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152 landing

The Cessna 152 I was training in had flown approximately one million hours by student pilots.

I learned to fly “the old fashioned way”—in an old fashion airplane. It was a Cessna 152 born probably during the Eisenhower administration, and flown approximately one million hours by student pilots.

I noticed a big difference between between this old airplane and the beater cars that our parents let us drive was that the airplane had less rust.  One might object “But the airplane only had three wheels.”  So did some of our cars.

But I digress.

I had various flight instructors—none of them were any good, of course, in my eyes, because I had 14 hours of flight time and I was in my early twenties.  But of course they were good, I just didn’t know it because I was young, rebellious, and let me just say right here—stupid.  “Stoopid,” even.

Well one fine day after hours and hours of training I was ready for my “initial solo.”  See, the U.S. Air Force, which was paying for my civilian flight training, would only pay for so many hours, so suddenly, I was “ready.”

On the last touch-and-go with my instructor, whose name was “Old Yeller,” the airplane was drifting left drifting left after takeoff, and more left, and lefter and lefter!  I wasn’t really quite sure how to steer it to the right, and wondered if we’d clear the tower.

The instructor yelled, then yelled louder as we drifted closer and closer to the tower at Fargo’s Hector International Airport.  I bet the tower guys were ready to activate their emergency escape pod. No, actually they were busy wishing they had an emergency escape pod, is what they were doing.  I could tell by the look in their eyes as we flew by about eight feet away.

The instructor said—yelled–“OK, OK, now just land safely, and I’ll sign you off to go solo!”

I must have landed safely, because off I went, solo!  Holy moley, the airplane took off and climbed a lot quicker with only one person on board, all that weight gone.  Also, there was somewhat less yelling in the cockpit.  I went around the pattern and did touch and goes and then went out north of town to the “practice area.”

By the way the “practice area” is just some farm land north of Fargo, which stretches to the North Pole.  (Fargo, North Dakota, yes, yes, “like the movie” already.)  There was no special training area frequency to monitor, there was no designation for the area on the map, just “north of the airport.”  There was no one up there at all in the air, unless you count birds, because this was before the University of North Dakota started their massive flight school.

I started doing left turns and right turns, yanking and banking,  and somehow managed to put the aircraft into the beginning of a spin.

Whoa! I was literally trying to read the “spin recovery technique” which was written on the yoke in front of me, but the yoke was turned sideways. Finally I just pushed forward on the yoke and it flew out of the rapid, tight little left turn that I had managed to put the airplane in.  I did not tell the instructor about that when I landed.  This was in 1986, so maybe he’s not at that flight school anymore if I decide to “come clean” and tell him now about my inadvertant spin entry and recovery.

Flying back toward Fargo, I looked for the airport and the town.  I was pointed right at it, but somehow couldn’t see it! Where is Fargo!? Oh there it is right in front of me right where it should be!

See Fargo, North Dakota was small at the time, maybe 60,000 people or so, and there are a great many big elm trees lining the streets. So all Fargo looked like from the air was a green patch on the prairie, and not a big one. No easily visible buildings, no visible streets.  I had no idea I lived in such a small town—it seemed bigger on the ground.  Whew, there’s Fargo!  And bonus, there’s the airport! I landed safely.

So I survived my first solo flight.

Then I was ready—eventually, after further dual training— for my “solo cross country” flight. So I and my young flight instructor meticulously planned it all out. I was scheduled to enter the US Air Force soon, and the Air Force was paying for this flight training.  I was all excited, and told my instructor, without thinking “Hey you could be a pilot, too, someday if you wanted to!” thinking he could be an Air Force pilot.

He looked up from the VFR sectional and said “I AM a pilot!”

I had no respect for how hard it is to be a CFI and teach beginners in little single-engine airplanes.  (Many years later when I became a CFI and taught beginners, I realized that there is a God, and he’s really a vengeful, smiting God.  “What goes around comes around,” and boy did my students ever go around a lot on some flights. As a CFI, I’d tell my students all the dumb, dangerous stuff I did but make it sound like someone else did it.  This is how the pros do it.)

