Making a big mistake on my solo cross-country

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Growing up on a farm in south central Wisconsin during the 60s was interesting. There was always work to be done. Since my dad believed the old ways are best, we seemed to always be on the back end of a hickory forklift (pitchfork). Out in the fields, looking up to see the smoke trails (contrails) of jets and wondering how fast or high they were kept your mind busy. When my cousins and I played in the woods we’d find aluminum strips (chaff) dropped from military aircraft; it made us wonder if they were escaping from Russian intruders and had to use counter measures.

I was always interested in airplanes. I built one from the wood of peach crates and used the propellers from a few rubber-band, wind-up planes to power it. That was my first lesson in power-to-weight ratio. Ten pounds of wood airplane and four rubber bands never made it taxi, let alone move, no matter how tight I wound them. My Uncle Nubs was into flying, but lost interest in it about the time I was starting to take an interest in GA airplanes, so he gave me his battery-operated Gauer aircraft radio to listen to and his E6B along with the instruction manual. The E6B I still have and is a great remembrance.

Fast forward to 1972. I was helping my good friend Dick Rhody with a photography job. Dick owned a photo studio and a Piper Tri-Pacer. I was pretty good with the camera, but the airplane was a mystery. Dick had his PPL for a few years and flew quite a bit. One day after a photo shoot, he asked if I would like to go for a plane ride. Sounded good to me! You know how it is: when you do not know anything about something, there is no need to be afraid.

Tri pacer takeoff 300x169 - Making a big mistake on my solo cross-country

The Tri-Pacer is a great way to hook someone on flying.

Dick kept his plane at the Madison (MSN) Airport on the east ramp. At that time it was called Truax Field, in honor of Lt. Thomas L. Truax, a Madisonion who lost his life in a training accident shortly before Pearl Harbor. The east ramp was known as Four Lakes ramp, as it was the home of Four Lakes Aviation, the Piper dealer owned by Louie and Louise Wuilleumier. It was housed in the old airline terminal building, a stone building built in 1938. The lower level was the flight school and the upper level was the national weather service.

Dick checked over the plane, we got in and by whatever magic he did, the engine was running. Picking up the mic, he talked to someone and they answered back over the tinny speaker in the ceiling. Then he gave it some throttle and the plane was moving. I can remember looking out the right window and asking Dick what was connected to the wheels to make them move as I did not see any driveshaft mechanism. He told me the propeller was pulling us along. That made no sense because this thing weighed a lot more than my peach crate airplane and only had one propeller (remember, mine had four propellers).

I do not know where we went, but I was hooked. The things I could see from the air were amazing. How you could know where you were was not exactly clear to me. I guessed if you did not get out of sight of the airport, you could always find it again. I decided I was going to learn to fly. I mean really, how hard could it be?

Eventually, I went in and talked to Louie about how to go about getting a license. He explained it all to me—plane rental, instructors, books, tests, just about anything you needed to know about obtaining a license. The one thing he did bring up was pre-paying for lessons. If you put down more than $500, they would automatically add 10% to your account. I needed about $1,200 to get my license. At that time, you could buy a new Pontiac or Buick for $3,500. So, I went to ask my dad if he would loan me the money. His exact words were, “You got any collateral?” I had some money saved from working as a helper mechanic at a car dealership for $90 a week. I would have to make it work.

On July 12, 1972, I signed up for my first lesson at Four Lakes. My instructor’s name was Ernest C. Shane. Little did I know he would become one of my best friends and mentors until his passing 25 years later. Ernie was a WWII pilot in Burma and flew “the Hump” in C-47s on hundreds of missions. He went on to fly the Berlin Airlift and was a flight instructor and corporate pilot. The man had tons of stories.

On August 9, 1972, Ernie started me out on primary lessons and let me solo with 9.1 hours. Little did he know how little I knew about flying. I was not taking it as seriously as I should have been, just thinking, “another lesson just gets me closer to 40 hours,” the number I needed to take my Private Pilot checkride. By September 6th of that year, at 20 hours, I was signed off to take my first solo cross-country trip.

