It was a beautiful spring morning in Norman, OK. The temperature was around 70°F, the breeze was slight, and the sun was plentiful. A perfect morning to complete my stage two private pilot license flight test…..almost.
As a student pilot (and also a private pilot), you use VFR — or visual flight reference. This means you have to have at least 3 statute miles of visibility and maintain 500 feet below, 1,000 above, and 2,000 feet horizontally from any clouds that might be present.
And there were many, many clouds present on this day.
At the time, being an impatient 19 year old, I wanted to proceed with the flight because two previously scheduled flights had been cancelled because of rain. These flights take time and can be tough to schedule with an instructor — I WANTED TO MOVE ON!
When the instructor asked if we were a go, I gave a quick glance skyward and issued a thumbs up. I quickly completed the pre-flight checks, taxied out to the runway, received permission to take off from the air traffic controller, and immediately went full-throttle.
As we ascended, I quickly realized the clouds were lower than previously thought. Knowing I would be failed immediately for violating the cloud distances mentioned earlier, I leveled off at an altitude of 1,500 feet, hoping (praying?) the clouds would clear.
After about five minutes of flying at 1,500 feet, my instructor asked if me I was going to climb to our cruising altitude of 4,500 feet. In that moment, a slight clearing opened up in the clouds above and to our right. If I could make it through that clearing, I would be golden and we could continue the flight. It was meant to be.
As TOP GUN ANTHEM began to play in my head, I channeled my inner Pete Mitchell —aka Maverick — and gave that little single engine plane all she had while trying to make it through the clearing.
Unfortunately, that little plane didn’t have the power Maverick’s did and resulted in the plane stalling and falling through the cloud base below.
“Mr. Thomason, take me back to Westheimer (airport),” said the instructor sternly.
How embarrassing is that? And she didn’t think it was as funny as I did when she asked why I thought I could make it through the clearing and I responded with, “I’ve seen TOP GUN.”
Even though I had made a terrible decision to fly that day that ended with complete and utter failure, I still learned a lesson and will never make that mistake again. To this day, even through that uncomfortable moment, it is still one of my fondest memories I have of flight school.
We’re human. We fail often, so don’t take yourself so seriously.
We’ll eventually look back and laugh at that failure.