Closed runway
3 min read

Life was good. I was seventeen and a new high school graduate, working on my Private Pilot certificate at a small, privately owned aerodrome (N85) in northwestern New Jersey. It was time for my first solo cross-country. I had worked hard on my flight plan and proudly presented it to my young instructor. After a review he stated “excellent job!” I had already obtained my weather briefing with the Flight Service Station—severe VFR was forecast—and soon I was on my way.

The first stop was a small airport in eastern Pennsylvania’s Amish country. Diligently doing my pilotage along with dead reckoning, my first destination appeared over the horizon. I had done it! I was so excited to have navigated like a pro and nailed my first airport on my three leg journey.

I was soon downwind with a Cheshire cat grin on my face my only thought being what a great pilot I was to become. After a greased landing “Mr. Pro Pilot” taxied up to the FBO. Strangely, no one was there to greet me? It was mid-morning but all the doors were locked. Now what do I do?

Back in those days it was customary to have someone at the airport sign your logbook, testifying your arrival at each airport of your cross-country. No worries, I thought, I will just walk down the road and find a local resident to sign my logbook.

Closed runway

Wonder what that means?

Unfortunately this was farm country and after a long walk—near two miles by my estimation—I was knocking on the door of a quaint farmhouse. A pleasant Amish woman soon appeared. After explaining my predicament, she happily signed my logbook and I was soon on my way, hustling back to the airport for continuation of my cross-country.

When I arrived, the airport was still ghostly quiet with no one in sight. After a preflight I was soon in the air. Departing, I looked back over my shoulder at the airstrip. “What is that?” I exclaimed aloud. On both ends of the single runway were two giant white Xs.

I had landed on a closed runway! In my excitement locating the airport, my mind totally missed the obvious runway markings. Then it occurred to me that when I received my briefing from FSS, I forgot to ask for any NOTAMs. I was devastated. My flying career was over and all I could imagine was the FAA inspector waiting for me when I completed my cross-country back to my home airport.

The rest of my flight was uneventful and, to my surprise, no FAA inspector was waiting for me at my home base. I quickly sought out my flight instructor and explained my error. To my surprise he was not upset; in fact he said it was his fault for not knowing my first destination airport was closed. We then called FSS and yes there was a NOTAM for airport closure.

What are the lessons I learned? One, always ask for NOTAMs when obtaining a weather briefing. Two, flight instructors are human too and can make mistakes, just like you. Three, every flight has a lesson to learn!

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].

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6 replies
  1. Carson Wagner
    Carson Wagner says:

    Haha. As a student pilot, I can totally picture myself doing the exact same thing. You get so wrapped up in the excitement of your first solo cross-country that you brain is fogged. Thanks for sharing

  2. Mac McLauchlan
    Mac McLauchlan says:

    Jan 1982, a very long time ago, day job B737-236 Captain for BA, on leave in Kenya, with East African licence flew a friends Rockwell Commander 112 from Nairobi to a landing strip at Keekorok game reserve. As I had previously flown in Kenya with the RAF I used an old 1/2 mi map which showed my destination in 1962. Bad decision, airstrip still there now abandoned but destination had been changed to another field inside the game reserve. However r/t communication was made with the camp who unable to see either the airfield or my a/c gave taxi instructions which I followed as an idiot pilot who didn’t know we were on the wrong field. Thus when followed the taxi info came off the hard runway onto a long closed track and got stuck,alsoIt was raining hard. .So now in middle of unfamiliar East Africa and though certain of my position, also certain that no-one else was. What to do? When ground control and pilot both understood the situation, a truck with willing locals arrived, carefully supervised by wet pilot pushed my Commanderl back onto the hard runway, then left with wide smiles and a fistful of Kenya shillingi. Meantime my bright and still dry wife/copilot was contacted on VHF by a game warden on a nearby mountain who witnessing our arrival at a closed former field gave her instructions to aim for a saddle in the hills opposite and find our real destination beyond the gap. This we did, and landed after a low pass to move wildebeest off the runway. Next task for a pilot (male) is to urinate on the tyres, this ensures that hyenas do not chew the rubber, there were no spares in the bush. Not quite like airline flying in a Boeing, but good learning point, is the airfield still there?

  3. Karrpilot
    Karrpilot says:

    I once flew back on a long distance cross country flight from Colorado back to Chicago. I was grounded 3 days due to weather. Upon finally getting airborne, ATC directed me to a different airport. Numerous conversations, and they NEVER told me about the airport they were diverted me to, was closed! So I had to press on, and get fuel and have lunch at a different airport. Great…..

  4. Daniel Fregin
    Daniel Fregin says:

    Another NOTAM thing; Long time ago, going from Orland (037) to somewhere in the bay area, took my close enough to Travis AFB to see the big stuff there. Only this time when I was still around 15 miles away, an F-something came straight up in front of me doing a series of vertical rolls. Then I remembered something about air show weekend and figured it was trying to tell me something.


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