This is where the wheels start to come off a little. Between airplane scheduling, my time, and finances, I finally got my cross-country scheduled for February 3, 1973. By then I had accumulated 25.1 hours of touch-and-goes and dual. The plan was to meet my instructor that day at 12:30 to go over my planning and weather briefing. At 12:15 I went upstairs to the weather station and got the fire hose of information they would give a student pilot. Basically, I understood it to be high overcast and light winds for the rest of the afternoon. By 12:30, I was heading downstairs to meet my instructor, go over materials, and get signed off for my solo cross-country departure at 1:30.

The wheels are coming off a little bit more now. I got downstairs and my instructor was not around. When I inquired at the front desk, I was told he had taken a charter flight and I was to contact another flight instructor for sign off. Problem was, he was flying with a student and would not be back for another hour or so. I wanted to depart at 1:30 to give me plenty of time on this trip.

WI sectional 300x287 - Making a big mistake on my solo cross-country

It all looks so easy when you plan it on a sectional.

Well, the instructor did come back but he wanted time to give his current student some ground instruction and said he would get back with me. He did get back with me at about 2:15. After going through all my paperwork and oral questions, he did sign me off. I remember discussing my trepidation about getting off an hour later than anticipated but was told, “you got plenty of time for this trip.” Wheels just came off a little more.

The airplane I was scheduled to fly was 3970K, affectionally known as “70 Klank.” I had been flying it pretty consistently for my total of 25.1 hours, so I was familiar with it: preflight complete, sectional laid out, E6B handy, engine started, taxi, takeoff. Time: 2:35. We turned to the northeast to find and follow highway 151 and we were on our way! I checked off my tick marks every five minutes on the map.

I made sure the town to my right on the map was also on my right. Fifty-some minutes later, the town of Sheboygan was in sight. The non-towered airport, SBM, was due west of the city. I picked up the mic and announced my position and intentions, which probably sounded two octaves higher to the FBO on the ground. I did the obligatory student PIO landings on the runway.

Now, how do I get from where I am to where I’ve got to go? The only people that had access to that info would have been pilots using IFR approach plates (which I did not have). I spotted the FBO. It looked like it was going this way, around that way… I could get there. I finally made it!

Now I had to shut down and go into the FBO to have my logbook signed (that part was made very clear to me). I walked in and told them I was a student pilot and needed my logbook signed. They congratulated me, took my logbook, and used a rubber stamp. The stamp said, “Arrived solo at Sheboygan Municipal Airport.” And then they signed it! Wow. This was neat. I thanked them and told them I was headed to Baraboo Dells Airport (DLL), about 50 minutes away. I climbed back into 70 Klank, started it, found my way back to the runway and took off. Time: 3:45.

I got turned to a heading of about 265 degrees and found Lake Winnebago, then kept that off to my right. I kept my heading and kept checking off the tick marks. But you know, that high overcast was pretty thick. Visibility was good, just kind of dark. Feel that wheel getting kind of wobbly?

I was doing well. My landmarks were lining up with my tick marks. My buddy Ernie’s words were ingrained in my head: “Keep your heading. Correct if you need, but keep your heading.” Forty minutes later, Portage and the Wisconsin River were under me. DLL was just ahead. A few minutes later, Dells was in sight. I picked up the mic and announced I was landing to the north. I did the obligatory student PIO landings on the runway and shut down. I went inside to get my logbook signed and chatted for a few minutes. I went back out to 70 Klank and started it up. I had this under control! If this is all there was to flying, I could fly anywhere.

The wheels were falling off. Time: 4:50

Full power. Takeoff. I turned to what the heading bug was set to: 265 degrees. And I forged ahead. Klunk! The wheels were now off. Jeepers, I could see the next town on my tick marks, but it seemed farther away than on the map. But, “Heck,” I thought, “I am a seasoned pilot.” I continued onward, kept that heading. “OK, there is the town but next on the map is Lake Wisconsin. Must be further than I thought.”

