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Editor’s note: This article was the winning entry in the fourth annual Richard Collins Writing Prize for Young Pilots. After reading over 70 entries, our distinguished panel of judges (including Richard’s son) selected Nadja Keist as the winner of the $5,000 award. We hope you’ll agree that this article is a fine tribute to a great writer and pilot.

“Are you ready?”

I turned and searched his eyes for a hint of hesitation, but they were scintillating with pure excitement. “Let’s go,” he instantly replied. I grinned, put my right hand on the throttle, and threw one last glance at the saggy windsock to my left. No clouds in the sky and barely any wind—the perfect day for my first flight as a licensed PIC of a single-engine piston aircraft. I had spent around 50 hours inside the Bristell B23 within the past year, and the week before I finally passed the skill test and received a sheet of paper with the delightful title “temporary permission to exercise the following privileges. Before starting my pilot training, I had just completed the demanding three-year training to become an air traffic controller for Skyguide in Switzerland.

It made perfect sense that my first passenger would be my beloved partner who had always been there to support me at every bump in the road on my journey to become an ATC and pilot. A decision I would come to regret within one short hour.

View out window

With views like this in Switzerland, it’s hard to focus on the engine instruments.

As I steadily set full throttle and released the brakes, the engine began to roar and I could feel the force of thrust push me against my seat. We accelerated to around 50 knots before I gently pulled the stick back, and we left the runway behind us. I was so consumed by maintaining the correct airspeed, retracting the flaps, and performing the climb check that I temporarily forgot that the person to my right was not my flight instructor anymore.

I started a right turn at approximately 500 ft. above ground to follow outbound route Whiskey. On righthand downwind, I noticed that the oil temperature steadily rose and was already well within the caution range. This was a regular occurrence in summer, with outside temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius. However, on a chilly October day, this seemed out of the ordinary. I decided to return to the airfield to assess if the aircraft was operating properly.

“We need to go back to check something,” I informed my very first passenger. He was busy taking pictures, and I barely received a nod. “At least he’s not a distraction,” I thought to myself while I informed ATC of my changed plans and continued in the circuit for landing.

The aircraft was checked thoroughly back on the ground by maintenance while I asked my former flight instructor for advice. After confirming that I set the power and propeller pitch in accordance with the AFM, he assured me that it was a good idea to return for landing. However, I had been looking forward to sharing the joy of a beautiful cross-country flight, and it was difficult to hide my disappointment.

“All the other planes are booked, but you can wait for the maintenance release; it should not take too long,” he attempted to cheer me up. We waited and about an hour later, maintenance signed the aircraft off and assured us nothing was wrong with it. I ignored an uneasy gut feeling, took my partner’s hand, and walked back to the hangar to prepare the plane for another attempt.

The first ten minutes of the second flight seemed perfectly normal, which released my tension from the previous flight. As we left the circuit without any trouble, I started to feel joyous and became awed by the stunning view of the scenic Swiss countryside when a sudden beeping noise interrupted the peace. I looked down and saw the words “MASTER WARNING” flashing on the PFD. The oil temperature indication had jumped into the warning range and was continuously increasing. A few seconds later, the scale maxed out, and the numbers disappeared completely. Intrigued by the noise, my partner stopped taking pictures and turned his focus towards me: “What’s happening?”

“I am not sure…” I stammered and looked at him nervously. I had never experienced any malfunctions during my flight training. I knew I needed to calm down and focus on making the right decision. So, I closed my eyes took a deep breath. Power, Performance, Analysis, Action.

I reduced the manifold pressure and RPM and lowered the nose to improve engine cooling. Then I reached for the emergency checklist and searched for “high oil temperature.” The instructions “reduce climb angle and increase airspeed” were all I could find, which I had already done. So, I put the checklist back into its pocket and started a descending turn back to my homebase. We had not gone very far—only a few miles outside the CTR—therefore, the tower frequency was already set.

