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.
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].