Anyway, my instructor signed my logbook and I could go solo cross country! The flight plan was for me to go from Fargo to Bemidji, Minnesota, land, and full-stop there. Then I’d go from Bemidji to his uncle’s farm strip somewhere in Minnesota. This farm airstrip was grass, of course, and probably really short, I forget.  His uncle also had a gas tank so I could put refuel the airplane.

Isn’t it amazing when you’re young you don’t realize how dangerous everything some things are?  Like flying.

So I take off and I go for Bemidji, Minnesota, feeling every inch the accomplished pilot.  Look at me—solo cross-country!

Back then we had no GPS so of course I was not a “child of the of the magenta line.”  We had paper charts, black pens and some kind of timekeeping device.  This timekeeping device was very much not on a cell phone on account of they were not invented for another ten years or so.

So I flew along with a non-digital wrist watch (they weren’t invented yet, either) and my VFR sectional chart with a black pen line on it, with “waypoints” that were circled.

I would fly along the black line looking at the ground and looking out the window at the ground, checking the compass, checking my watch, trying to find the next waypoint.

I don’t know if you’ve ever flown in Minnesota but every single town has a grain elevator, an intersection of roads, a railroad track going by it and about seven lakes nearby.  None of the lakes have names on their surface, I noticed, only on the map.

Is that Upper Rice Lake?  Is that Lower Rice Lake? Is that the Wild Rice River?  Is that Highway 92?

So I was watching very carefully trying to find each waypoint looking at the map—does that lake shape match the shape of this lake on the chart, etc.?

Suddenly ahead I saw some little lake in the middle of nowhere (just like everything else in Minnesota that isn’t Minneapolis) that had cattails or some kind of tall vegetation all around the edge of the lake. This was a very small lake, more like a big pond or slough, really.  I push forward on the yoke and dive down to look at the lake.  Everything loose item that wasn’t held down in the cockpit suddenly floated.  Whoa—negative Gs!  Fun!  Look at my water bottle, it’s floating!


It’s hard to decipher one lake from the next on an old sectional chart.

I flew around the edge of the lake and saw what appeared to be multiple boat track-marks through the tall cattails near the shore, paralleling the shore all the way around.

I was intrigued—why would someone drive a boat through cattails all the way around, over and over?   There were numerous tracks through the cattails.  I found out later, that the “cattails” were wild rice plants, and the boats that harvested the rice made the trails, bending the rice over and beating it into the boats.  Then selling wild rice for like $25.00 per pound—the wild rice cartels.

I pulled back on the yoke, climbing quickly, then pushed over again, making everything float in the cockpit.  I had never experienced much—in fact, any—negative Gs (or spins, for that matter) when I was training with my flight instructor, especially in the traffic pattern.  I idly wondered why, then found out why quite soon.

I did the “pull up and push over” maneuver four or five times, diving at the lake, then pulling up, and then suddenly felt sick.  I thought “Oh my goodness—I’m coming down with the flu and I’m flying by myself this is dangerous! If I get so sick I can’t fly there’s nobody to save me!”

So I leveled out and flew straight and level for a while. After some time I realized “You idiot, that’s airsickness, not the flu.” But my sickness went away.

So I flew on, straight and very level, to Bemidji, Minnesota.  It turns out I was supposed to close my flight plan when I got to Bemidji—and now I know that—but somehow didn’t, then.  So I didn’t close it.  I no sooner landed and shut down, when some guy walked up to me on the ramp and says “Can you sit in the cockpit of my airplane and put your feet on the brakes? I have to turn the propeller by hand to start it.”

I got inside stood on the brakes, and he hand-propped it, and we switched places somehow, and he taxiied away.

Then I was ready to takeoff and somebody from the little FBO building came running out and said “Hey are you Matt Johnson from Fargo?”

I said “Yes,” wondering how he knew this tidbit of information.