I forged ahead, making good time. It was 5:00. Did I mention the sun was due to set at 5:30 and there was already a thick overcast? I needed to go to plan B. Crap. I had no plan B. But I did have this VOR that would tell me how to get back to Madison. I tuned in to the Madison VOR and turned the OBS knob to center the needle. Then what? I had no idea. I had centered the needle, but it kept going off to one side. Centered the needle again, and off to the side it went again. This is where my bag of luck was bigger than my bag of experience.

All the wheels were off and I was just along for the ride to who knows where at 120 mph. All the terrain was foreign to me. I recognized nothing. Suddenly, I remembered that just before I took off, my friend Dick Rhody had said, “If you run into trouble, call Chicago Center and see if they can help some way.” I had written the number on my notepad. 135 something.

MSN overhead view 233x300 - Making a big mistake on my solo cross-country

Those lakes should be easy to find—but not for a panicked student pilot.

I tuned that into the comm radio and called. “Chicago Center this is Piper 3970 Kilo and I am a student pilot lost, trying to get back to Madison.”

They answered back, “3970 Kilo about where you at?”

“I am heading 265 degrees and I left the Dells about 15 minutes ago,” I said.

”Piper 3970 Kilo, squawk 1234,” came the answer.

Now this was before transponders were standard equipment. Training planes had no such radios. I was trying to fly the plane while looking at the radios to see if one on them was marked Squawk. I got a squelch. Turning that did no good.

Center came back with, “Piper 3970 Kilo turn to a heading of 180 degrees.”

Holding onto the mic with a death-grip, I squeaked back, “Ok!” and turned to 180 degrees. After what seemed like an eternity Center came back again.

”Piper 3970 Kilo turn to a heading of 090 degrees.” I turned to 090 degrees. Remember: hold that heading.

The overcast was getting darker and there was no horizon. Navigating was getting trickier. It was about 5:10 by now and someone was telling me to turn this way then that way.

Center came in again, “Piper 3970 Kilo, radar contact, turn to a heading of 150 degrees. You are 45 miles northwest of Madison. Stay on this frequency.”

“Thank you!” I replied, and turned to 150 degrees. Center gave me a couple more course corrections and I stayed with them until about two miles from Truax field when they told me to contact Tower. I contacted Tower.

Truax Tower replied back, “Welcome back, 70 Kilo. Heard you had an exciting day.”

I keyed the mic and uttered some gibberish. I was too pooped to talk. I made the obligatory student PIO landings and parked the plane. By now it was pretty dark. I grabbed my stuff out of the plane and walked into Four Lakes, hoping no one would be the wiser about my predicament. As I walked in the door, Louie Wuilleumier was standing at the big plate glass window looking out over the ramp. I probably got five steps away from him when he said, “I usually don’t let student pilots use radar vectors to do their cross countries.” He turned around to face me and added, “You did the right thing.”

Where was my big mistake, besides not speaking up and telling my instructor that the timing was too close? When I left the Dells airport, I never reset the DG bug to my new heading of 145 degrees. I was going west instead of south. And the VOR. By that time I was getting pretty shook up and I was cutting across the MSN VOR radials at 90 degrees, which is why the needle would not stay centered.

I finally got my license on June 14, 1973, with 47 hours in my logbook. I have built up quite a few hours since then. My bag of experience is way bigger than my bag of luck, so I keep filling the experience side and I never rely on the bag of luck. I have been fortunate to have some great airplane partners over the years. I have acquired my Commercial, Instrument, Complex, and Tailwheel certificates. Sometimes when I go flying I will turn off the nav radio and not have a magenta line to follow. And heck, when I fly out of DLL and turn to the south, at 3,500 feet, you can see the Madison lakes 31 miles away. It must have been a lot farther away in 1973.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected].

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