A Young Pilot Is Forced To Improvise To Save The Day

A Young Pilot Is Forced To Improvise To Save The Day

At my airport, it’s rarely ever quiet; that’s a price we have to pay while flying at one of the busiest general aviation airports in the country. It’s not often that I get to fly in the morning with my busy schedule, but I woke up extra early to do a quick engine break-in flight before work. It was the time of year in Colorado where the mornings are cold and the afternoons are hot, in between summer and fall. As I walked out to the Cessna 172 I was supposed to fly, I felt ecstatic about the chilly morning; it meant I’d get better performance with the 160 horsepower engine the Skyhawk was equipped with.

At this time, I was only 19 and juggling work, college, and flight training. It got stressful at times; however, flight training was something I always looked forward to.

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Taxiing out to the runway that morning was quiet. I was the only one taking off that early, so it didn’t take me long to get in the air. Centennial Airport is typically so busy that getting in the air takes some time. It was cool with air as smooth as glass and not a single cloud in the sky. I flew to the west and cruised at full power, as I was instructed to by maintenance. The golden rays of sun lit up the majestic peaks of the familiar mountains, and I couldn’t imagine anything better than this. The sun’s rays were a warm gold, casting amber light across the Front Range and bathing the plains in warmth.

There wasn’t much I could do during the break-in but cruise at full power with minimal maneuvering, so I enjoyed the views and the empty airspace as I motored along the front range. As I headed back to the airport, I couldn’t help but wonder when I’d get to fly like this again. Between the rigorous training for my next ratings and college, I find it’s rare that I get to fly for no particular reason, especially on solo flights.

During this time in my training, I was working on my instrument rating and building time. Most of my flights were with my instructor practicing approaches or with fellow members of the flying club to build simulated instrument cross country time. Flying with someone meant we saved some money and were able to fly under the hood while acting as each other’s safety pilot. with the airlines as my finish line, I don’t expect to see solo flying very often, so I view all solo flights as special treats.

It was early enough that there weren’t many people out flying, so it was still just me and the tower on the radios. I got set up in the downwind, still keeping full power while running my descent checklist, waiting for my wings to be parallel with the thousand-foot markers of 17R. As soon as I was cleared and ready to land, I pulled the throttle back and prepared to descend.

In training, everyone always talks about pilot error, but less commonly do they talk about emergencies outside of engine fires or engine failures. When the power stuck at 2,500 RPM, I was slightly confused, but I assumed I just didn’t bring the throttle back enough. I pulled the throttle back more and more until it was at what was supposed to be idle, but the power stayed at 2,500 RPM. I didn’t know why I had no control over the engine power at the time, but I would later find out that it was a broken throttle cable.

Instead of panic, a wave of calm washed over me as I called tower and asked to circle the airport at a higher altitude. I made my climb up to the altitude ATC gave me and made a standard pattern around 17L while I made a plan to land the plane. I had plenty of fuel, although I felt the external pressure of needing to get on the ground so I could get into work. At this time, I was only 19 and juggling work, college, and flight training. It got stressful at times; however, flight training was something I always looked forward to.

I took my time to let go of these pressures and focus on what I had always been taught: Aviate, navigate and communicate. No matter what, I had to fly the plane first. Panicking would do me no good. I’ve been taught to handle pressure well, and I’ve always been calm in the face of emergencies.

I called the maintenance team of my flying club to alert them and asked them to meet me to tow the airplane off of the runway, and told the tower I was ready to land. I asked to be set up on a long final for our longest runway, and from there I pushed the nose down and turned on the carb heat. At pattern altitude, I started to lean the mixture to reduce power. I had to be very careful that I didn’t kill the engine.

I got the power to 2,000 RPM and started to slow my airspeed. As soon as I was in the white-arc, I dumped full flaps to bring it down. As I approached the numbers, I could see all of the firetrucks and ambulances waiting just off of the runway. It was only then that the seriousness of the situation settled into my mind. I persisted. I was so close to landing; I just needed to keep calm.

I was on the glide slope at a good speed to make a normal landing. The only difference was that I had to kill the engine to ensure I’d be able to stop. As soon as I was over the runway, I pulled the mixture back to idle cut off and experienced the most surreal feeling as the propeller stopped. It looked as if time was frozen, as if I was in a picture, looking out at the runway as the plane was about to land.

I entered ground effect and flared, and the plane came down as if everything was normal, aside from the propeller not spinning. My main wheels touched the runway, then my nose wheel. I stopped very quickly after I touched down, since there was no propeller to keep me moving. I expected to float down the runway because of the excess power, but I had no problem and stopped just past the thousand-foot markers. Once the plane was stopped, I reached for my checklist and shut everything off. I breathed a sigh of relief and pulled the handle to open the door, which jarred me out of my quiet focus.

I watched as the group of emergency vehicles raced toward me with their lights on and sirens blaring. As the firemen ran to check on me, my hands started to shake. I felt small as I got out of the plane and stood on the runway to talk to airport operations while waiting for a tow. I was able to watch all of the planes landing on the parallel runway. I felt overwhelmingly grateful that I got the plane and myself safely on the ground.

The firefighters asked how I was. All I could say calmly was, “I had it under control.”

Any insecurities I had about my piloting skills were gone after I landed. I felt like a true pilot, destined to follow my father’s footsteps and become an airline pilot. I learned how much your attitude affects the outcome of a scenario and how incredibly lucky I am to have such a great instructor and support group. Had I panicked, I may have had a harder time coming up with a plan or making the landing, but thanks to my confidence and level head, I was able to save my panic for the ground.

I wouldn’t have this confidence if my instructor hadn’t instilled it in me. He made sure I was well-trained and taught me to believe in myself and my capability as a pilot. Without his guidance throughout my training, the outcome may have been, err, undesirable, to say the least.

I realized that this flight encompassed what it means to be a pilot in every way, to enjoy the smooth air and beautiful views, and to think of the sky as your home. To be a pilot is also to keep going through turbulence, cloudy skies and, as luck had it, even the occasional maintenance issue, like a broken throttle cable, and to handle it all, the ups as well as the downs, with grace and gratitude.


Have you had a close call or a cool aviation experience that left a lasting impression? We’d love to share your story in the magazine! We’re looking for stories that are between 1,100 and 1,500 words long that tell a great story. If you’re interested, you can always write us a note outlining your experience and we’ll get back to you right away. The pay is small potatoes, $101, but if your story is chosen, you’ll get to work with our great illustrator Gabriel Campanario and have him bring your memory to life.

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