March 2009Departments

Learning Experience

Memorable lesson

The third leg's the charm

My intermediate solo cross-country flight-from Waukegan, Illinois, to Madison, Wisconsin, to Fond du Lac, Wisconsin, and finally returning to Waukegan-stands out as my most memorable flight-training experience.

Since a good part of my training took place in the winter of 1993 to 1994, finding a good weather day for this flight was a bit problematic. Finally, the weather forecasts looked like conditions would be favorable. Unfortunately, it was the middle of the week. Luckily, I had an understanding boss who said I could come in late the next day if the weather held up. Full of anticipation, I reserved one of my flying club's Cessna 152s for the next day. That evening, I prepared my flight plans for the three legs of the trip.

The day of the flight was a beautiful winter day, clear and, surprisingly for the Midwest, not terribly cold. I went to the airport, got a briefing for the trip, and put the finishing touches on my flight plans. I reviewed everything with my instructor and received the endorsement for the flight.

Wow! This was exciting! My prior cross-country solo had been to Janesville, Wisconsin, and back. A good flight, but I'd been there before with my instructor. And we'd been to Madison and back, so that wasn't a new experience. The exciting part was the anticipation of flying to a new airport, Fond du Lac County, from an airport that wasn't my home base. And the thought of flying from there back to home base was exciting too. I knew it was a bit silly, but suddenly I felt one with the great explorers of the ages.

The preflight, taxi, and runup were all normal. After getting clearance from the Waukegan tower, I departed for Dane County Regional Truax Field in Madison. I opened the flight plan and found my waypoints with no difficulty-the Tri-State tollway, Westosha Airport, Lake Geneva, and so on. As I checked them off, I was pleased that my leg times were pretty close to what I'd estimated. I was even more pleased that I knew where I was.

As I approached Cambridge, Wisconsin, it was time to get the automatic terminal information service (ATIS) at Madison and contact approach. A little planning was always in order with the radios in the club's 152s. The avionics were adequate but not extensive. The airplanes had a two-place intercom, Mode C transponder, and single nav/com-certainly good enough for VFR trainers. Thus, you got the ATIS first, then contacted air traffic control (ATC).

I contacted Madison Approach, informed them that I was over Cambridge, inbound for landing with the current ATIS. The controller gave me a squawk code and told me to plan on landing on Runway 21. A short time later, the controller asked me something that I don't recall. I replied with whatever information was requested. At least I thought so:

"Six-One-Three-Seven-Papa, how do you hear?"

"Six-One-Three-Seven-Papa is receiving you loud and clear."

"Six-One-Three-Seven-Papa, how do you hear this radio?"

"Six-One-Three-Seven-Papa, loud and clear."

"Six-One-Three-Seven-Papa, can you hear Madison Approach?"

I suddenly realized that I could hear the approach controller, but he couldn't hear me. What to do? I'm heading into a Class C airport with no radios! Not good! I looked at my sectional and realized that I was near Blackhawk Airfield, a nontowered airport. Now to find it.

"Six-One-Three-Seven-Papa, why are you circling out there?"

Oh, great-now I'm in trouble-ATC's trying to figure out what's going on. What did my instructor tell me to do in these situations? I squawked 7600 for lost communications.

"Aha! Six-One-Three-Seven-Papa, if you hear this, ident."

I pressed the Ident button on the trans-ponder-Blink.

"Very good. If you're a student pilot, ident."


"OK, Six-One-Three-Seven-Papa, fly direct to Madison and stay with me. Ident to acknowledge further instructions."


A few moments and a couple of small vectors later:

"Six-One-Three-Seven-Papa, enter a left base Runway 21. Tower's cleared you to land. Squawk standby."


After landing, I tuned in the frequency for ground control, figuring they would at least tell me something about taxiing. As a test, I tried calling, and they could hear me! They cleared me to taxi to the fixed-base operator (FBO).

After getting the problem resolved (the radio was slightly loose in the tray-the kind mechanic wouldn't even accept payment) and fueling, I launched on the next leg to Fond du Lac. Before departing, I did call the office to let my boss know I'd be arriving a little later than planned.

I remember thinking that everything should be fine now. And everything was going according to plan until I passed Beaver Dam Lake, about midway through the leg. That is, until I looked down at the sectional chart to double-check my position, since the lake was the last big landmark between Madison and Fond du Lac. I hadn't realized, though, that the airplane quietly turned 90 degrees to the right while my head was down. I got really, really lost-instantly.

Did you know that, to a 33-hour student pilot raised in the suburbs of Chicago, Wisconsin dairy country all looks like, well, Wisconsin dairy country? I started trying to relate anything on the ground to my sectional. Nothing clicked. All I knew was that I was somewhere over central Wisconsin, surrounded by farmland.

The first low-level signs of panic started to become evident through some irrational thinking (Where do I pull over and ask for directions? actually went through my mind). Finally, while looking for a flight service frequency to ask for help, I realized that the 180 radial from the Oshkosh VOR goes through the airport at Fond du Lac. With that, I simply turned east, intercepted the radial, and flew it up to Fond du Lac. After landing at Fond du Lac, I closed my flight plan for that leg, got an update on the weather, and bought fuel. With that, I launched for Waukegan Regional. That part of the trip, finally, went according to plan.

What are the lessons? First, don't panic. Maintain control of the aircraft; as long as the airplane is flying, you have options available. Second, remember and periodically review the procedures for various abnormal situations, such as lost communications. Third, maintain situational awareness; if you do lose it, do what you have to do to get it back.

Finally, this was a lesson about learning lessons. It would be easy to dismiss all of this as simply what can happen to low-time students. Instead, I've used this flight over and over again in my own flying and what I teach my students about the process of learning to fly-and about using all of tools and resources available to us.

"Learning Experiences" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for students and pilots to learn from the experiences of others. It is intended to provoke thought and discussion, acknowledging that actions taken by the authors were not necessarily the best choices under the circumstances. We encourage you to discuss any questions you have about a particular scenario with your flight instructor. E-mail submissions to