After decades of thinking about flight, in late June 2003, I finally took my first lesson. It was a great move that has gone on to take my family and me to places I expected and places I never dreamed of. The timing, though, could hardly have turned out worse. My career, which had always been a jealous mistress, ramped up that year to an unprecedented degree, and it was difficult to even think about finding slots for flight training. But that wasn’t enough. The summer of 2003 was monotonously gray and rainy, only to be followed by a winter not much snowier, but a lot colder than usual, even for the Boston area. In April 2004, I found that 73% of the few lessons I had been able to schedule wound up getting canceled for weather. Yeats might have called this the struggle of the fly in marmalade.
Partly because of that frustration and partly just because springtime in New England is always such a relief, June 2004 was a thing of beauty, and even better, it found me finally prepared in the eyes of my flight school for solo cross-country work. A large and strong high-pressure system rolled into the region, and I set out to do as much flying in a short time as I possibly could.
On June 5, I flew from my home base of Bedford, Massachusetts (KBED), to Sanford, Maine (KSFM), to Concord, New Hampshire (KCON), and then back home again. A week later, my second solo cross-country took me on a loop including New Bedford, Massachusetts (KEWB), and North Central State, Rhode Island (KSFZ). Both flights went smoothly, and I was feeling pretty competent. I was comfortable, and I thought I wasn’t cocky or complacent.
It’s the third flight that I’ll never forget on which we focus here. The plan was to fly the flight school’s Cessna 172, N65719, to Portland, Maine (KPWM), and then on to Manchester, New Hampshire (KMHT), before heading home again. Both are class C airports, the first to which I had flown alone or with an instructor.
It was to be an afternoon flight, as I had to work that morning. My day started a little before 5 a.m., so I could get to the flight school at 1:30 for final planning. My CFI and I reviewed not only the weather for the trip, but class C procedures for those airports. Because my home base has a control tower, speaking with air traffic control didn’t daunt me, but the concept of calling a clearance frequency after the ATIS but before ground seemed complicated and a little opaque.
There was a broken deck of cumulus cloud bases in the 5,500-foot range. I would stay below them, of course. When I finally lifted off after 2 p.m., it was hazier and choppier than on my previous flights, and I was a little anxious, but pretty soon I settled into cruise. The leg to Portland went well, at least initially. I got radar advisories and threaded my way over the class D airspace of KLWM and under Boston’s Bravo shelf. After that, I kept the ocean on my right and the coastline more or less under the airplane. The city of Portland didn’t take all that long to come into view, even at 172 speeds. Locating the airport was another matter, however.
KPWM is sandwiched between the town and the port it’s named for. My home field is very different, a huge flat patch of dinge in a gently rolling sprawl of suburbs and wooded areas. This complexity was new for me, and it was visually confusing. I knew where the airport should be, but, like Where’s Waldo? readers, I couldn’t pull the signal out from the noise. The tower expressed polite, but clear incredulity when I reported about 5 miles south, but not yet “in sight.” I finally caved in and looked at the Garmin 296 GPS that I had brought on the flight and initialized, but wanted very much not to need. Its display of the runway extensions brought my ground-bound eyeballs right to KPWM and then, of course, it was so obvious that I treated myself with much less polite incredulity. I couldn’t believe I hadn’t seen it miles before.
The landing was uneventful. I fueled, had my logbook stamped, and not long after I actually remembered the sequence of calls for departing a class C airport and managed to get them right. Like a lot of things, once being daunted is over, the thing itself isn’t so bad. I was back in the air, navigating direct to Manchester, 65 nm away on a heading of 243 degrees. About 15 miles out, the ATIS at KMHT told me to expect wind 270 at 8 knots, landing runway 24, and they said something I heard, but evidently didn’t process about “crossing runway in use.” As my flight was entirely on runway heading, I expected to be cleared straight in and that’s what happened when ATC switched me to tower.
“Manchester, Cessna 65719 has information Tango 10 miles northeast.”
“719, you are cleared to land straight in runway 24 Manchester. Keep your speed up for Mitsubishi in trail.”
Isn’t that a car? Whatever—but it sounds fast. No problem. I know how to do this. I burned along at 120 knots and then on 1 mile final congratulated myself as I slowed it down and configured for landing just like the pros do. As I settled nicely into the flare, tower advised, “719, depart the runway at Hotel.” Well, I had no idea where taxiway H was or why they were bothering me in this critical phase of flaring to land. I debated the wisdom of even allowing myself the distraction of a reply. I kept hearing my primary instructor’s counsel to focus on flying. Communication comes later. I decided on a quick “Roger,” as I settled onto 24, holding the nose off, holding….
After what seemed like a short ground roll, I noticed H coming up fast on my left and braked heavily, retracting the flaps as I went—but pretty quickly it was obvious that was a loser, so I let up some on the brakes a little. After all, I was the PIC and wouldn’t threaten safety just for the whim of an overcontrolling controller!
A few seconds later, my headset filled with the controller’s voice, commanding in the most urgent tone I’ve ever heard in an airplane: “719, STOP!”
I screeched to a skidding stop just as my windshield filled with Boeing Big Iron dead ahead, screaming from left to right on its initial climbout from runway 35.
That evening at home, I printed the airport diagram to look at what I had almost done. Past H on 24 is mighty close to 35.
“...my headset filled with the controller’s voice: ‘719, STOP!’ I screeched to a skidding stop just as my windshield filled with Boeing Big Iron dead ahead, screaming from left to right on its initial climbout from runway 35.”
There was a long silence on frequency as the tower and I breathed untransmitted sighs of relief. The controller finally interrupted the emptiness with, “Uh, 719, make a 180 back to Hotel.” She never mentioned the accident that just didn’t happen and neither did I. Too much for either of us, I suppose. She was incredibly solicitous, though, or maybe just wanted me out of there as she volunteered to get my clearance for departure and directed me with progressive taxi instructions back to runway 24’s hold short line.
In retrospect, I’m almost sure I was cleared to land when I should have been cleared to land and hold short—but even if I remember that right, I had already missed two important clues that I won’t miss again. The ATIS had announced “crossing runway in use,” but it had never occurred to me to think about what that meant. The second clue was the command issued during my flare to exit on taxiway H. In retrospect, we all know what she was really saying, but I had blown it off as the nattering of a martinet controller. I missed the true meaning of these clues out of inexperience.
Of course, the most egregious error and the first mistake in this near-miss cascade came before both of these, and I owned this one entirely. I had failed to self-announce as a “student pilot.” I told myself it was just an oversight, but I was lying to myself. It wasn’t arrogance, either, but it was close. It was pride. I didn’t want to come across as a mere amateur, a student pilot.
Of course, I knew that student pilots are not to accept LAHSO clearances. But I didn’t know I was accepting a LAHSO clearance. The controller knew, but I hadn’t told her I was a student. Had I self-announced, she wouldn’t have cleared me as she did, and the whole kerfuffle would have been aborted. No lesson would have been learned, but everybody’s blood pressure would have been a lot healthier.
I’ve heard inexperience defined as being old enough to know where it’s at, but not what it’s for. That works well enough, but it also means not knowing what you don’t know, and that’s what happened here. You fail to recognize a situation as anomalous, so your threat-o-meter rests low on the peg. On its own, inexperience increases risk, and how any of us survives adolescence is a mystery. Arrogance is bad, too, as is pride, its close cousin. They both take the safety net away. People don’t know to help proud and they don’t want to help arrogant. The really explosive setup, though, is when you add arrogance or pride to inexperience and, well, that brew could have killed me and a lot of innocent people that day in Manchester.