I could tell from all the chatter that it was very busy–no surprise on such a lovely day. But that meant I had to inform my colleagues about my situation because I could not risk having to hold. All the other engine instruments were still within the normal range, so I suspected an indication error but I could not prove it, and therefore had to treat it as a real issue and land as soon as possible. I pressed the push to talk button, stated my callsign and position, followed by the words, “request priority due to loss of oil temperature indication.”

Controller

As a controller and pilot, the voice on the other end takes on new meaning.

Looking back, everything happened so quickly. However, as it was happening, it seemed like time stood still. All I could think of was my first emergency during my work as a controller. A glider pilot was having a panic attack during her solo flight and declared a medical emergency. She returned safely to the field as we organized medical assistance in the meantime. After about thirty minutes of chaos and diversions, the operations returned to normal.

However, the realization that witnessing death can be a real part of this job sunk in harder than I could have imagined. I remained completely calm and focused until my shift ended but became overwhelmed by shock and emotion in the airport parking lot as soon as I left the building. I occasionally dreamed about this experience in the weeks after it happened. I will never forget how helpless I felt as I watched her approach the field, “unable to breathe” as she stated on the frequency.

As time went by and I gained more experience, emergencies became easier. The imagination of all the terrible things that could potentially happen slowly faded away with every safe landing I observed. And yet I could not help but wonder about my colleagues now that I was on the other side. They had become dear friends of mine, and I wondered if this was a difficult moment for them too.

After stating my problem, I got cleared directly to the field, whereas everyone else was instructed to hold. I received my landing clearance while I was still four miles out. As I approached the runway, I saw three red vehicles parked right next to it with flashing blue lights. They were waiting for us, waiting to see whether we made it back safely or not.

Luckily, the descent with a low power setting cooled the engine enough to bring back the indication. Even though my hands were shaking, I managed a normal landing and taxied off the runway. After we got out of the plane, I had to file a report, the aircraft was rechecked by maintenance, and the faulty sensor was finally detected.

Whenever I tell this story now, I often state, “At least I learned something!” However, I never fully reveal the depths of what I have learned. It was not just the fact that when the engine gets hot the pilot should reduce power and lower the nose. My first flight as PIC taught me what it meant to hold responsibility over someone. I was up in the air with a person I love dearly, and he had no idea how to fly a plane. His well-being was entirely up to me and my judgement.

You could vector thousands of radar blips as a controller and yet you will not fully understand the meaning of responsibility as profoundly as when you must take care of a person you love. When they are next to you, look at you and expect you to act. Responsibility and safety are not just words heard in a CRM course. With every heading we provide, we affect real people with real stories and loved ones. That is the lesson I learned when I was utterly alone at the controls for the first time. I will always carry it with me in my heart.

And as for my first passenger? I was worried about him and asked if he was okay when we got out of the plane. He laughed and replied, “Are you kidding? That was the greatest flight ever! I even got to see the fire trucks from up close!”

Nadja Keist
Latest posts by Nadja Keist (see all)
25 replies
  1. Steve Green
    Steve Green says:

    Great story. You hit the nail on the head; commanding an aircraft carrying passengers is a distinct and singular matter of human trust. There is no circumstance, not even far out at sea, in which human beings are less capable of fending for themselves than when aboard an airplane without the requisite skills or tools to effect a safe return to earth.

    For the record, you are not alone in getting caught by the maintenance folks not resolving the problem. Years ago, when I was a flight engineer, we were headed to Frankfurt from New York in a Lockheed L-1011. We were into Canadian airspace when I noticed that the no. 2 engine was losing oil. We returned to Boston and maintenance investigated. They believed they had found the problem and signed us off. Sure enough, midway across the Atlantic, the engine started losing oil again. We watched the oil quantity go to zero. We expected the oil pressure to drop; it didn’t. In fact, the engine continued operating with normal oil pressure and temperature for almost 45 minutes. By that time, we were almost certain we were dealing with a faulty indication. I finally left the cockpit for a brief rest room break.

