      Jean M says:

      Foreflight reliable? Maybe. Then again, maybe not. Case in point is that RHV and E16 airports abruptly banned 100LL. Only UL94 is sold, effective 12/31/21. Certain GA planes may be able to use 94 Unleaded if you have a proper STC for that specific unleaded formulation. Yet Foreflight still shows 100LL as being sold there. A real safety issue if you plan to land at either airport and need avgas to depart. So, is Foreflight reliable? You be the judge.

      Reply
  2. Mick V
    Mick V says:

    Did you check your Notams before departure? if the accident happened after your departure and you had no ADS-B or another source to get your updated Notams, then you were perfectly legal. A proper procedure to close an uncontrolled field is to have two big X markers on each rwy threshold. You had no way of knowing…my .02 cents. thanks for sharing

    Reply
  3. Tim Wells
    Tim Wells says:

    Seems to me that if an unattended airport should have a recorded message playing on the CTAF frequency on a loop to inform pilots of the closure (in addition to big X markers on the runway).

    What if you had an emergency and needed to land at the nearest available airport? You may not have time to check the NOTAM.

    Reply
    • Mike Coster
      Mike Coster says:

      Continuous loop? No, that would block the frequency for other nearby airports on the same freq. That is why we have notams. And why physical Xs have to be put on runways for extended runway/airport closures. This was, fortunately, a non-event.

      Reply
    • Warren Webb Jr
      Warren Webb Jr says:

      In an emergency your first priority is to land safely. And as an FAA inspector said to me long ago, the regulations are null and void.

      Reply
  4. John Byers
    John Byers says:

    I had a similar close call right after 9/11. The skies had been quiet for a few days and everyone was still feeling the sting of the terrorist attack. I thought, “if we just sit at home, the terrorists win”, so I jaunted off to the airport to take a local pleasure flight with no particular destination in mind. I got a weather briefing on the computer for a local VFR flight out of MGW, and was going out for some sightseeing and maneuvers with my wife. It was a beautiful, sunny, calm day.
    After watching the local air go by for awhile, my wife suggested we cross the mountain ridge to the NE and go for lunch at 7SP, a four season resort at which I had logged over 1000 landings. It’s an unattended, uncontrolled 3000ft paved airport in the mountains east of Pittsburg. The airplane knew how to get there and land all by itself. I set the heading bug to 045 and off we went for the lunch buffet.
    As we passed over the Uniontown cross, I remembered that there had been one of the terrorist planes go down in Shanksville, PA and that the 7SP Resort was being used to house family of the victims. WHOA! Turn that heading bug back to MGW, call Clarksburg approach and get flight following. (Which I always used any other time). Sure enough, a TFR had been placed in a 25 mi radius of The Shanksville crash site, which included 7SP. What a freaking cavalier idiot I was. In my quest to regain freedom stolen by the terrorists, I had neglected to get a briefing, or even get VFR flight advisories. Flying into the TFR immediately post 9/11 would have been a “news at 11” moment.

    Reply
    • John Cotton
      John Cotton says:

      The familiar airports can be more of a trap than the unfamiliar. I’m based in Manchester, NH now (MHT) and will often take the short hop to Concord (CON) for cheaper fuel. It’s such a short flight (16 NM) that I have been tempted to skip my normal routine of entering the route into ForeFlight and getting a complete briefing. But I do it religiously and more than once have discovered runway closures and other issues.

      Reply
      • Warren Webb Jr
        Warren Webb Jr says:

        I had more than one flight where I landed at an unplanned airport. For example, one was a test flight after radio repairs which didn’t go well and that resulted in a completely unexpected need to take the owner home, who was in the back seat. However as soon as that was decided, I called FSS on an RCO to check the notams there (way before current equipment capabilities).

        Thanks for the story – great lesson.

        Reply
  5. Carson Wagner
    Carson Wagner says:

    I agree with Tim Wells. I think that uncontrolled airports should have a continuous loop on the CTAF. Or maybe they had it on the unicom.

    Reply
  6. Kevin Siggery
    Kevin Siggery says:

    To my shame , been there done that. I normally checked NOTAMs and did so for my destination two days before my arrival. On reaching it was eerily quiet and I carried on, landed, and taxied in what looked like a post apocalyptic movie. On parking, the terminal was closed and I discovered the airfield had just gone into receivership. Later, I had to beg to depart and agree insurance waivers. All was well but lesson learned. Always check just before.

    Reply
  7. David Smith
    David Smith says:

    According to an article from flyingmag.com “Complacency is one of the biggest enemies pilots face”. Even as a new Private Pilot I can see how repetitive tasks in managing risk with no adverse effect can result in just overlooking something that is a rare occurrence. We all most likely know the acronym NWKRAFT where N=NOTAMS. I can appreciate how you would have overlooked a possible NOTAM, assuming one was issued! Thank you for the article as it is a reminder that while it may be rare, it can happen. Of course where I am located, I always have to check NOTAMS due to POTUS.

    Reply
  8. Kenny
    Kenny says:

    One benefit of always filing IFR is that it may help you avoid problems with short-notice NOTAMs (although it wouldn’t have helped in this case if the FAA didn’t issue a NOTAM). Several years ago I was on an IFR flight to Florida and heard someone contact ATC for Flight Following from an airport near Charleston SC. Unfortunately there was a short-notice VIP TFR NOTAM in effect because Prince Charles was in the US and decided to make an unscheduled visit to Charleston. The pilot had busted the TFR, and got the phone number to call. Although it is not a substitute for checking NOTAMs, always filing IFR gives additional protection against that type of error.

    Reply
  9. Steven Toby
    Steven Toby says:

    Among the list of classic pilot’s mistakes, landing at a closed airport ranks Number 2, after landing on a taxiway and before landing at the wrong airport. I’ve done it myself and that was after I called the airport manager and he gave me the green light. It can happen to anyone.

    Reply

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