He said “You’re supposed to close your flight plan with the FAA when you land.  We were getting ready to launch search and rescue.”

I thought “flight plan?  FAA?”  I also secretly wondered if this guy had any seasick pills, but I didn’t ask. So he said he would close the flight plan for me, and call off the search and rescue, on account of me being alive and all.  He probably referred to me as a “loon,” when he was talking to his buddies.  The loon is the Minnesota State Bird, which kinda explains a lot about what goes on there.

I started up my aeroplane and took off from the aerodrome—just in pilots did in the 1930s, I imagine—and went hunting for my flight instructor’s uncle’s farm strip, somewhere between Bemidji and Fargo.

I took off and flew west over Minnesota toward the farm airstrip.

So now I’m a little rattled.

I had made myself a little bit air sick, I had neglected to close my flight plan with the big bad FAA and gotten mildly scolded, and even helped a guy start an airplane by hand.

I’m flying westbound over Minnesota, and this is an unfamiliar route, of course.  That’s the idea on a solo cross-country—fly a triangular course and navigate.  So of course the route I took to Bemidji was a different route than the one I was taking home to Fargo, with a stop at the farm airstrip.

So now I am very carefully looking at the ground and very carefully comparing it to the chart and my watch and the compass. I have eleven minutes to go before I get to a certain waypoint, which is a town.  Now ten, now nine minutes.  Now five.  When I get to about minute and a half to the town I start to panic—I can’t see it. I should be able to see this town – I’m only going 80 knots, a mile and a half a minute or so—where IS this town?  I’m flying the correct heading, timing carefully….

Suddenly, the “town” appears.  This town is a typical small Minnesota farm town with a population of about eleven people, with a grain elevator, a railroad, an intersection, and of course three bars.  There it is!  Right in front me.  If I squint I can the Grain Belt sign in front of one of the bars. Whew!

I fly on, a little more confident with this entire “map-watch-ground” thing, this “dead reckoning,” and ahead of me, as planned, I see the farm strip.

It’s a green stripe of grass next to a cornfield, near a barn.

I forget if there was a windsock or not.

I come in for landing, and right above the ground before I land I get below the level of the seven-foot-high cornfield next to the airstrip.  The tall corn plants blocked all the wind  near the ground. I did not see this coming.

As I came in for a landing the airplane went from a pretty hefty crab—into the pretty hefty crosswind—to no crab instantly as I went below the corn level.

I recovered and landed and didn’t crash into the ground, the barn, the corn, or his uncle, who was waiting there.  I shut down and talked to his uncle as he put gas in the airplane. I think we called my flight instructor to let him know I got down safely.

After a while I was ready to take off. From the time I had landed until I took off, I had forgotten all about the wind. The wind was still blowing pretty hard, but the tall corn blocked it.

I took off and after I got about eight feet in the air the airplane went into a massive crab.

This was really quite refreshing after all that straight-and-level flight earlier after my near- airsick episode, and I screamed with joy.  Right, joy, that’s it.

But I was away!

Away from the ground and its wretched wind-blocking cornfield.  I was climbing, climbing, master of the air again.

I landed back in Fargo, and some instructor I didn’t recognize asked me how it went.

I said everything was fine, nothing abnormal.

He said “Oh, is that right?  Did you know that you are at Fergus Falls, Minnesota’s airport?”

I WONDERED why the runway numbers were different.  How embarrassing.

Not really, I landed in Fargo, but that WOULD be embarrassing.


Matt Johnson
Latest posts by Matt Johnson (see all)
23 replies
  1. Greg Curtis, CFII, MEI
    Greg Curtis, CFII, MEI says:


    Great story. It brought many death defying memories of my own solo flying in the mountains of Vermont and at the “Little prison camp in the prairie.” I was in class 79-02 and unlike you getting parole on graduation, I remained at Vance as a FAIP in the screaming dog whistle, the T-37.

    I would not say you have a troubling problem. You tell a story well. I look forward to any other aviation stories you may author.


