CHIEF WARRANT OFFICER 3 JUDSON FARRER
There I was, looking down an 11,000-foot runway. As a freshly minted private pilot with 60 hours under my belt, I was working on my instrument rating. I had landed a job as a flight coordinator at a flight school at Phoenix Sky Harbor International Airport in Arizona. My new job gave me a modest discount toward my instrument rating, a chance to be around pilots all day and some free flight time.
The school had sent some older aircraft to Falcon Field, an airport in nearby Mesa, Ariz., for the interiors to be refurbished. When my boss asked if I could fly one of them back from Falcon Field, I jumped at the opportunity to get some free flight time. It was just a quick 10-minute hop to Falcon, but the return trip would take longer because of the volume of inbound airline traffic.
Up to this point, I had accumulated 20 hours toward my instrument rating flying out of Sky Harbor, which at the time was one of the busiest international airports in the nation. It was always a daunting task to get in and out because much of the time you would be the only small aircraft mixed in with airliners. The line for takeoff on a normal day consisted of 10-15 aircraft with large passenger jets in front of and behind you. Talking on the radio and navigating the labyrinth of taxiway at Sky Harbor intimidated all new pilots, especially this one.
The two of us took off from Sky Harbor in a Cessna 172 to pick up our aircraft. As expected, the flight to Falcon Field was quick and uneventful. For me, though, I was still reveling in the idea that I was getting paid to fly. We finished the paperwork and got the keys to the newly refurbished 172. My counterpart took off first and I followed a few minutes later. This would be an easy flight, I thought, just a right turn out and then a straight-in landing to runway 26R (this was when Sky Harbor had only two runways).
Following takeoff, I contacted approach for clearance into the Class B airspace and was immediately handed off to Sky Harbor tower. Traffic in the pattern meant I was following a 727 on a five-mile final with a 737 behind me. I looked to my left and saw another 737 on final to 26L with traffic in line behind it.
The plan was to land long and get off the runway at an exit close to my fixed base operations. As I was running my before-landing checks, tower called me to slow down by 10 knots on my approach to give more room for the now-landing 727. I was already in landing configuration, so I began “S” turns to bleed off more airspeed. Just as I began my first turn, tower called me back to now speed up for the 737 behind me. When the 727 exited the runway, tower called again to clear me to land. I increased the throttle and nosed the aircraft down, staying aware of my airspeed and knowing I would need to bleed it off to land.
When I crossed the numbers and began to flare the aircraft and touchdown, the tower called me back.
“Cessna 1234, you need to exit immediately at B9, there is a 737 behind on short final.”
Looking down the runway as I pulled the throttle all the way back, I saw exit B9 coming up quickly. As my tires touched down, I began my left turn at B9 with my feet firmly planted on the brakes at the same time. I could feel my body shift with the speed of the turn. When I applied more pressure on the brakes, it happened. The brakes locked up and the right tire blew out. Not yet off the runway, tower began calling me. The next thing I know, they called the 737 to go around. Tower still was trying to get me to move off the runway, but the Cessna wouldn’t budge.
At my request, tower called my FBO for a tow and I had to wait in my aircraft and watch airliners taxi by with the pilots giving me that look — “You rookie!” I caused two airliners to go-around, shut down the north runway, causing numerous passenger delays, and cost the airlines thousands of dollars in gas, all because of a simple mistake.
Lesson learned: I was cleared to land and it was my runway, but if I could not make the exit, I should have called and taken the next one. I still remember the airline pilots sticking their heads out the cockpit windows and glaring at me as they taxied by.