Pilot in Command

By Mark W. Swarbrick

I strapped myself into the pilot’s seat of the aircraft and adjusted my seat. I began going through the prestart checklist with no idea that in a few moments I would be facing a life and death decision. I concentrated on my checklist, forgetting for the moment this was a very special day for me. Circuit breakers in. Fuel Selector, left tank. Beacon and strobe lights on. Master power switch on. ALT switch on. Mixture, full rich. Throttle at idle. Electric fuel boost pump, on. Horizontal indictor, set. I gave the engine two shots of prime. As the gyros made their distinctive spin-up whine I yelled “Clear!” and turned the ignition switch to start as I held the brakes. The Lycoming 160 HP engine sprang to life. I gave the avionics and gauges a quick once over: Oil pressure normal. Voltage, normal. Fuel pressure, normal. Fuel tanks, both full.

I watched the tachometer and advanced the throttle to 1,000 RPM. I turned on the VHF radio and confirmed it was set to the correct frequency for ground control, 121.5. Keying the microphone, I said, “Willard Ground, Beechcraft Two Niner Two Bravo Romeo at ramp, taxi for takeoff.” Ground control answered, “Two Bravo Romeo taxi to runway Three One via taxiway Alpha.” I responded, “Taxi runway Three One via Alpha, Two Bravo Romeo.”

As I approached the area we used for run-up I turned the aircraft into the wind. Holding the brakes firmly, I advanced the throttle and brought the RPMs up to 1700 RPM. The roar of the propeller never failed to get my adrenaline going. I looked at my gauges. Engine temp, normal. I watched the tachometer and switched to left magneto and confirmed the expected RPM drop, then switched to both magnetos and then to right magneto. Again, the expected RPM drop. I set for both magnetos and felt assured that the plane’s ignition system was operating as expected. From all indications, this plane was safe to fly. What could go wrong? Nothing ever had, except that time the engine suddenly quit at 2,000 feet, but that’s another story.

I reduced the RPMs to idle and set the altimeter and gyro. Then I taxied out to the runway. It was a busy flying day with multiple aircraft on the taxiways and in the air. This airport was rated the second busiest in the nation, having more takeoffs and landings than any other airport, except for Chicago O’hare.

I set the flaps to ten degrees and tuned the radio to the tower frequency. “Willard Tower, Beechcraft Two Niner Two Bravo Romeo, ready for takeoff, runway Three One.” Tower answered, “Two Bravo Romeo cleared for immediate take-off.” I answered, “Cleared take-off, runway Three One, Two Bravo Romeo.” I began taxiing out onto the runway and I heard tower again, “Ozark Seven Seven Sierra Three November cleared for take-off.” Tower had just cleared the jet behind me.

I heard the crescendo of the jet engines of the airliner directly behind me powering up for take-off. I ignored it and took my time lining up on the runway. There was a time I did let that panic me and had hurriedly applied full throttle before I was completely straight on the runway. My instructor had pulled the throttles back, held the brakes and said, “Take your time. Get lined up straight and wait until you’re ready.” “But he’s going to run over us!” I said excitedly. “No worries,” my instructor answered. If he does it’s his fault. Never get rattled. Stay calm.” I thought to myself, “His fault?” Fine consolation if we’re dead!”

I gave my plane full throttle and roared down the runway, keeping an eye on the airspeed. At 70 MPH I eased back on the yoke and I was airborne. That’s when it really hit me. There was no one in the seat next to me. I was all alone in this airplane for the very first time. I had to fly this plane and land it again all by myself. If I made mistakes, there was no one there to correct me. I pushed that thought out of my mind and concentrated on matters at hand.

I had not known this was going to be the day I flew my first solo. I was enrolled in the commercial pilot training program at the University of Illinois’ Institute of Aviation at Champaign/Urbana, Illinois. I met my instructor at the airport as I had done every day for several weeks. This day, instead of walking with me to the airplane he wrote an endorsement to solo in my logbook, handed it to me and said, “Have a nice flight!”

“Are you sure I’m ready?” I asked. “Yes, you’re ready.” He answered. So here I was flying an airplane by myself, training to be a commercial pilot. No one who knew me four years earlier would have believed it. At 18 years of age I had been a dope smoking, acid dropping hippie with no job and no direction in life. That was before I stopped running from God. Once I turned my life over to Jesus everything changed. Now at 22 years old I was clean, clear-headed, enrolled in the University of Illinois and learning disciplines, attitudes and skills that would help me be successful in the future. LSD and marijuana couldn’t hold a candle to the excitement and fulfillment of flying airplanes every day.

I gained altitude in the upwind leg of the airport traffic pattern and then turned 90 degrees to the left onto the crosswind leg. I keyed the mic, “Willard Tower, Beechcraft Two Niner Two Bravo Romeo, staying in the pattern for landing.” Tower didn’t respond as they were busy responding to countless other aircraft. The radio traffic was non-stop.

I turned left 90 degrees again onto the downwind leg. I was now flying in the opposite direction of my takeoff, parallel and to the right of the runway. I kept an eye on my gauges. Fuel pressure good, oil pressure good, altitude, airspeed 94 MPH. I pulled back slightly on the yoke and decreased the throttle ever so slightly until my airspeed was 90, which was the speed limit in the pattern.

I approached the end of the downwind leg and passed the end of the runway. It was almost time to turn left onto what is called the base leg. That’s when I saw the Ozark airliner coming in on a long final. I studied it for a moment. It was approaching at 130 MPH. I was at 90 MPH. The distance between us was closing at a combined speed of 220 MPH. I eyeballed it, determining which of us would be cleared to land first. I couldn’t tell. It was too close to call.

