We had just completed the turn to base, my student was bringing his right hand back to the throttle from the flap switch in the Cessna 172, with his left hand on the yoke. From a solid downwind leg to the pattern, appropriate power reduction and a good turn to base the traffic pattern for this pre-solo student was looking very good, one of his most consistent. I couldn’t tell you the date, or who the student was, but I’ll never forget what played out in the cockpit during those few moments form mid-field downwind to the subsequent landing. The landing was smooth and on the centerline, but it wasn’t the result of my student controlling the airplane through a consistent traffic pattern, it was under my guidance. So how did we go from my student flying one of their most consistent patterns in their training up to that point to me landing the airplane? Well let’s see…
Based on the introduction and the title of this post, I’m sure you can piece it together… Bit let’s journey through the flight together, I’ll slow it down when it comes to the critical moment.
The flight lesson that day started as many do, the student arrived at the airport, got the keys and paperwork for the airplane and began to preflight, while I watched from the windows of the flight school. After a quick personal preflight check (restroom visit), I joined the student, making my own quick inspection of the airplane, which I had flown just before he arrived.
He started the airplane and taxied out to the runway, completed an effective run-up and then we took to the skies. We were working on consistency and made many laps around the traffic pattern. Depending on how it went these approaches culminated in a full stop if we needed the taxi back to debrief something on the previous pattern which needed to be addressed, or with a touch-and-go if the pattern was good.
I don’t remember which preceded the trip around the traffic pattern at question, but I do remember thinking as we rolled out on base, “this is looking really good, just keep this up and we’re going to be rocking it.” The downwind leg was great, the runway was halfway up the Cessna 172’s strut, speed was 100 knots, and altitude was 1,200 feet, right on all the numbers. We had the pattern to ourselves, but my student was audibly announcing his scans and checks for traffic at critical points and was making good radio announcements too.
The student was approaching solo, I don’t remember how close at that point, but I know it was a topic of discussion as I aimed to keep my students informed on the progress of their training.
Back to the pattern… There we were right around 80 knots, where I liked to be on early base, with two notches of flaps, we were within gliding distance in case of an issue, and flying a square pattern. It was looking very good, we were “coming down the mountain nice and easy,” as I’d say with an even consistent approach angle.
In the Cessna 172, with two regular size people, you’re pretty close and I’m a big guy so generally my left leg would be very close to touching the right leg of my student. You can imagine my surprise where around 650 feet, or so, my left leg started to vibrate. The vibration continuing and a loud siren sounding tone began. It took me all of 3 second to realize that the cell phone in my student’s right pocket was ringing. In my mind the wheels were spinning thinking, “This is a great time for my student to demonstrate the ability to stay foucsed, not be distracted and maintain positive control of the aircraft in the face of a real life distraction!” Those hopes were short lived.
At an altitude of less than 600 feet, approaching the turn to final, my student completely mentally checked out of flying the airplane. He took both hands off the flight controls to move his seat belt and remove the phone from his pocket.
I immediately announced, “My airplane, I have the flight controls,” and I took over control of the airplane and made the turn to final, the airplane was trimmed up superbly and with the calm, conditions the landing was very easy.
The student didn’t say a word once I “took the airplane”. I made a full stop landing, taxied off of the runway, completed the after landing checklist and then looked over. The student immediately apologized and I could tell he had learned a lesson. I didn’t need to dwell on the importance of maintaining control of the aircraft and blocking out distractions in flight. He knew he messed up in a way that had I not been there could have been deadly… I simply said, “Let’s keep the phone on silent while you’re flying, and let’s keep it in the map pocket, or your flight bag, somewhere it can’t be a distraction…”
After that flight the student never had an issue with it again, the phone was placed on silent and into the map pocket, a practice I use with my keys, wallet and phone before every flight. So I ask you, when you’re flying, where is your phone? I hope you take precautions to keep it from being a distraction in flight!
-Fly Safe, @MTElia1B9