A Student’s First Flight to a Towered Airport Nearly Goes Terribly Wrong

Not too many pilots can say that they know what it’s like to see a 707 at less than 50 feet above you with a red glow emitting from each of its four big turbojets against a pitch-black sky. Barry Ross/BarryRossArt.com

I’d always wanted to learn to fly. After all, it was in my blood. My dad and mother had many dates in his Piper J-3 Cub. He would land in the hayfields of her father’s farm to pick her up. When the corn was short he landed in the cornfield between the rows. According to their story, he had to sell his Cub to buy a new washer and dryer to clean my diapers. He always regretted that decision, but I’m sure my mother would argue the point. My uncle George sold Pipers at the time, along with Minneapolis-Moline and Massey-Harris farm equipment. I have some of his old Piper parts books and paperwork. Recently, I found a bill of sale from Piper to my uncle for a Piper Super Cruiser that he sold to a local farmer for $2,725.69 on January 14, 1947.

My first flight was with George’s son Denny in his Cessna 182 when I was 10 years old. I joined a local flying club in central Ohio to pursue my goal of learning to fly in the spring of 1975. The Hummingbirds Flying Club was privately run by a bunch of good ol’ boys, with affordable dues and rates that fit my budget, since I was fresh out of tech school and farming with my dad. There were about a dozen of us in the club flying an old Beechcraft Musketeer, a 180 hp four-seater, tail number N4017T, and we flew out of a grass strip on my instructor’s family farm. Bill even had the runway lit with three lights on either side, one on the center and two 100 yards in each direction from the center lights. The runway lights were to be turned on inside the barn before departure for night flying. The goal when landing was to touch down at or before the center lights.

I had been taking lessons from Bill for a couple of months and doing quite well, with several solos logged. When I showed up at Bill’s for my next lesson, he said it was time for some “big airport” experience. We only had about an hour of daylight remaining when we finished the preflight and climbed aboard the old Beechcraft.

I opened the window, shouted “Clear!” and turned the key to start the Lycoming, and the prop barely moved. The battery was dead. I thought that was the end of the flying for this evening. But no, Bill had another idea. “I’ll get my Buick, hook the jumper cables up and we will be good to go,” he said. Well, this sounded logical to me, and I had great faith in my instructor, who was an accomplished pilot. Little did we know that this was setting us up for a surprise later in the evening.

We jumped the battery through the baggage-compartment door and fired up the engine. Bill backed the big Buick out of the way and climbed aboard, and off we went. With the delay, we now had about half an hour or so before darkness would fall. We did the usual maneuvers: turns about a point, slow flight and stalls. Then Bill said it was time to head for Port Columbus as he gave me a heading to fly. The trip promised to be a short 25 miles, and I could see the city lights coming up in front of us on this beautiful clear night. What a magnificent site for this farm boy droning along toward a big-city airport. All along the journey, Bill was coaching me on navigation and communication, pointing out Ohio State University’s airport and other important landmarks along the way.

We eventually received permission to land on Runway 10L and subsequently entered the pattern in a left base leg for final. After we landed,

I asked for permission to taxi to 10R for departure. In order to taxi from 10L to 10R, we would need to travel all the way around the Columbus terminal filled with Boeing 707s and 727s.

I remember the sight of a taxiing DC-10 was quite impressive to this 22-year-old student pilot. Experiencing the massive machines had me craving more time among the big shots.

Several minutes later, we made our way to 10R and immediately received permission to taxi into position and hold. Bill, with his calm and quiet nature, instructed me to pull onto the runway, line up with the centerline and stop. At this point, we were on the 10R numbers, waiting for permission to take off, with the runway lights providing some luminescence on the moonless night. Again, I was mesmerized by what I was observing for the first time sitting on that 10,000-foot-long runway at night with all the airport lights and the big iron at the terminal. What I was experiencing that night up to this point was one of the reasons, I told myself, that I wanted to fly.

We sat there for what seemed to me like a long time, which was several minutes. Just as I was wondering if we’d ever be cleared for takeoff, Bill instructed me to rev the engine to keep it from fouling up. Putting a little more pressure on the brakes, I advanced the throttle a good bit.

Wow! What happened next made many people do a double take. First, the tower controller who noticed our landing and navigation lights suddenly come on as we were sitting on the numbers was shocked to see us there. The pilots of the 707 on short final arrival for 10R received the command “Abort! Abort! Abort!” Third, Bill and I realized we were sitting ducks in a little Musketeer about to be potentially crushed by a huge Boeing 707 full of people. Not too many pilots can say that they know what it’s like to see a 707 at less than 50 feet above you with a red glow emitting from each of its four big turbojets against a pitch-black sky! The noise was deafening. I could feel it in my bones.

What we didn’t realize at the time was that with the dead battery and idle alternator, there was no electrical power being generated to provide lights or, importantly, radio reception. We were sitting on the numbers at 10R, completely invisible to everyone. We wouldn’t have heard permission to take off if or when it was given from the tower. The controller might have simply thought that we took it upon ourselves to depart since, from what he could see, we weren’t there.

The next thing we heard the controller say after the abort order and the 707 pilot acknowledging the go-around was, “Who is that on 10 Right?” I never saw Bill flustered or scared before this. He quickly grabbed the mic and announced, “This is 4017 Tango!” The rattled controller’s voice on the other end simply said with exuberance, “I thought you were gone. Get out of here!” Those were his exact words. I can only imagine what the consequences would be if this were to happen today. Bill was rather quiet on the return trip; he had a better understanding than I did of what had just transpired.

Oh, and yes, I put the Musketeer back down on the farm field just before the center lights.


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