Never Again Online: Tower? What tower?

October 1, 2009

I was a freshly instrument-rated pilot and, as a rule, I didn’t fly anywhere without filing an IFR flight plan. I had recently flown from Dallas, Texas, to Nashville, Tenn., and the next morning I was scheduled to pop over to nearby Murfreesboro (MBT).

The weather was severe clear, so I decided to skip the flight plan and fly the short trip VFR. I climbed in my Cessna 210 and got in a long line of about 20 other airplanes waiting for takeoff. By the time I arrived at the front of the line, I had all my navigation radios set and cockpit organized.

On departure, I was told to turn on course, climb to 3,500 feet, and contact departure – all as expected.

The weather was pristine, and the airplane climbed energetically with a light fuel and passenger load. Soon I was crossing over the ridges east of Nashville and could see all the way to North Carolina, or so it seemed.

I was given another radio frequency, and then I spotted the airport. It was down and a little to my left of course, but there it was as big as day. So I called departure and told the controller I had the field in sight.

Departure called back immediately and told me to descend at my discretion, change to airport advisory frequency, and there was no traffic observed between me and the airport.

I reduced power, adjusted my rate of descent, and studied the airport. There was a cabin-class twin sitting on Runway 32. I kept waiting for him to start his take off roll.

“Twin on three two at Murfreesboro,” I said, “this is Cessna six six seven five x-ray in-bound for landing. Say intentions.”

He just sat there on the runway. I thought he must be waiting for an IFR release. But why would he sit on an active runway?  I kept a close eye on this bird as I circled the airport and came back around to land on Runway 01.

I made position calls every few seconds because I was bugged by that big twin, I landed short on Runway 01 and stopped well short of the intersection of the two runways. The twin just sat there with its two big props spinning.  What was he doing?

I tried calling him again. Finally I crossed the runway in front of him. After I was well clear, I looked back and saw the twin start its takeoff roll. I kept my eye on him because he was acting strange as I taxied to a parking place in front of the terminal.

As I was shutting down, a police car pulled up under my left wing. The law enforcement officer got out of the car, and I noticed he was wearing a badge bigger than a dinner plate, as well as a huge baton and pistol.

I said, “Good morning officer, what can I do for you?”

The officer handed me a piece of paper with a phone number on it. Without so much as a smile he said, “You need to get out of your plane and call the tower.”

“Tower?” I asked. “What tower?”

“That one right up there,” he said, pointing up.

I stepped out from under my wing and there it was.

The walk to the FBO was a long one. I called the tower, and they were actually very nice in explaining that they had held a King Air on the runway for several minutes while I flew around their airport. They told me they knew who I was because they were in touch with the departure controller I had also spoken to.

Instead of issuing a violation, they told me to call on the ground control frequency and volunteered to give me progressive instructions during my taxi for departure. I was terribly embarrassed that I had landed in Smyrna, Tenn. (MQY). I thanked them and climbed back into my airplane.

Soon I was cleared for takeoff. Just as I was airborne, a female controller told me sweetly to “Come back and see us—but call next time.”

I swear I could hear laughter in the background.

I learned never to assume anything when flying—check and double check. I was so fortunate that there was no other traffic at that time, except me and a very long-suffering King Air captain. I was grateful for the very forgiving tower crew on duty that day. The results could have been so much different.

No matter how short a flight, I now treat it as though my life, and my ticket, depend on doing things right.