    • Matt Johnson
      Matt Johnson says:

      I’m so glad I went to pilot training at Vance Air Force Base. It was like the one lyric to the song “Pinball Wizard,” without the pinball machines, even. “Ain’t got no distractions….”

    • Dale C Hill
      Dale C Hill says:

      Greg and Matt, I was a T-38 IP at Vance in H-Flight from June of ’74 to July of ’76 and then in Check Section through March ’78 when I left to fly the A-10. I was the guy behind the change in the -38’s Check Section Patch shared by the Tweet Check Section (the 8-ball patch). Vance had great airspace but that was about it!

  2. Richard Yood
    Richard Yood says:

    I haven’t laughed so hard in a while reading this story while remembering my experiences as a Warrant Officer Candidate in helicopter flight school in Texas. Similar geographic features to the areas he described.
    You should write a book about your CFI exploits

  3. Gary Wolfelt
    Gary Wolfelt says:

    Very funny Matt. This article reminds me of some of the mistakes that I made along the way to getting my fixed wing rating. I did all of my training in a plane that I had build over a seventeen year “adventure” and it took me a very long time to become confident and competent in my little bird (high performance, technically advanced Wheeler Express FT). I just got my rating less than a year ago at 70 years old. I had gotten my rotary wind PPL 25 years ago. But had not been flying since 2005. So it was like starting all over again from the beginning. Thanks to all of my former CFIs, but especially my last one AF Lt. Col. Dave Holmes for sticking with me long enough to get me to the finish line. You military pilots are the best! Thanks for the fun read. GHW

  4. Kenny
    Kenny says:

    I am disappointed. You are from Fargo, but didn’t use “You Betcha!” In your story even once. Try to do better next time.

  5. Rich R
    Rich R says:

    Yup, we all start somewhere…and sometimes we do ok after that.

    USN NFO trng (aka Goose, just not dead yet) in P-Cola with biz jets and TA-4Js trying to find dirt crossroads in dead flat pine forests had me cross ref-ing every dirt road on my first “real” squadron low level to Fallon, after about 10 mins of this my pilot sitting next to me grabbed my carefully time-ticked strip chart, knocked me in the helmet with it and pointed at the mountain 40 miles away and told me he could find the next turn point (the peak carefully circled on my strip chart) without my narrative (or slightly saltier words to that effect). I learned from that it’s easier to see when you don’t have your head up your…

  6. Ted Spitzmiller
    Ted Spitzmiller says:

    I used the GI bill to get my advanced ratings, but not the PPT.
    The gal who ran the flight school at Amelia Reaid Aviation at Reid Hillview airport in San Jose CA. had an interesting way of keeping our training costs down. For every $100 advance payment you would plunk down, she would supply $110 worth of flying. Of course, that was back in the days of $11 per hour C-150. As the VA paid 90% of the bill each month, the student eould get back their $100, which would be applied to the next month training. So we essentially flew for free.

    • Larry
      Larry says:

      People today would flip out with costs THAT low. See my comment below; I flew out of Beale AFB in 1971 in a 150 for $9/hr wet and $5 for the cfi. When the VA was paying, it cost $65 to fly a 310 but only $6.50 out of my wallet. Unbelievable! :-)

  7. David Reinhart
    David Reinhart says:

    Good story. I remember the day my instructor introduced me to cross-wind landings. He said, “The demonstrated cross-wind component for this aircraft (a Cessna 150) is 20 knots (just grabbing a number here; that was 50 years ago). The cross-wind on the runway we’ll be using today is 25 knots…” At which time I broke in and said, “Then what the heck are we doing here?!” He replied, “Hang on. That is the *demonstrated* component that can be handled by a pilot of *average skill*. And you’re not going to be an average pilot, right?”. I wish I could have seen the look on my face when he said that. I just replied, “If you say so”. And then we went out a flew. I never had problem with cross-winds. Thanks, Joe.

