My first flight emergency happened shortly after takeoff in a Cessna 152, a small two-seat trainer. There was no warning, no seat-of-the pants magic alerting me to the coming engine failure.
“Nail the airspeed—we’re hardly climbing,” I said without urgency, seeing my student in a shallow climb. “We need altitude.” A moment later the engine smoothly rolled back to idle rpm.
It was summer, late afternoon, the cockpit full of sunshine. I barked—“I’ve got it” and grabbed the control wheel and knocked his hand off the throttle making sure it was shoved all the way forward. My heart pounded as I lowered the nose transitioning to my best glide speed.
We were about 500 feet off the ground and had enough time and distance for two turns but not enough altitude to make it back to the runway. The carb heat and mixture controls were both in but the engine was still idling, developing barely enough power to overcome inertia and taxi, had we been on the ground.
My student—normally cocksure even when he flubbed a landing—now stared straight ahead, his hands resting on his legs. Nothing promising to my right, I looked past him and found a clearing alongside a cornfield. My first turn put me on a modified base leg with a short final to go. I lowered flaps twenty degrees and trimmed to relieve pressure on the control wheel. The sun would be at my back on final approach—a good thing.
I turned final and lowered the remainder of the flaps. My student asked if we should get on the radio, talk to somebody. “Not now—make sure I don’t hit anything.” It appeared the clearing offered about two thousand feet for landing, no surprises until lined up and another cornfield bordering the far end came into view.
Full flaps allowed for a steeper descent without increasing airspeed, a needed configuration to clear obstacles and land as slow as possible near the beginning of the field. We flew over a stand of trees and a barn. When my touchdown point advanced farther down the field, I lowered the nose and steepened the descent. The airspeed slightly increased but I didn’t make another adjustment. The speed would decrease rapidly when I raised the nose to slow the rate of descent and the wheels rolling through heavy grass would further help to decelerate the small trainer.
At touchdown, from the corner of my eye, I saw my student reach for the controls and stop, wanting to grab something as the 1600 pound trainer shook heartily across the uneven ground. With the nosewheel held off and still traveling near sixty miles per hour, I feared an unseen hole or a steep ditch burying the nose gear and flipping us on our backs.
Slowing, the wing lost more lift and the plane’s weight was transferred to the main wheels. Gravity started the nose toward the ground and I saw the cornfield rapidly approaching. I kept pressure on the brakes and pulled the mixture out, starving the engine of fuel. It died with a shudder and the prop parked at the two o’clock position. We came to a stop just as the white spinner of Cessna 152 nosed into the first row of cornstalks at barely walking speed.
Both of us exhaled, smiled, and started to climb out of the Cessna. Half out of the cockpit I leaned back inside to knock off the battery switch and grab the keys. Shifting my weight to exit I missed the step, scraped my shin and banged my knee—“Damnit!”
My lower leg burned and I limped making my way around the plane. There was no damage or dents along the skin and looking into the front of the engine cowling no obvious signs why we had lost power. At first neither my student nor I said a word. It was quiet in the “back forty” and humid on this August afternoon. Before long, a car appeared. It was Frank Corbi, my boss and owner of Miller Field.
“Frank, I finally learned something from you,” I said loudly, soon as he got out of the car.
“What’s that?” he smiled, dressed in his dark-blue jumpsuit, six feet tall, short-cropped gray hair, walking in his slow, thoughtful manner, arms swinging gently, timed to the internal rhythm of problem solving.
“I had one clear thought after another—Fly the airplane—Make a decision—Don’t overcontrol!” I said hyperventilating.
I looked over at my student to make sure he was absorbing this great lesson in flying, adding with bravado, “I nailed the pitch and airspeed.” I took a deep breath and shook my head, lowering my voice, saying “And then I lost it—stepped out the plane and skinned my leg.”
Everyone laughed and we followed Frank who started his inspection at the elevator, moving the control surface up and down. I stepped higher, fearful of stumbling or driving my foot into a groundhog hole.
The wind picked up, warm and playful, a beloved dog charging you after you’ve been gone all day. The wind had been light at takeoff and I hadn’t considered it for the emergency landing. Had a tail wind surprised us, we would have crashed through rows of corn before stopping.
My student was shaking his head, saying how glad he was to be back on terra firma in one piece. Although this guy could really get under my skin, he had temporarily shed the cool-dude persona. I saw a decent guy, a guy not hiding behind the dark mustache and smug, playboy exterior. He was thanking me with his eyes and I acknowledged with a nod.
“You and your student are in one piece and this little bird is pretty as ever,” Frank said, standing in front of the spinner, the cornstalks touching his back. “I watched you take off and heard that Lycoming get real quiet. I knew where you were headed. Good choice, you were too low anyway to make it back to the runway,” he said with relief. “You both get on the struts. I’ll push on the prop.”
We moved the Cessna back about ten feet. Clear of the field, Frank continued his inspection. Walking past the left wing strut, fingers gliding over the plane’s skin, he touched it like you do a horse, informing the animal of your presence as you move alongside it.
Feeling light-headed, I said, “Frank, I know it’s been only a couple hours ago since lunch, but I’m starving.”
“Well, you just burned up a bunch of calories making this landing. Once that old farmer gets out here we’ll go back and have a piece of pie, maybe some ice cream.”
“Pie and ice cream for everyone,” I announced as Frank pulled a screw driver from his back pocket and started unbuttoning the cowling for a look at the engine.
“I hope they have vanilla,” my student added.