Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear (Episode 5): Solo Cross Country – With a Twist

A week later, it was time to do the cross-country again—this time, on my own.

“So … Buttonville to Muskoka to Peterborough, then home?” I asked—retracing the now-familiar route in my mind.

Brandon smiled darkly then said, “No. Go the other way—Peterborough—Muskoka—then home.”

Bastard! Everything would look different … which is exactly what Brandon had in mind.

Thirty minutes east of Buttonville, on my very first, solo cross-country, the engine in my Cessna 150 stopped.

Just like that!

One minute, I was flying along happily at 2,000 feet.

The next, I was heading down.

No words can describe the utter terror I felt. All I knew was—I was about to die.

Mind you—Brandon’s training paid off well. The second the engine faltered, I automatically pulled out the knob which poured hot air into the carburettor. If any ice had formed inside the freezer-cold interior of the carb, the heat should melt it …

But nothing happened.

It took everything I had to fight back the panic.

“Okay, okay,” I thought. “This is for real. But you’ve practised this—so set up your glide, pick a field and get ready to land.”

I eased the nose down, watched the airspeed stabilize at 70 mph, then started looking for a good field.

There wasn’t a lot of choice.

I picked the longest field I could find, and started gliding the Cessna towards its near end.

I figured I had less than 2 minutes till we were on the ground.

What else was I supposed to do? What else?

Oh, right—try and see why the engine had stopped.

I checked the magneto switches. Both were still in the “on” position, which meant the engine should be getting spark through at least one of its two separate electrical systems.

Down to 1,000 feet. Keep the field in sight, and whatever you do, stay high. You can always use flaps, or even sideslip to lose height. But without an engine, if you’re too low … well, just don’t get too low.

How about gas?

I checked the gas gauges. Lots of fuel. Besides, I’d filled up before I left.

500 feet remaining. Okay. Start turning in.

As I banked, I looked down and checked the gas tank selector. It was in the right place, with fuel flowing to the engine from both wing tanks.

“So, what the hell is—”

I cut myself off as I lined up with the field and discovered what a bad choice I’d made.

The “field” was nothing more than cleared land, deep in moraine country. So, I was faced with a sharply rolling landscape, dotted with outcrops of bare bedrock.

Oh My God!

I couldn’t have picked a worse field if I tried. And as I was now too low to go anywhere else, I’d have to land here—though it looked as if “crash” would be a more apt description.

But as I passed through two hundred feet, the engine coughed … spluttered … then suddenly roared back to life.


I couldn’t believe my luck, but decided to make the best of it and climb away from that plane-smashing terrain just as soon as I could get sufficient airspeed.

I was just about to do that when I suddenly remembered a rule that had been hammered into me re Emergency Landings. “Once you’ve committed to land, don’t change your mind—even if the engine restarts.” The reason? If the engine quits again (and it probably will), you will have gone past your field and may have nowhere else to go.

I looked up ahead. Beyond the “field,” lay nothing but a thick stretch of forest.

I knew I should land … but the morainey field looked even worse from this low altitude.

What to do? What to do?

Suddenly, I heard Douglas Bader’s words ringing in my ears … “Rules were made for the obedience of fools and guidance of the wise.”

Damn straight.

I made sure I had enough airspeed, then begin climbing away from the field … carefully … in a circle … until I finally had enough height to glide to a better spot.

My heart was pounding in my ears. I couldn’t believe this had happened to me … and I couldn’t believe I’d got away with it!

As I patted myself on the back for doing all the right things, I realized I’d completely forgotten to put out a “Mayday” call on the way down.

(Sidebar: “Mayday” comes from the French expression, “M’aidez” which translates, quite appropriately, to “HELP ME!” I’m glad they decided to stick with French as it would be decidedly un-cool to be screaming, “HELP ME, HELP ME, HELP ME …” on the way down)

The engine seemed to be running well, but as I still had no idea why it quit, I thought I’d better get on the radio and let someone know what had happened. The nearest airport was Oshawa, so I decided to call their tower. And as I changed to that frequency, I heard an Oshawa Instructor say, “… Yeah, better get everybody down. I’m getting non-stop carb ice up here.”

I looked down at the Carb Heat knob. It was still on—happily melting away the ice that had obviously caused the engine (and my heart) to stop.

I should have felt good, but I didn’t … because as soon as I’d made my Mayday call, I was going to turn off the heater.

A pleasant Instructor at the Oshawa Flying Club bought me a cup of coffee, then assured me it was safe to fly back home to Buttonville.

“Leave the carb heat on all the way,” he said. “And don’t give that engine failure another thought. Most pilots go through their entire careers without having one. You’ve had yours, so you can put that behind you now.”

I liked what he said. It made sense. And for the most part, he was right.

But, as most of the aircraft I have flown are antique airplanes … as of 2010, I have twenty-one engine failures in my logbooks!


Watch for Episode 6 of “Those Thrilling Days of Yesteryear” on Sunday, April 25th.


About the Author

Glenn Norman  is a Co-Founder and the Editor of Why Fly. Learn more.

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