By Fred Simonds
My last flight of 1980 was checking out in a Cessna 172. I was then a 130-hour private pilot. After two years in Cessna 150/152s, the 172 felt as spacious and big as a Boeing 747. After the usual airwork, stalls and falls, and landings, the instructor signed me off.
Two weeks later, on a bright, cold, and windy January day, I set off from Bridgeport, Connecticut, to Quonset State Airport in Rhode Island, about 80 nautical miles northeast. I made a special note that Rhode Island’s primary airport, Theodore Francis Green State, was just eight miles north of Quonset State and resolved to avoid the beehive of heavy jet traffic there.
Once airborne, I contacted New York Approach and requested flight following to Quonset State. I thought this would be an added insurance policy—that ATC would keep me away from Green State. How little did I know.
Eventually, I was handed off to Quonset Approach. The controller pointed out the airport and told me to contact tower. He didn’t say which tower, but it wasn’t Quonset’s tower frequency. Uh-oh.
Approaching the airport, I began to see the problem. The runways looked all wrong, and there was a VOR on the field. Unless they built one overnight at Quonset, I was barging into the pattern at Green State Airport! Tuning Providence Tower’s frequency, I heard frantic pilots asking what the dickens this 172 was doing in the pattern. I immediately turned south to exit the area. With a lump in my throat, I called Providence Tower and told them that I “misidentified” the airport and was departing to the south. I’m sure they were glad to see my tail feathers disappear in the distance.
What happened to my planned insurance policy? It hadn’t worked. During the handoff, my destination airport got lost in the shuffle. Perhaps it was because most traffic goes to Providence. I was off course to the north, aiming me directly at Providence. It was not a controller error; it was my error. The pilot does the navigating, and I had muffed it.
Quonset came into view. It’s a big airport, but no VOR. I landed into the stiff wind, but my adventure was not over. The taxiways were slick with black ice. The wind kept trying to weathervane the airplane into the wind, no matter how I positioned the controls. Eventually, I wrestled the aircraft into a parking spot. Before shutdown, Ground told me to call the tower. I had no doubt as to the reason.
The controller asked, “What happened?” I told him I was new in the airplane, off course, and about the ATC handoff foul-up. I took full responsibility. “Did you learn anything?”
“Yes, I sure did,” I said.
“Good. Don’t do it again.” I firmly agreed and that was the end of it.
I learned a big lesson in what it truly means to be pilot in command, and not to trust ATC to do my navigation work for me. After all, I’m in the seat that’s moving.
Fred Simonds is a CFII based in Connecticut.