It was my final solo—the long cross country before my private pilot test. Weather was great, I was comfortable with the plane—a beat up old rental 152—and I had high confidence in my ability to get there and back safely, even though I had never been to this airport before. The weather briefer told me the destination airport had occasional aerobatic training, but my instructor hadn’t mentioned it, so I didn’t consider it anything to get excited about. The whole trip was over rural western New Jersey and New York, with lots of woods and lakes and beautiful countryside. Since I had started flying in Cubs with no radio and was not very comfortable talking on the radio, flying between non-towered airports was all about fun, not worrying about saying the wrong thing for the whole world to hear.
Departure went smoothly and I settled back, knowing the responsibility for this flight was all on me and I was going somewhere unknown and far away. I had a current chart and had given myself several easily identified waypoints along the way, and there were several VORs along the route to simplify navigation.
I reviewed the airport information en route: left pattern, elevation, advisory frequency, and so forth. I had it all down pat and was listening to the advisory frequency 10 miles out. The fact that I didn’t hear any radio transmissions didn’t surprise me. My destination was a sleepy, rural airport so I didn’t expect much activity. Just to be sure, I double-checked the date on my charts and made sure my radio was tuned correctly. I started calling my position and expected a response, but the radio stayed silent.
I saw the airport and silently congratulated myself for navigating so well. Two miles out, I still hadn’t heard any chatter on the radio. This is going to be easy. I went through the familiar pre-landing checklists, crossed over the airport, and was ready to enter the traffic pattern. A little high. Carb heat on, throttle back.
I was about to key the microphone when a brightly painted red-and-yellow checkered helmet appeared in front of my prop. It was inside a Pitts of some variety but all I could see was the top of the helmet, moving vertically, not one degree off my heading. And it was moving very slowly at the top of a vertical climb. He was a couple hundred feet in front of me. I was as frozen as a stone and didn’t think to maneuver. The microphone fell from my hand.
Just then, the radio came alive for the first time: “Break! Break! You’re being underflown,” someone on the ground called to the Pitts pilot. His response was instantaneous, and I heard his engine roar and felt the controls jump in my hands as the little Cessna plowed through his wake. Finally out of my stupor, I added power, and the plane flew normally. I hadn’t hit anything solid, and nothing solid hit me. I didn’t even see the other airplane anymore. I continued my approach to landing, determined to finish the cross-country flight.
My adrenalin was still flowing as I made shaky turns to downwind, base, and final and lined up with the runway. There were about 10 aerobatic planes lined up on the ramp, and a bunch of aerobatic pilots. They must be having a contest, or an aerobatic practice session with judges and spectators. What kind of reception was a student pilot like me going to get from them?
“Cessna, does your radio work?” someone was asking me on the radio. “Are you aware there’s a left-hand pattern at this airport?" Great! Now the radio works! My hands were shaking and my mouth was so dry that, when I finally found the microphone, nothing came out of my mouth but a croak. I literally couldn’t speak. I landed, settled down, and soon decided it was time to head back to friendlier skies.
As I departed the area, my mouth felt like a desert, I had never been so thirsty in my life. I don’t remember much of the flight home except I was sure there would be police cars waiting for me at the airport to arrest me and take my student license. I flew a right pattern! But why didn’t I hear them before? Why didn’t they announce themselves?
Arriving at my home airport, no police greeted me. I tied down the trusty Cessna and waited to have my head handed to me by my instructor. “How’d it go?” he asked. “You didn’t have any trouble with that radio, did you? It’s been kind of intermittent, and we didn’t hear you announce coming into the pattern.”
What did I take away from that experience? Now I check notams and ask questions of the briefer if they identify anything unusual. I assume my radio doesn’t work until someone responds to me. I’m more comfortable calling an unfamiliar airport on the phone if I have any questions about activities or field conditions. But I still like the peace of a non-towered airport or lake.
Ken Leonard, a private pilot since 1998, has logged about 300 hours. He has single-engine land and sea ratings, and he recently built a Searey that he flies from his lake near his home in Tampa, Fla.