Before you endorse a student X-C, be sure

In my last There I Was…. article I told the story of how I started out in flight instructing by doing night training for other instructors’ students. When I wasn’t paying attention one evening, a student made a really hard landing. The minor damage (bent wheel) wasn’t discovered until the next day. I concluded that a CFI must never become complacent or let down his or her guard, no matter how well the student is flying, especially on landing.

After a month or two of doing mostly night training, I acquired a couple students of my own, so I was out at the airport in the daytime on weekends. Since I was also taking helicopter training at the time, I was often there all day long. One Saturday I arrived at the airport around 8:00 a.m. and was immediately buttonholed by the same student who had the hard landing. He was supposed to do his long cross-country that day, and the weather was good, but his regular instructor couldn’t make it in to sign him off. He asked if I would review his planning and give him the required endorsement so he could go. My first student wasn’t until 8:30 so I said sure. We sat down to have a look.

The student, along with a partner, owned a Cessna 150. The proposed X-C was from Collegeville, Pennsylvania (just north of Philadelphia) to Salisbury, Maryland (on the Eastern Shore, east of Washington, D.C.) to Hagerstown, Maryland (way out in western Maryland), and return to Collegeville. Sound like a long distance? It is. Back then, in the late 1970s, the requirement was for a 300-nautical-mile  X-C for the Private Pilot certificate. That’s an all-day trip in a Cessna 150. The student’s preflight planning was in order so I signed him off and told him to have a nice flight.

I was still at the airport a little after 4:00 when his partner showed up and asked, “Where’s Gary?” I said I signed him off for his long cross-country first thing this morning, but he certainly ought to be back by now. The partner said he had already looked around for the plane, and it wasn’t there. Another pilot piped up and told us that Gary had gone flying with somebody else, and then they went to lunch. He didn’t leave on his X-C until 12:30 or 1:00. Uh-oh. There was no way he could get back before dark.

The partner was angry because he had a flying dinner date, and his girlfriend was going to be disappointed. He said Gary knew about the date. I didn’t care much about the partner’s date, but I was concerned about Gary’s safety. He would be flying over a lot of pretty desolate terrain, at night, with no night training other than some landings at a nearby airport. The 150 had one VOR receiver for electronic navigation. This was well before LORAN or GPS. And my name was on the sign-off in his logbook.

We needed to find out where Gary was, and if he was OK. I knew a guy at Philadelphia Flight Service (there were many local FSS’s in the ‘70s) so I called. Luckily, my friend was on duty. I explained the situation, told him the N-number of the plane and the route of flight, and asked if he could track down the plane without causing an FAA investigation. He said he would try, and I should call back in about 15 minutes. He had his regular work to do, in addition to my favor. We waited. It got dark. I called back. So far my friend had determined that Gary had made it to Salisbury, MD, and took off again in mid-afternoon. I asked about Gary getting to Hagerstown, perhaps an hour and a half flight in a C-150. My friend hadn’t gotten that far yet; I was to call him back in another 15 minutes for further information. We waited, becoming more concerned all the time, and called back again. Yes, Gary had made it to Hagerstown, and had gone to the restaurant for food. By the time he took off again (Hagerstown had a tower, they logged it) the sun was below the horizon. Rats. Gary was flying at night.

We got out a chart and measured the distance from Hagerstown to Collegeville. It was 110 nm and would take a little over an hour in the little Cessna two-seater. That meant he should either be back already or landing shortly. We called on the radio and got no answer. After a while without hearing from Gary, I called my friend at Flight Service for the third time. Now even my friend was worried. This time he had me hold on. It seemed like forever. When he came back he said Gary was talking to Wilkes-Barre (PA) approach and would be landing at Wilkes-Barre in a few minutes. Gary was 70 miles  off course to the north, but he was safe. Whew.

