I Almost Died 40 Years Ago

The number one cause of plane crashes is pilot error. Sounds about right.

Click here to read this story on Medium.com

That’s me on the wing of a Cessna. I learned later that the pilot is supposed to be inside the airplane — photo by author

There’s an old joke… When I die, I want to go like my grandfather who died peacefully in his sleep. Not screaming like the passengers in his car.

I never thought it was funny.

It was 1986, and I was in my final year of undergraduate Engineering. My friend Peter and I had collaborated on an engineering design competition and won the eastern Canadian regional top prize, with a light switch that would turn on and off by voice command. Even more exciting, we were invited to a national competition in Montreal the following month.

While I was in university, I had enrolled in private pilot lessons. I once had the dream of becoming a fighter pilot, but I was stymied by imperfect vision and a lack of conflict in Canadian airspace. I had my private license by the time we had to go to Montreal though, so Peter and I decided to have me fly us there. One more layer of adventure on top of the award and trip!

On a cold Sunday morning, Peter and I loaded our circuit board into the back of a Cherokee Warrior for the two-hour trip. Having been taught on Cessnas, I hadn’t flown this model of plane before, and it made Peter a bit nervous. I comforted him, saying, “Don’t worry, these single-engine planes all fly the same. We’ll be fine.”

Other than a lot of cursing while trying to prime the engine to start, the takeoff and trip to Dorval (now Trudeau) Airport were uneventful; I was pretty good at maintaining altitude and following a map. I even let Peter take the controls so I could take a quick snooze. I showed him the autopilot button and nodded off.

An hour later we were approaching Dorval, and I had air traffic control on the radio assigning me runway twenty-four for coming from the south. It was an easy approach, and I lowered the flaps to reduce speed while Peter said, “This was great! You should fly us everywhere!” As we entered final descent at two thousand feet, the plane’s engine sputtered a few times and then shut down completely.

Peter asked, “Are you supposed to turn the engine off now?” I assured him that it was normal procedure while I frantically scanned the dashboard to see what was wrong. There were a series of lights on, some flashing, but it wasn’t apparent what the actual problem was. The number-one cause of flight crashes in private planes is lack of fuel, but glancing at the fuel gauge, I saw it was full.

Just then, there was a burst of static from my headphones and an angry French voice telling me, “Echo Victor Romeo, you are approaching ze wrong runway!”

I looked up and saw a large twenty-four on the runway and replied, “Negative, we’re approaching runway twenty-four.”

He yelled, “You are on twenty-four RIGHT. You were assigned twenty-four LEFT!”

What the fuck? Parallel runways?

I was about to land in mud five hundred feet short of either one, so I turned back to the dashboard and ignored the control tower’s continued stream of invective, breaking out into a sweat.

Wait a second. Did I see a full fuel tank? After a two-hour flight? Going back to the fuel gauge, I saw a second dial at zero, and it was also labeled fuel. There was a knob underneath labeled “L” and “R.” Swearing under my breath, I snapped the switch from L to R, pumped the primer, and restarted the engine on the secondary fuel tank, something I hadn’t had to deal with on Cessnas.

Out loud, I said to Peter, “Oh, looks like I misjudged it. Better turn the engine back on,” while I turned and smiled at him. I hoped he didn’t notice the shadow of the rapidly ascending rerouted 737 behind us. Never let them see you sweat.

I landed safely, taxied to our assigned parking spot, and pretended nothing unusual had happened. As I dealt with a security guard who came running up to the plane, Peter unloaded our project circuit board, and shortly after, we got into a rental car for the drive to McGill University. Peter seemed pensive, which I thought was strange. We’d landed safely, and things were going well.

When we got to the university, we went directly to the design showroom, plugged in our equipment, and did a quick test to make sure everything worked. Peter looked like he was going to be sick. When I said, “Light on,” and the light came on, he suddenly started to laugh. I stared at him, and he said, “Oh my god, I was so nervous. I dropped the circuit board when I was taking it out of the plane. I thought I’d broken it and you were going to kill me when you found out.”

I never said anything to him about the botched landing. Shortly after returning home, I received a letter in the mail stating that I was no longer allowed to fly into Dorval Airport.

I never flew cross-country again, only taking off and landing at the same airport, flying for fun. I gave up flying altogether a few years later.

After all, I want to die peacefully in my sleep.

I write so I can connect with my readers. You can reach me by responding to this email, by commenting on my website, or by responding to the poll below. Thanks for reading!

Thanks for reading!

Anonymous feedback appreciated, what did you think of this post?

Login or Subscribe to participate in polls.

Join the conversation

or to participate.