Editor’s note: This article was the winning entry in the fourth annual Richard Collins Writing Prize for Young Pilots. After reading over 70 entries, our distinguished panel of judges (including Richard’s son) selected Nadja Keist as the winner of the $5,000 award. We hope you’ll agree that this article is a fine tribute to a great writer and pilot.
“Are you ready?”
I turned and searched his eyes for a hint of hesitation, but they were scintillating with pure excitement. “Let’s go,” he instantly replied. I grinned, put my right hand on the throttle, and threw one last glance at the saggy windsock to my left. No clouds in the sky and barely any wind—the perfect day for my first flight as a licensed PIC of a single-engine piston aircraft. I had spent around 50 hours inside the Bristell B23 within the past year, and the week before I finally passed the skill test and received a sheet of paper with the delightful title “temporary permission to exercise the following privileges.” Before starting my pilot training, I had just completed the demanding three-year training to become an air traffic controller for Skyguide in Switzerland.
It made perfect sense that my first passenger would be my beloved partner who had always been there to support me at every bump in the road on my journey to become an ATC and pilot. A decision I would come to regret within one short hour.
As I steadily set full throttle and released the brakes, the engine began to roar and I could feel the force of thrust push me against my seat. We accelerated to around 50 knots before I gently pulled the stick back, and we left the runway behind us. I was so consumed by maintaining the correct airspeed, retracting the flaps, and performing the climb check that I temporarily forgot that the person to my right was not my flight instructor anymore.
I started a right turn at approximately 500 ft. above ground to follow outbound route Whiskey. On righthand downwind, I noticed that the oil temperature steadily rose and was already well within the caution range. This was a regular occurrence in summer, with outside temperatures above 30 degrees Celsius. However, on a chilly October day, this seemed out of the ordinary. I decided to return to the airfield to assess if the aircraft was operating properly.
“We need to go back to check something,” I informed my very first passenger. He was busy taking pictures, and I barely received a nod. “At least he’s not a distraction,” I thought to myself while I informed ATC of my changed plans and continued in the circuit for landing.
The aircraft was checked thoroughly back on the ground by maintenance while I asked my former flight instructor for advice. After confirming that I set the power and propeller pitch in accordance with the AFM, he assured me that it was a good idea to return for landing. However, I had been looking forward to sharing the joy of a beautiful cross-country flight, and it was difficult to hide my disappointment.
“All the other planes are booked, but you can wait for the maintenance release; it should not take too long,” he attempted to cheer me up. We waited and about an hour later, maintenance signed the aircraft off and assured us nothing was wrong with it. I ignored an uneasy gut feeling, took my partner’s hand, and walked back to the hangar to prepare the plane for another attempt.
The first ten minutes of the second flight seemed perfectly normal, which released my tension from the previous flight. As we left the circuit without any trouble, I started to feel joyous and became awed by the stunning view of the scenic Swiss countryside when a sudden beeping noise interrupted the peace. I looked down and saw the words “MASTER WARNING” flashing on the PFD. The oil temperature indication had jumped into the warning range and was continuously increasing. A few seconds later, the scale maxed out, and the numbers disappeared completely. Intrigued by the noise, my partner stopped taking pictures and turned his focus towards me: “What’s happening?”
“I am not sure…” I stammered and looked at him nervously. I had never experienced any malfunctions during my flight training. I knew I needed to calm down and focus on making the right decision. So, I closed my eyes took a deep breath. Power, Performance, Analysis, Action.
I reduced the manifold pressure and RPM and lowered the nose to improve engine cooling. Then I reached for the emergency checklist and searched for “high oil temperature.” The instructions “reduce climb angle and increase airspeed” were all I could find, which I had already done. So, I put the checklist back into its pocket and started a descending turn back to my homebase. We had not gone very far—only a few miles outside the CTR—therefore, the tower frequency was already set.
I could tell from all the chatter that it was very busy–no surprise on such a lovely day. But that meant I had to inform my colleagues about my situation because I could not risk having to hold. All the other engine instruments were still within the normal range, so I suspected an indication error but I could not prove it, and therefore had to treat it as a real issue and land as soon as possible. I pressed the push to talk button, stated my callsign and position, followed by the words, “request priority due to loss of oil temperature indication.”
Looking back, everything happened so quickly. However, as it was happening, it seemed like time stood still. All I could think of was my first emergency during my work as a controller. A glider pilot was having a panic attack during her solo flight and declared a medical emergency. She returned safely to the field as we organized medical assistance in the meantime. After about thirty minutes of chaos and diversions, the operations returned to normal.
However, the realization that witnessing death can be a real part of this job sunk in harder than I could have imagined. I remained completely calm and focused until my shift ended but became overwhelmed by shock and emotion in the airport parking lot as soon as I left the building. I occasionally dreamed about this experience in the weeks after it happened. I will never forget how helpless I felt as I watched her approach the field, “unable to breathe” as she stated on the frequency.
As time went by and I gained more experience, emergencies became easier. The imagination of all the terrible things that could potentially happen slowly faded away with every safe landing I observed. And yet I could not help but wonder about my colleagues now that I was on the other side. They had become dear friends of mine, and I wondered if this was a difficult moment for them too.
After stating my problem, I got cleared directly to the field, whereas everyone else was instructed to hold. I received my landing clearance while I was still four miles out. As I approached the runway, I saw three red vehicles parked right next to it with flashing blue lights. They were waiting for us, waiting to see whether we made it back safely or not.
Luckily, the descent with a low power setting cooled the engine enough to bring back the indication. Even though my hands were shaking, I managed a normal landing and taxied off the runway. After we got out of the plane, I had to file a report, the aircraft was rechecked by maintenance, and the faulty sensor was finally detected.
Whenever I tell this story now, I often state, “At least I learned something!” However, I never fully reveal the depths of what I have learned. It was not just the fact that when the engine gets hot the pilot should reduce power and lower the nose. My first flight as PIC taught me what it meant to hold responsibility over someone. I was up in the air with a person I love dearly, and he had no idea how to fly a plane. His well-being was entirely up to me and my judgement.
You could vector thousands of radar blips as a controller and yet you will not fully understand the meaning of responsibility as profoundly as when you must take care of a person you love. When they are next to you, look at you and expect you to act. Responsibility and safety are not just words heard in a CRM course. With every heading we provide, we affect real people with real stories and loved ones. That is the lesson I learned when I was utterly alone at the controls for the first time. I will always carry it with me in my heart.
And as for my first passenger? I was worried about him and asked if he was okay when we got out of the plane. He laughed and replied, “Are you kidding? That was the greatest flight ever! I even got to see the fire trucks from up close!”