Now we had to mount an effort to go get Gary. My FSS friend told me that Wilkes-Barre wouldn’t let him take off again, and I didn’t want him to, anyway. Keep in mind that this is way before cell phones; there was no good way to directly contact Gary. We formulated a plan. I would make the short hop home and pick up my wife, and she and I, along with the partner and his girlfriend, would take my C-172 to Wilkes-Barre to get Gary. The partner and the girlfriend would bring the 150 back, and Gary would return with me in the 172. So there I was, wishing I wasn’t, with no dinner, flying to Wilkes-Barre to rescue a scatterbrain.crosscountry1

We get to Wilkes-Barre, the plane is there on the ramp, but we can’t find Gary. It takes a while, but we finally locate him in the bar, feeling no pain. He had no money, but some other pilots felt sorry for him so they bought him several beers while he was waiting. The tower had made Gary come up to the cab after he landed, so they could inform him that they would not let him take off again, and to chastise him for wandering around at night and getting lost. Since it was around dinnertime the tower guys had sent out for pizza, and they fed Gary. He was the only one of us who got dinner that night.

Gary told us the 150 needed fuel so the partner (with the money) told the line service people to fill it up. It took 19-something, out of 22.5 usable, so Gary didn’t have much fuel left when he landed, in the Pocono Mountains, at night, after being lost. But even then, we weren’t done yet. When the partner and the girlfriend took off on runway 22 they immediately asked for a left turn on course, about 170°. The tower approved it. I heard it because tower and ground were combined on a quiet Saturday night. I called on ground and strongly suggested that they tell him to fly runway heading until reaching 2000 feet. There’s an unlighted (at least back then) ridge about 1,000 feet above the airport elevation that parallels Runway 4-22, and the partner was going to fly right into it. I never said anything to the partner; he doesn’t know that I probably saved his life that night.

Are there lessons for CFIs in this story? You bet! My main purpose in telling the tale is to point out that if you are asked to sign somebody else’s student off for something, make darn sure you know what the student is actually going to do, and when he is going to do it. If he waffles, TELL him what to do. Don’t just sign and walk away, like I did. When it comes to cross-country signoffs, for your student or someone else’s, make sure they have money or credit cards to buy fuel. It turned out that Gary intended to make the whole 353 NM cross-country on a single tank in the 150, because he had no money for more fuel. In theory, the plane would do it, but there was no margin for error. I tell my students that if they have any problems during the flight, especially if they land at an airport other than the one(s) they were signed off for, they MUST call me. They MAY NOT take off again until we speak. Accident records show that students often get into serious trouble and crash if they take off again after having landed to deal with a relatively minor problem.

Also be wary of signing another instructor’s student off for 90-day solo privileges. There could be a very good reason the student’s solo ran out. Maybe the instructor told him that he would not sign him off again until he passed his knowledge test. Perhaps the student was doing bad things, like carrying passengers. Perpetual students (those that never get as far as the checkride) have a nasty habit of ignoring student restrictions. The ones that own their own plane are the worst.

There is a sad footnote to this story. Several years later, after Gary got his private certificate and he and his partner had moved up to an Archer, Gary and his fiancé were killed in a VFR-into-IMC accident. Unfortunately, Gary’s judgment never improved very much. He got into the habit of flying bootleg IFR. First it was for a few seconds, through a cloud he was too lazy to maneuver around. Then it was for a few minutes, to climb or descend through a cloud deck he found to be in the way. One night he tried it and just didn’t come out the other side. He flew along for a while, but began to panic. He called Allentown Approach and tried to get help, but it was too late. He lost control and crashed. Since he called Approach they had it all on tape. I was an active Accident Prevention Counselor and went to most of the FAA safety meetings in our area. The FAA used to play the tape at those meetings. Gary’s last words were “I just flew right past another airplane”, followed by the sound of impact. They determined that he was passing a lighted radio tower in a steep graveyard spiral. They didn’t have a chance.

Larry Bothe is an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, FAASTeam Representative and Gold Seal Instructor in the Indianapolis, IN FSDO area. He is also a Master Certified Flight Instructor and has over 7000 hours in more than 80 types of aircraft. Larry is part-owner of a 1961 7EC Champ and may be contacted at LBothe@comcast.net.

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