Call it pride, hubris, being full of one's self, whatever ... it goeth before a fall, as the saying runs, and after passing the checkride and thus earning my private pilot's license , I was quite full of it. Like most brand-new pilots, I wanted to show that license (and me) off to anyone who'd sit still for an airplane ride.
It so happened that during a visit by some Canadian relatives in 1988, I invited my grand-uncle Ben to take a short hop with me. We'd fly, I explained, over to the Salinas Municipal Airport, land, have a walkabout, and fly back home. Just enough of a flight to give him a small taste of private aviation, and have a good time to boot. Ben, then in his late fifties and still something of a devil-may-care fellow, readily agreed. The day was clear and the weather agreeable as we drove to the airport. I was pleased to find my old standby Cessna N5151B was available, and so I signed it out. After the usual checkout of the airplane and its systems, we were comfortably seated in the bird and ready to go.
Using my best aviation baritone voice, I radioed the tower, and soon we were cleared to taxi and then lift off. I glanced at Ben to make sure he wasn't developing a sudden case of nerves. It's happened with first-time passengers and can lead to panic. But no, he looked relaxed and seemed to be anticipating the adventure.
The takeoff and flight out of San Jose's Reid-Hillview Airport was easy and smooth, just the way you want it when you're demonstrating light aircraft flight to a non-flier. Once we left the traffic pattern, I put the airplane into a climb. I'd decided on a cruising altitude of 5500 feet and, once we reached it, settled back in the seat and relaxed a bit myself. The air was calm and relatively free of other aircraft, and I hoped Ben was enjoying the flight as much as I was.
The flight to Salinas isn't a lengthy one; as we neared the general area, I reckoned it was time to start looking for the Salinas airport. The diagrams in my flight guide manual seemed to indicate that the airport should be ahead and off to our left. Since Salinas was a controlled field (meaning a control tower was present and operating), I'd have to contact their control tower and report in. I flipped on the radio and tuned it to Salinas' arrival information broadcast, to get airport conditions, landing information, and which runway was in use.
Armed with the appropriate information, I tuned to the control tower frequency and grabbed the microphone.
“Salinas tower, Cessna 5151B for landing with information Foxtrot” That 'aviation baritone' again.
“Roger, 5151B, landing Salinas with Foxtrot. Report over the Spreckels Sugar Plant.”
Ugh. I'd been this route a number of times, and had never, ever seen that sugar factory. Friends had tried to point it out to me, but I still never saw it. And now I had to report in when we were overhead the darn thing? Since we couldn't exactly pull over to the curb and look for the factory, I started scanning for all I was worth. Ben had heard the radio, and so I asked him if he saw anything on the ground that resembled a large sugar plant. Nothing. Just lots of houses and rolling California farmland.
Nor could I, Mr. Big-Time Pilot, admit to the tower that I couldn't find the factory. It was that pride thing, remember? An FAA-licensed Private Pilot such as myself ought to be able to spot something as big as a sugar factory. However, with the airport fast approaching off in the distance, I had to do something. Finally, I saw an object on the ground that might be the Spreckels factory – and if it wasn't, it'd have to do. I called the tower again.
“Salinas Tower, Cessna 5151B is approaching the Spreckels factory.”
A few moments of silence. Then, suddenly, “5151B, squawk 4398.” (on the transponder, so the controller could get us on radar).
“Roger, squaking 4398.”
“5151B, verify location. We don't have you over the factory.
“Uh ... well, I'm approaching the airport and I think I've passed the factory.”
More silence, and then the radio crackled again.
“Cessna 5151B, turn heading 135 immediately for straight-in landing, Salinas!”
“Roger, turning 135 for straight-in.”
I could've sworn there was a bit of exasperation in the controller's voice ... but it was probably just the radio, right? Turning on the compass heading we'd been given, in a few minutes the Salinas runway magically appeared on the horizon. I pulled back on the power and started a gentle descent, glad to see the airport. Just then, the radio crackled once more.
“Cessna 5151B, cleared to land runway 8. Sir, when you've secured your airplane, would you please call the tower.”
“Um ... roger, Salinas tower.”
As they wrote in bad novels, my blood turned to ice. The dreaded words no private pilot, and certainly not a newly-minted one such as myself, wants to hear: 'Please call the tower'. I managed to remain focused on landing, but not so much that I didn't immediately wonder if Ben had heard that, too. Of course, he had. And I imagine the look on my face may have given him a clue.
“What's that, eh? Is there some kind of problem?”
Think fast and preserve dignity, Joe. “Um ... oh, no, that's just routine for new pilots like me that don't have a lot of hours logged.”
“Ah, right. Good job then.”
As we neared the runway, I set the plane up for landing. Proper angle of descent, pull back the power, adjust flaps, and fly the ship on to the runway. Just as Tom Lynch, my instructor, had taught me. Fortunately, the landing wasn't my usual bouncy type; for once, I managed to glide the airplane in as if I'd been doing this for years. Never mind that I feared my career as a pilot was about to come to an end with one phone call. I didn't know if they had the power to do so, but in my mind's eye I could see a humorless FAA controller ripping up my barely-used precious license. And I could hear Tom's voice: “Well now ... just what did you do ... to get a controller pissed at you? Ah ... misreported over Salinas.”
With a dry mouth, I taxied the airplane over to the tie-down area where it could be secured. After I shut the plane down, Ben hopped out and said he was going into the terminal to find a restroom. Suspecting I might need one myself soon, I told him I'd join him soon after I'd called the tower. I grabbed my flight guide manual, found the tower's phone number, and headed for a nearby pay phone. I dialed the number and waited.
“Um ... hello ... this is the pilot of 5151B. I was, um, asked to call the tower upon landing?”
“Oh ... yes. Sir ... are you aware that you were to report over the sugar factory, and instead you reported over an area quite far from the factory?”
“Uh, no, I actually thought I was overhead the factory.”
“Well, sir, you weren't. And that caused us a bit of stir up here. We thought we had a situation on our hands. Luckily we got you on radar. Good thing, too, you weren't anywhere near the factory.”
“Um ... I see ...” Well, what else was I going to say? Thank you sir, I'm an idiot?
“Sir, are you a student pilot?”
(sound of puffed-up pilot being deflated) “Um ... no ... I have my license.”
“Well, sir, you may want to get your instructor to go up with you and show you where the factory is. It's important to report correctly. Thank you and have a good day.”
I mumbled a 'thank you' and hung up, hoping “your instructor” wouldn't ever find out about this. Feeling about three inches tall, but still a pilot, I wandered into the terminal and, making sure not to let anything show on my face, caught up with Ben. We shared some sodas and walked around the terminal a bit. Ben remarked how the flight had been so calm and comfortable, and not at all what he'd expected. After a last look around, we headed back out to the tarmac and to the airplane.
Soon we were back in the air again, heading back to home base. That flight, at least, was uneventful and thus more enjoyable than the ride over. Ben said he'd been very happy to have taken the ride, and that bucked up my spirits quite a bit. I could fly the plane, dammit, and though the controller was completely right to spank me, I wasn't going to let it get me down. Let's chalk it up to experience, I thought ... and no one has to know!
Did I ever spot the Spreckels Sugar Factory? Well, I solved that little problem in the way I thought best.
I never flew myself to the Salinas airport again.