  8. Michael Hackney
    Michael Hackney says:

    Great story. While my particulars were different I laughed at all the similarities: what was I doing? In my case I was in Florida for flight training (I lived in Chicago) and was heading back home the next day. I needed to get these things done! I did my solo at 6:30 AM as soon as it was daylight legal then gave up the plane to the next scheduled student. At 11 AM I departed on my cross-country solo and managed several unfamiliar airport approaches and landings, none of which were particularly stellar but did look good on the final landing when I returned to my home airport. I’ve thankfully improved my aeronaut skills in the interim! Great story—thanks for sharing!

  9. Larry
    Larry says:

    I learned how to fly at the Beale AFB Aero club in 1971 … even getting my commercial and a multi-engine rating in a C310 in less than a year. As a fresh primary student, I have recollections of holding on a stub taxiway for a ‘sled’ getting ready to take off. Wow! What a sight. One time calling in from the 310 at the ‘entry point’ — a barn just off Base near Yuba college — the tower asked, “can you expedite … we have an SR on 50 mile final.” Since the 310 was costing $65/hr (but I was only paying $6.50 because the VA was paying 90%), I said, “Yes.” Flying with those things is one of my fondest memories during MY early primary training. It appears the Beale Aero club is still in operation. IMHO, Beale is one of the best Bases I ever served at. It propelled me into staying active and serving 15 1/2 years at Edwards subsequently.

    • Matt Johnson
      Matt Johnson says:

      I was at Beale AFB from January 1988 to June 1990, flew the tank and the 38 in ACE. AND flew in the Aero Club, small world. In the pattern there’d be U2s, the sled, 38s, tanks, and aero club pukes–sometimes all at the same time. A goat rope. I got motivated to become a 38 IP from flying in the ACE program with Major Shul, Brian Shul–the dude made flying fun for me, showed me stuff that was off the books but was helpful. Like a “shuttle approach,” or, uh, never mind.

      • Larry
        Larry says:

        Did they still use the ‘entry point’ for aero club traffic when you were there, Matt? I was there ’70 – ’72 when Beale was still an active SAC base with B-52’s on alert. I’ve seen recorded talks by Brian … awesome guy with a great story himself. RIP.

        • Matt Johnson
          Matt Johnson says:

          Don’t know about the “entry point” for the Aero Club, because I forgot, is why, but they probably did have one. I DO remember they’d let us land on the taxiway, I think. Or maybe it was “turn off” on the “taxiway,” the one the guys used for the 5-liter Mustangs they chased the U2s with when they landed, a kind of high-speed on-ramp. I look back at my Cessna flying with the Aero Club and realize that I really didn’t know how to fly a single-engine Cessna at all, but they still let me.

        • Matt Johnson
          Matt Johnson says:

          Major Shul was teaching a “ground egress” training session one day for us pilots, using a pilot’s seat on a little riser.

          He said we had to unbuckle, unsnap, etc. all the things that attached us to the aircraft, then get out, as quick as we could.

          We each had to get in, strap in, helmet, mask, etc.–then “EGRESS EGRESS EGRESS!” and we’d get “out” of the aircraft as quick as possible.

          Before the training, he told a story of how he had crashed a burning aircraft into the jungle in Vietnam, and while it was burning, he egressed. He forgot to unplug his comm cord, which was connected to his mask, and when he stepped out of the inferno, the cord JERKED him by the mask back toward the burning aircraft. He reached into the flames and disconnected the comm cord, got third-degree burns on his hand, he said.

          We all paid close attention to the rest of the briefing.

          • Larry
            Larry says:

            I have a very close pilot buddy who was always a ‘small’ guy. He was flying in some military airplane at St Augustine a long time ago when the NLG failed to deploy. The PIC told everyone to get out fast after it stopped scraping down the runway. He jumped out on the ground and did the same thing … wound up hanging by the comm cord … so this does happen. You have to do that during Navy dunk training, too.

