Cessna on final
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In 2018 I ended a self-imposed hiatus in my flying activities, precipitated by retirement and my last child graduating from college. In the course of returning to aviation, I decided to update my old logbooks to digital format. That was a lengthy task, as I had amassed over 1,500 hours at the time I stopped flying. As I was copying handwritten log entries to an Excel spreadsheet, I came across one logbook entry for May 20, 1972, that brought back a flood of memories and prompted me to write this article.

In May of 1972 I had just finished my junior year in college and was at home in the Texas Gulf Coast for a few weeks prior to returning to summer school. I had earned my pilot’s license in November of 1969 at the age of 18, during my freshman year in college. I’m eternally grateful to my father for letting me blow the entire amount of money I earned from my summer job on a pilot’s license instead of college expenses (dual and solo rates at the time were $14 and $9, respectively, in a Cessna 150).

During my free time at home, I decided to go for a flight one afternoon. There was a crop-dusting service in Eagle Lake, Texas, that I rented a Cessna 172 from when I was at home in the past. When I called that day, they informed me that they had sold their 172 but they had a 150 that I could rent. When I arrived at the airport, I was surprised by the 150. As best I can tell it was a 1964 Cessna 150 Patroller. It was a rusty red color, had a straight tail, no rear windows, see-through door panels, hand flaps, and a venturi vacuum system. Even though it was only 8 years old, it looked ancient to me. In addition, it was covered in dust and looked like it had been in the back of the hangar for months. Nevertheless, I pre-flighted the aircraft, dusted it off, and departed the airport for what I thought was going to be a 2-hour flight.

C150 patroller airplane

Cessna 150 Patroller.

My planned route of flight that day was southwest out of the Eagle Lake Airport (KELA) to overfly my parents’ home and then down to Matagorda Island to fly the coastline for a while, before returning to KELA. My return flight took me over my hometown again. To that point the flight had been uneventful. Suddenly, the engine started running very roughly. They always say flying is long hours of boredom punctuated by moments of sheer terror. The engine roughness got my attention, to say the least. I put the carb heat on and things seemed to settle down. Even though I was almost over my hometown airport, I decided to push on to KELA 20nm away. A few minutes later, the engine roughness and coughing started again, with the engine almost dying and then surging back to life in cycles. Bad gas, carburetor problems—what’s going on?

I knew I had to get down ASAP. My hometown airport was at 10 o’clock, three or four miles off my nose, and I had plenty of altitude. At the time, it was the municipal airport for my hometown but in reality, was a private airport owned by a crop-dusting outfit. On the Texas Gulf Coast, 80 or 90 percent of the time the wind is out of the southeast. This day was no exception and I was approaching from the southeast. I decided to ignore the wind direction and land straight in on runway 35.

My immediate concern was to lose a lot of altitude fast. At the time, I had 150 hours under my belt and had never experienced anything remotely resembling an emergency. I remember being extremely nervous and suffering with severe “get-on-the-ground-itis.” I lined up on the runway and entered an aggressive side slip. I had 2,500 feet of runway ahead. Since I had a strong tailwind component, I was covering ground to the airport at a high rate. When I thought I was in position to land, I released the side slip and prepared to land. It immediately became apparent that I was way too fast and rapidly using up runway. What to do?

172 on short final

It immediately became apparent that I was way too fast and rapidly using up runway.

Arriving at the runway with too much energy will lead to a long flare.

Since I began the approach, the engine was throttled back and I didn’t know what power (if any) it could produce. Just north of the rapidly approaching end of the runway was a perpendicular road with bar ditches on each side and telephone and electrical lines on one side. Further north of the road was a 500 to 600 acre fallow field. I’m a little hazy as to my thought process at the time, but I firewalled the throttle for a go around. The engine came to life but it was backfiring loudly and surging between about 1500 and 2200 RPM. The small amount of power I had, coupled with the airspeed I had thanks to my hot approach, allowed me to clear the telephone lines. I was now over the fallow field at about 200 feet in slow flight, eking out maybe a 50 to 100 ft/min climb rate.

Neglecting everything I had ever been taught, I executed a sweeping, low-bank left turn to return to the airport. After what seemed like forever, I lined up on runway 17 and started to think, “I’m going to make it!” The only disconcerting thing was that all the crop-duster pilots and mechanics heard my backfiring engine and streamed out of the hangars to watch the crash. I cleared the phone lines and made the most perfect, full stall landing I had ever done. I rolled up on the grass in front of one of the Quonset hut hangars and was immediately surrounded by a bevy of mechanics and pilots who yanked off the cowling and began rooting around in the engine.

I called the FBO at KELA to inform them of the situation. They seemed to think the likely culprit was carb ice. One of the mechanics got on the phone and told them, “It’s not carb ice. The fuel system is full of mud.” To make a long story short, a dirt dauber had built a nest somewhere on the cowling or the engine and I didn’t see it during my cursory preflight inspection. Apparently, about an hour into my flight, the nest became dislodged and was somehow ingested into the fuel system. How it managed to get into the air intake system I’ll never know. I just remember the mechanic telling me the carburetor was full of a gunky mixture of dirt dauber nest dissolved in gasoline.

The FBO made arrangements for repairs and sent a pilot in a V-tail Bonanza to pick me up. That was the best part of the day, since I had never flown in a Bonanza before. The pilot was a living aviation legend in Wharton County who went by the nickname of Speck, a friend of my father. I first met him when I was 8 or 9 years old and he kindled the desire in me to become a pilot. Speck dabbled in all things aviation. In fact, at the time, he was trying to locate a 172 for my dad to buy so I could fly him around on business trips (wink wink). I swore Speck to secrecy about the events of the day, since I didn’t want my dad getting cold feet about buying a plane.

As far as I know he never found out. We didn’t buy an airplane that summer, but I did buy a sweet, “oil bust” Cessna 172RG, brokered by Speck, 14 years later. RIP Speck.


I learned many hard lessons that day.

  1. I should have been more diligent in my preflight inspection given the apparent mothballed status of the aircraft.
  2. At the first sign of engine trouble I should have landed at the airport a few miles away instead of trying to return to the FBO.
  3. Get on the ground at all cost is not a wise strategy. I had plenty of altitude and I realize now I could have spiraled down north of the field and landed upwind without power.
  4. The most egregious mistake was turning back to the field while low and slow, with intermittent and limited power. This was where things could have gone seriously pear-shaped. The field to the north was relatively flat, had no trees, and offered plenty of length. I just didn’t want to bang up the plane.

The event that day was a cascade of bad decisions made at every juncture, yet, thankfully, I lived to fly another day.

Steve Rutherford
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2 replies
  1. David Smith
    David Smith says:

    Thanks for sharing your story, as a private pilot now working on my IFR rating, I also converted my paper log book to digital (ForeFlight). First let me say I am glad you landed safely after that and lived to tell the story. Makes me appreciate that when I rent a plane at the school, I know it gets inspections every 100 hours and it is being flown everyday! Your story is a good reminder that treat every preflight the same regardless if the plane was just flown or hasn’t been flown for a few days.

  2. Irwin
    Irwin says:

    I like your little stories like this, it gives a positive energy. Don’t worry too much about what you are facing, all mistakes in life are lessons to help you become stronger and better, elastic man. Keep sharing more in the future!


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