I Learned About Flying From That: My Worst Flight

The only reason to make a mistake is to learn from it.

I Learned About Flying From That Barry Ross Aviation Art
To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.comBarry Ross

I now have thousands of hours in my logbooks, but despite my best efforts, none represent a perfect flight. Many come close, but there was always something I could have done just a little bit better. So I reflected on the opposite type of flight entry: Which one represented my worst flight? That would be easy. Hands down, it was my first solo flight in the first airplane I ever owned.

After months of research, I had selected a humble craft — a 1947 Cessna 120 with old fabric wings. The $1,700 price tag fit my budget as a college student. Despite a lot of wise and well-meaning advice from others, I made Cessna 120 NC1985V mine.

At that time, my logbook showed a total of 51 “official” logged hours. However, I had managed to obtain my Private Pilot license. Because I had not flown a tailwheel aircraft in two years, I had an instructor friend help me fly my newly acquired aircraft home. (This was before the FAA required a tailwheel endorsement.)

My friend stayed with me while we practiced a few takeoffs and landings on the narrow, snow-bank-lined runway of Illini (now Frasca) Field in central Illinois. For the first time, I ended a flight due to being tired rather than the checkbook balance. We planned to return early the next morning for more dual flying, but bad weather set in for the next several days.

Finally, the skies cleared to a warm, sunny Midwestern early-​spring day. But my instructor had classes and suggested we wait to fly until the weekend. I had yet to learn that just wanting to fly did not mean it was a good decision. It was my airplane, and I was legally licensed to fly it, so why not? The decision to fly solo was the first of many bad decisions I would make on that beautiful spring morning.

After a quick preflight, I was soon taxiing through the puddles and mud to the end of Runway 27. I completed my simple run-up and announced my intentions on Unicom. I was very nervous, and my mouth was dry, yet I was excited with anticipation. I had dreamed of this flight — flying my very own airplane — for most of my life.

I had yet to learn that just wanting to fly did not mean it was a good decision. It was my airplane, and I was legally licensed to fly it, so why not?

I lined up, pushed in the throttle, and all was going as planned until the tail came up much sooner than I expected. I had not anticipated this and was not ready to apply right rudder to counteract the left turning force as the tail rose.

My newly acquired Cessna 120 was headed for the deep, icy snow bank lining the left side of the runway. Much too fast to stop before the impact, I forced the tail down by pulling back the yoke. The airplane now swerved right, and I was headed for the right snow bank alongside the runway. Just before the right wheel hit the snow, I pushed the yoke forward again, raising the tail while stomping on the left rudder and brake. This again swerved the airplane sharply toward the left snow bank. I braced, anticipating the airplane would flip upon hitting the snow.

As I sped toward the snow bank, the airplane lifted off all by itself! I must have cleared it by mere inches. Wow, did that takeoff go badly. But luck had prevailed. I crabbed into the strong southerly wind and climbed out. The next hour was everything I had hoped and dreamed it would be. I left my problems on the ground and enjoyed the flight.

Finally, it was time to land. I found an east-west road, practiced my crosswind approach technique and simulated landing at 1,000 feet agl. Then I entered the pattern and decided to start with a touch-and-go. Due to the gusting winds on final, I had to constantly adjust my bank angle (upwind, wing down) and rudder so as not to drift left or right of the runway centerline. Everything went as intended for my first approach. With a light touch on the left gear, I pushed the carb heat in and applied power to climb out, all according to plan. The next approach would be to a full stop.

While climbing out, I noticed the left fuel tank was indicating less than one-quarter full. I (very unwisely while climbing out) decided to switch to the right tank. The tank selector valve on the Cessna 120 is between the seats. Without looking down, I moved the tank selector handle from the left past the center detents to the right, intending to feed from the right tank. There at 300 feet, still climbing over a muddy, plowed Illinois corn field, my engine quit. Too low to turn back, I set up to land in the black field.

I Learned About Flying From That Barry Ross Aviation Art
The tank selector handle on a Cessna 120.Barry Ross

I then did something I would do many more times while flying when I took an action but got a highly undesirable response: I quickly undid whatever I had just done.

I returned the handle to its original left-pointing position. Later I would look at the fuel selector and realize my mistake. I had moved the handle through the correct position, straight ahead, to feed from the right tank. Pointing the handle to the right, as I had done, had shut the fuel off.

Quietly, the engine still wind milling but dead, I glided toward sure disaster. It was so soggy, certainly the airplane would dig in and flip upon touchdown. But 10 feet from the earth, during the flare, the engine suddenly came back to life. Nose-down, I gained speed and climbed out. Now my legs were shaking so badly I could barely control them. How I wished I had not done a touch-and-go on my first approach.

I went around the pattern and decided to make an extra-long final. The crosswind was strong, but all was going fairly well despite my trembling knees.

Then, crossing over the airport fence on final, the engine quit again. But the landing was assured. With a few bad bounces, some skids and a partial ground loop, the 120 finally came to a silent stop.

After a few seconds, I pulled the starter and, to my surprise, the engine started. Shame faced, I taxied back to my grass tiedown spot.

Why had the engine quit on final? Later I would learn the correct tank for landing is not the fullest tank but the up-wing tank. My prolonged sideslip on the extra-long final allowed the fuel to run away from the tank’s fuel-line intake located near the fuselage. This starved the engine of fuel.

I shut down and sat in the cockpit, quietly buffeted about by the wind, eyes full of tears, and feeling very low. At least I was OK, and the airplane was OK, but what a disastrous flight. Why did a flight I had looked forward to for so many years — my first flight in my own airplane — go so badly?

As I sat there, I remembered something my father had said. “The only reason to make a mistake is to learn from it.” I vowed I would examine and learn from all the mistakes I made on this flight and every flight I would make thereafter.