    When I stepped back into the cockpit, I looked directly at the oil pressure gauge. It was fine. Must be an indication problem. And then, right before my eyes, the needle quivered…and started dropping. We shut the engine down. No big deal on a three-engine airplane; we made a normal landing at Frankfurt. It turned out that it took around 45 minutes after the quantity read zero for the engine to leak the remaining oil within its lubrication system. And the oil temperature, which we had expected would rise before the pressure dropped…never did rise.

    Reply
    • Nadja Keist
      Nadja Keist says:

      Hello Steve,

      Thank you for your kind feedback and for sharing your interesting story! I believe we can learn a lot about safety through listening to the experiences of others, which is also why I love reading AirFacts articles! Your story proves again how things can go wrong in unexpected ways and shows that airplanes do not always behave exacty like we learned it in our theory books! Have a great day :)

      Nadja

      Reply
  2. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Nadia, you bring a fresh perspective to these personal stories as you have been on both ends of the radio calls between ATC and a PIC. While in Southeast Asia, I lost an engine in an OV-10 Bronco due to a sheared oil pump shaft. I declared ‘Mayday’ on Guard frequency, which was quickly picked up by several agencies. Fortunately, this happened as I was descending into the Pnohm Pehn airport (PNH) to land. As soon as I got on the tower frequency, they immediately cleared me to land and, as I rolled out after touchdown, another OV-10 from my squadron flew low overhead. He had heard my ‘Mayday’ call and had broken off from what he was doing to follow me assuring that, had I been forced to eject, he would be immediately overhead. As your experiences have remained with you, that image of a fellow pilot shepherding me to a safe recovery still sticks with me some 50 years later.

    Reply
    • Nadja Keist
      Nadja Keist says:

      Hello Dale! Thank you for sharing your story with us. I am glad you managed to land safely and I admire your colleague for immediately supporting you. I wish you many more safe landings!

      Nadja

      Reply
  3. Matthew Dismore
    Matthew Dismore says:

    Fly the plane!…. Good job!!!
    Great story and love your dedication to aviation; glad he enjoyed the fire trucks … lol!

    Reply
  4. David Smith
    David Smith says:

    Thank you for sharing that story. As a recent Private Pilot I remember the day I was also excited to take up a family member who indicated an interest taking a flight. I remember intentionally going through the SAFETY check with him and I made sure there was a “Sickness” bag in his pouch and I also told him “if at anytime you feel nauseous, uncomfortable or just want to turn back let me know and do not be afraid to tell me because flying is not for everyone”. I just wanted to be sure that he did not feel obligated which for me could lead to a distraction.

    Reply
    • Nadja Keist
      Nadja Keist says:

      Hi David,
      Thank you for sharing your experience on flying with passengers! These preparations seem like a wise idea. I hope they enjoyed the flight!
      Nadja

      Reply
  5. Wendy Diaz
    Wendy Diaz says:

    I can see why this story is the winner! Well written with perfect balance of situation and emotion.

    Hopefully one day I’ll be able to see those beautiful views in Switzerland myself!

    Thanks for sharing your experience

    Reply
    • Nadja Keist
      Nadja Keist says:

      Thank you Wendy for your lovely words! If you ever visit Switzerland make sure to check out Bern airport! I would be honored to show you around.
      Have a nice day,
      Nadja

      Reply
  6. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Nadja,
    Congratulations on your career, achieving pilot certification, and obvious writing skill. I hope you will use your position and skills to help lure more women into aviation careers. The fraction of the general population holding a pilot’s license is frighteningly small, and the involvement of women asymptotically approaches zero. Please be an “influencer” and advocate for women in aviation. We need you!