            I ran a flight test section at St Augustine for an aerospace company as my last working job. We built and rebuilt Navy airplanes. The E-2 pilots would poo-poo us GA guys UNTIL they needed to get current and had to do it in a rented Piper Seneca multi-engine airplane. They’d come away with a different attitude :-) . Flying a light GA airplane isn’t as easy as most people think.

            I just did a flight review w/ my original 1971 flight instructor at Beale 51 years later. He’s gonna give up his cfi soon so we’ve decided I’ll be his last signoff; I was his very first student on the very day he got his cfi at the (then) SAC GADO. I’ll be both first and last 50+ years apart… a real treat for both of us.

  10. RCT
    RCT says:

    Loved your article – hope to see more!
    Remember well announcing to my instructor the destination town as the water tower came into sight, It wasn’t. He had dropped the clipboard and as I bent down to get it, the DG did a dance at his request -. Then later, after an unrecalled time interval, when I finally figured out my navigation problem, I remembered my wife’s earlier question. “What time will you get home”? He had looked deeply in her eyes, and with what I thought was maybe an inappropriate expression, said “I don’t know..”

    • Matt Johnson
      Matt Johnson says:

      HA! Major Shul, rascally IP that he was in the T-38. raised the flap lever in the final turn as I flew. I caught it with my little sing-song that we all used “Handle down, three green, good pressure on two, flaps tracking.” The flaps were tracking, all right, tracking back up. He also turned off the navaid, the gyro, then said “OK, take us home, Lt. Johnson.” We were facing north, the compass read “South.” He gave his evil little chuckle over the hot-mic intercom, heh heh heh. Those tricks were helpful.

  11. Jean S (Wife/Navigator)
    Jean S (Wife/Navigator) says:

    In 1986 my husband pursued his private pilot license at an airport near our home in the San Fernando Valley of Southern California. It was a lifelong dream. He had enlisted in the USMC in 1970 to be a fighter pilot in Vietnam, but the USMC subsequently decided they didn’t need any more pilots so he learned a different skill but never gave up on flying. He did buy an airplane shortly after getting his pilot license in 1986 and we are still flying that Skylane 182 but in Northern California. Matt’s story reminded me of my husband’s training “escapades” – though I only know two of them. The CFI. After several weeks of training, I thought to ask him about his CFI. “Oh, Johann?” he said. Surprised, I inquired “Johann doesn’t sound like an American name?”. “Oh he’s from Denmark” was the response. “Well, honey, we had a foreign exchange student from Finland in my high school and, you know, the Scandinavians speak English really well but, sometimes, they don’t really UNDERSTAND English”. He nonchalantly said, “Oh, don’t worry, I already found that out. A couple weeks ago when we were coming in to land, Johann thought I was landing the airplane and I thought HE was landing the airplane. After that I sat down with Johann and went over every detail before we left the ground.” The Long Cross Country. The day that he did his long cross country I received a phone call from the FAA inquiring if my husband was at home. I informed them he wasn’t’. They told me he hadn’t yet arrived at his destination airport so they were looking for him. The gentleman ended the call with don’t worry that he was sure everything was perfectly okay. About 30 minutes later the FAA called back to say my husband was located and fine. When hubby arrived home later he was sad to hear that I had been worried unnecessarily due to the call. He said he could not find Barstow and flew all around the desert with the sectional etc looking for landmarks but finally flew low enough to see the freeway signs and saw Apple Valley on one so headed to that airport (where he had been before) and called in. I am thankful for Foreflight so that I don’t have to figure out where we are these days using the sectionals, though I still carry them as well. Just in case LOL.

  12. Anne Umphrey
    Anne Umphrey says:

    Some years ago I had the privilege of twice flying an R22 helicopter across the US from coast to coast, Torrance, CA to Bedford, MA. Your comment on reading interstate signs resonated with me. I often flew IFR, I Follow Roads. Other great markers were town names writ large on the water towers in small towns, particularly in the South. A magical way to see our country, from 2000 ft above the ground.


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