I had seen this situation many times. What the tower always did was give the aircraft on the downwind leg special instructions. For example, they may tell me to extend my downwind more than usual to allow the jet time to land first. Or they may tell me to do a 360 and re-enter on base. That means I just turn right, do a loop and then enter onto the base leg.

I kept waiting for tower to instruct me but they didn’t. They just kept calling instructions to other pilots one after another. I had never seen the pattern so full or heard the radio traffic so intense. It was time to turn on base, but I could plainly see that to do so would put me directly in the path of the incoming DC-9 airliner. I kept waiting for a chance to call tower. I held the mic, ready to key it and talk as soon as there was a break, but a break didn’t come. I needed to know what tower wanted me to do and I needed to know now.

As soon as the next pilot stopped talking I keyed the mike. “Willard Tower, Beechcraft Two Niner Two Bravo Romeo is doing a 360 to re-enter on base.” As I spoke I began banking to the right. Immediately tower answered, “Two Bravo Romeo, negative, continue normal approach.” Quickly I reversed my turn and began banking left to enter on base. I didn’t cuss anymore, but if I did, this would have been a prime time to take up the practice again.

I was directly in the path of the airliner bearing down on me but I was slightly below him. I could see now how this was going to play out. The tower intended to fly him in right over the top of me and land him first. There was just one problem with that. Wingtip vortexes.

A few weeks earlier in our ground school class they had taught us about the vortexes created by large aircraft. Airliners generate small tornadoes that spin off the tips of each wing. These vortexes can remain even after the jet has passed over and they sink at a rate of several hundred feet per minute. They showed us a film of a small airplane being tumbled out of control as a jet passed above it. Wingtip vortexes can take a small airplane and rip it apart. The message was clear. Never fly under a large airliner if you want to stay alive. And this is exactly what the controller in the tower was planning for me. What was he thinking? This air traffic controller should know better, but apparently he didn’t. My wet sweaty hands gripped the yoke nervously as I considered my options. This air traffic controller was going to get me killed on my first solo flight. And I had worried, that if I became a Christian, life might be boring!

Bringing that airliner in over me was against everything I had been taught. I wasn’t having it. I put my right hand on the throttle and pushed it all the way forward and began to climb. I grabbed the mic, “Tower, Two Bravo Romeo is going to overfly the taxiway and reenter the pattern on crosswind.” With relief, I saw that I was now at a higher elevation than the airliner. He would pass below me, and since small aircraft don’t generate dangerous vortexes all would be well for him. I heard the Tower call out, “Ozark One Four Victor Niner Whiskey watch for small aircraft traffic crossing in front of you.” I thought it ironic that now that I was out of harm’s way, the controller was suddenly worried about a collision. A smooth professional voice answered calmly, “Tower, Ozark Victor Niner Whiskey,  rodger we have the aircraft in view.”

I turned left and flew to the right side of the runway and re-entered the pattern on the crosswind leg. The rest of the flight was completely normal but I was very nervous about what the repercussions of all this would be. I had disobeyed the instructions from tower. My instructor, I knew, was on the ground watching every move I had made. Would there be an incident report filed with the FAA? Would I be washed out of the pilot training program? What would my instructor say to me?

I continued my circuit around the pattern. This time on my downwind leg all was fine. Nothing coming in on a long final. I turned on base leg and then onto final approach. I reduced power with an eye on my vertical speed indicator and glided towards the runway.  I keyed the mike one more time. “Tower, Two Bravo Romeo requesting permission to land and taxi to the ramp.” Tower replied, “Two Bravo Romeo cleared to land runway One Four, exit runway on second taxiway, contact ground on 121.5”

I landed without any further incident and taxied back to the ramp where my instructor was waiting for me. I completed the shutdown procedure, secured the aircraft and walked over to where my instructor was standing.

“What happened up there?” That was the first thing he said and I knew he had seen the whole thing. I explained the situation to him, told him what happened, what I did, and why. I stopped talking and waited to see what he had to say. He was quiet for a moment and then he said, “You did exactly the right thing.” He continued, “You are the pilot-in-command. If you get an order from the tower that you think is dangerous or in error, then you have the right to do what you think you must. It’s your life and the life of your passengers that is in your hands. The pilot-in-command has final say in such cases, and in this case, you were absolutely correct.”

Was I ever relieved! I never heard anything about it. No incident report was filed. At the flight school, you could always tell when someone made their first solo. They walked around all day with a big silly grin plastered on their face. I was no exception.

That was forty years ago. The lesson I learned that day has come in handy many times in my life. Not in the world of aviation, but in the game of life. I’ve learned that I am the pilot-in-command of my life. We all are. There are lots of controllers out there that think they know what is good and what is best for you. They aren’t always right.

Today there are government officials, teachers, and others who will insist something is okay when it isn’t. They should know better, but they don’t. Go ahead, be a homosexual, it’s cool. No harm. Want to be a girl instead of a boy? No problem. Johnny can shower with the girls now. Have sex whenever with whoever. Don’t want that baby inside you? No worries. Just kill it. Socialism is hip. Communism is cool. There is no god. We evolved from a monkey’s uncle. We’re just animals so act like it. Get high. Let’s legalize marijuana.

These pushers of sin and insanity, if you listen to them and not your own conscience, will fly your life right into a tornado that will rip your future apart. Make your own decisions. Do what you know is right. Steer clear of what you know is wrong and climb above the danger. There isn’t always someone next to you to tell you what’s right and wrong. Sometimes you have to fly solo and not go along with the crowd. You have to follow your own instincts about what is right. Stop and listen to your own God-given conscience. That’s what it’s there for.

Live life with personal responsibility and common sense. Don’t let others, even those in authority, convince you to compromise your conscience and sense of right and wrong.  Its your life. Be the pilot-in-command of your own destiny and let God be your copilot. This is what I learned the first time I flew solo in an airplane.