    Reply
    • Nadja Keist
      Nadja Keist says:

      Dear Hunter,
      Thank you for your comment. I agree that we need to encourage more women to take to the skies! Make sure you check out my Instagram account @nadja__k, where I present my job as a pilot and controller to many young women in Switzerland!
      Best,
      Nadja

      Reply
  7. Gerry W Hawes
    Gerry W Hawes says:

    Nadja, thank you for sharing your story and welcome to the “Club”. However, I can only share the “flying” club with you – you have seen two worlds from both sides — good for you! When I graduated from Undergraduate Pilot Training (UPT) in the USAF, I felt like a “hot shot” and knew everything about everything in the world of aviation. It was the NEXT year when I really learned a lot as I was able to talk to and LISTEN to more experienced pilots, heard about the mistakes that they had made over the years, and tried to remember their lessons which deeply broadened my understanding of my new world. Never stop learning was very sage advice was once given to me and I try to remember that always. I too, love Air Facts and look forward to reading the articles. I once wrote an article for them titled “Put Down the Budweiser” about an experience in Vietnam — it is in the magazine archives if you are interested. Blue Skies, Nadja — Gerry Hawes

    Reply
    • Nadja Keist
      Nadja Keist says:

      Dear Gerry,
      Thank you for your kind words. I am a big fan of AirFacts too and will definitely check out your article! I love that this online journal gives us the opportunity to exchange stories and learn from one another.
      Happy landings,
      Nadja

      Reply
  8. Gus Piliotis
    Gus Piliotis says:

    Excellent story, very well written. It looks like you handled the situation perfectly. You stayed calm and relaxed, you also kept your passenger from panicking. Thank you, for sharing your story, and experience with us, congratulations Nadja, wishing you all the best, good luck, and keep up the safe flying.

    Reply
  9. Daniel Fregin
    Daniel Fregin says:

    Even after a 43 year flying career, 99% of my Controller stories are either positive or funny. Such as; twice being told my wheels were still up, keeping me out of the ranks of those who have, and, being retired, permanently in the ranks of those who will…… (forget to put them down)9

    Reply
    • Nadja Keist
      Nadja Keist says:

      We try our best as controllers to keep you safe at all times! I am glad you mostly had positive experiences with us!
      Have a great day!
      Nadja

      Reply
  10. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Nadja, my first passenger was my lovely daughter on her 37th birthday. It was just a pattern flight followed by taking her husband up, but a proud moment to share a very special person in my life. I’ve not experienced in in flight emergency, and pray I never will, but I hope I can handle it as well as you did. My sentiments follow those of my friend Hunter Heath, that you continue to encourage young women to be part of this adventure we call aviation! Blue skies!

    Reply
    • Nadja Keist
      Nadja Keist says:

      Dear Mike,
      Thanks for your kind comment. I am sure your daughter and her husband had a great time flying with you and I wish you many safe flights! However, I am sure you would have handled a contingency just as well as I did. Make sure you check out my Instagram @nadja__k for my posts about flying and encouraging women in aviation!
      Best,
      Nadja

      Reply
  11. Miguel Gonzales
    Miguel Gonzales says:

    Dear Nadja,
    As a pilot, I admire your calm demeanor and professionalism in handling your inflight emergency; as a former college instructor for CBEST (a state requirement for those aspiring to become teachers focused on essay writing, reading comprehension, and math) I admire your concise, comprehensive, and easy-to-follow depiction of your event. I have not had any emergency while carrying passengers; however, while flying a C-130E Hercules for the USAF on a mission from Pope AFB, North Carolina to Norton AFB, California we did encounter a loss of oil pressure in one of our engines and had to shut down — but we had three other engines on which to rely; you had only ONE. Well done!

    Reply
  12. Russ MacDonald
    Russ MacDonald says:

    Hi Nadja,

    I really loved your story!

    As a long-time CFI (30 years), I just hope that if any of my former students have a similar problem as you, I only hope they deal with it as well as you did.

    As I tell all of my students, in the event of an emergency, remember three words, “Aviate, Navigate, and Communicate” and do them in that order, exactly like you did!

    Bravo!

    Russ

    Reply

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