It was a bright sunny morning in Sarasota, Florida, as I headed out on my first solo cross-country fight. I was in a Cessna 152 I had flown many times; my destination was Ft. Myers, and I had flown there several times with my instructor as well.
As I neared Ft. Myers, Florida’s unpredictable summer thunderstorms completely covered my approach. The 152 started bouncing as I drew closer, and I had to make a decision: Should I try flying around the thunderstorm and approach Ft. Myers from the south? It looked like I could easily fly out west over the Gulf of Mexico and fly around the storm. I finally decided that this may be a risky choice and decided to radio Ft. Myers approach to see if they were covered with rain and what they would suggest. To my surprise, no one answered. I repeated but no response. I tried other stations, but no response. The radio was not working!
The flight school had instructed us in the event of loss of radio: we were to land at Venice, Florida, a non-towered airport, and call them. As I approached Venice, it, too, was covered in thunderstorms. I seemed trapped—thunderstorms were everywhere. I decided the safest thing to do was fly toward the sun. Wherever the sun was, I headed in that direction.
After flying for about an hour and a half, I was totally lost. I was over land but couldn’t recognize a thing; at least I was in the sun and away from the big thunderstorms. In desperation, I started to fiddle with the radio. It suddenly came alive. The radio wasn’t dead; a switch was in its neutral position. I had never realized in my brief flight training that the radio had an off-on and neutral position. In bouncing around near the thunderstorms close to Ft. Myers, I had inadvertently put the radio in the neutral position.
Now with the radio working, I reached a comforting voice and explained my situation. I was lost. The voice asked, “What can you see?” I could see a really big bridge ahead. “St. Petersburg,” he said. Okay; I’m not lost, but then he asked, “What do you want to do?” I said, “Put this thing on the ground ASAP.”
He pointed out a small airport with a grass strip right beneath me, where I could land. I looked at it, but explained I’ve never landed on a grass strip before. He said, “Well, just circle where you are. The thunderstorms are moving away quickly.” When I was clear, he would give me vectors back to Sarasota.
I landed in Sarasota shaken, but alive. My instructor was worried about where I had been all this time. I explained what a harrowing experience I just had. His only comment? This did not count as my first cross-country flight since I did not land anywhere else, no matter that I had flown all over Florida for hours. The next day, I completed my first cross-country trip to Ft. Myers, uneventfully.
Have you encountered a situation or hazardous condition that yielded lessons on how to better manage the risks involved in flying? Do you have an experience to share with Aviation Safety’s readers about an occasion that taught you something significant about ways to conduct safer flight operations? If so, we want to hear about it.
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