The 21st birthday of a man’s oldest son begs for significant celebration. This story relates how my oldest son and I celbrated his "coming of age" birthday.
He didn’t enjoy flying and water sports had never appealed to him, so in a magnificent display of non sequitur thinking I decided that a wonderful celebration of my son’s 21st birthday would be for us to fly from our home in Bowling Green, Ohio to Van Buren, Missouri in my flying club’s Cessna 172. Once there we would rent a canoe and celebrate Nick’s coming of age birthday with a father/son float trip on the Current River.
A few days before setting off for the big trip we gathered all the food, cooking utensils, Coleman stove, sleeping bags and first aid things we thought we would or might need for three days and two nights on a wilderness river and then pared it down a bit so that the Cessna wouldn’t be overloaded. Finally there was nothing left to do but pack our gear into the plane “kick the tire and light the fire.” My flight plan proposed a six to seven-hour flight plus whatever time we spent refueling and refreshing. It would be a long but hopefully pleasant day flying and bonding with my oldest son whom I hadn’t been able to spend much time with since he graduated from high school. The big day came and, as is true of so many days in Ohio, it dawned with a dishwater opaque sky – cloudy and murky, but flyable.
The first couple of hours of flying were pleasant enough. I always exulted in seeing the terrain unroll below me, “working air control” via the radio, and periodically adjusting the altimeter so that it reflected our true altitude. While I was reveling, Nick was clearly “enduring” more than “exulting.” But I hoped he would come to enjoy it as the trip continued.
The weather had been forecast to be clear to partly cloudy skies along our entire route from Northwest Ohio to South Central Missouri. There is an adage among pilots, however, that says: “The best weather forecast is what you see in front of your windshield,” and what I began to see was an entirely different weather picture. The sky was becoming increasingly unpleasant-looking out in front of us. I hadn’t yet earned my instrument rating which meant, both for common-sense safety and legality, I had to be able to see the ground and at least one mile ahead of me at all times
I didn’t have enough experience at that time to develop a clear picture in my mind of the weather that lay ahead by listening to the reports on the radio so I decided to land at the nearest airport that had a Flight Service Station on the premises; which was Columbus, Indiana. What I saw in studying their weather maps was not encouraging. If I continued on my planned route it was almost certain that we would enter a sky filled with surly looking rain clouds that obscured the ground below us. The alternative was to detour and go further south before turning west towards Van Buren. It wasn’t a particularly inspiring alternative, though, because the sky in that direction would also be filled with clouds, but there would be enough distance between the base of the clouds and the ground for me to stay safe and legal it seemed.
Thinking that since he had attained his majority I should include him in the decision because it also affected his safety. I interpreted the situation to him and asked for his opinion. That was a mistake. Given his innate fear of flying, all that did was frighten him even further. His opinion, rightfully, was “YOU’RE THE PILOT, IT’S UP TO YOU,” thereby putting his well-being entirely into my hands.
One of the common traits of many pilots is a belief that if not the best, they are certainly among the best of pilots. It’s not an altogether undesirable characteristic because there are times when a pilot must have full self-confidence. So I made the decision. We would take the still perilous but surely navigable detour. Having decided, and with an even more silent passenger alongside me, we launched into the gloomy sky.
If you take a road map and draw an “as the crow flies” line between Columbus IN and Cape Girardeau MO, you will find the distance to be roughly 250 miles and you will see that “the crow” will pass over few towns and even fewer airports. I would have been more comfortable had there been an airport or two along our route, but I flew on. The little four-cylinder Lycoming engine pulling us along was running well and the air was smooth. The only problem was . . . the bottoms of the clouds were pushing us closer and closer to the ground. It was also obvious to me that the distance I could see out in front was decreasing.
By now I was definitely breathing more rapidly than normal and my salivary glands had dried up. But there is a cardinal “rule” among Private Pilots: “When carrying passengers, you must never show fear or frighten them.” I didn’t share with Nick the news that we were now involved in an unhealthy and borderline illegal kind of flying called “scud running;” a term that means we were flying just beneath the cloud base and too close to the ground. It was not an enjoyable or safe way to fly but it was soon apparent that things weren’t getting any worse so I began feeling we would arrive at Cape Girardeau and the welcome sight of a long strip of asphalt runway.
When I figured we were about 30 miles from that asphalt I yearned for, I picked up the mike and in my best low-key, professional voice said: “Cape Girardeau, Cessna 46527, approximately thirty miles northeast, inbound landing,” which is a shorthand version of saying “I’m about 30 miles northeast and intend to land at your airport.”
The next few radio exchanges drove icicles of fear into my heart while my stomach began to imitate a front-loading clothes washer. The Control Tower operator acknowledged that he had heard me but then he asked: “Are you familiar with the Orion radio tower?” When I replied I was not he told me in a matter-of-fact tone that a TV tower that stood 2,000 feet above the ground was “out there” and that I was flying in an area very close to it. (Our plane was visible on his radar screen.) He suggested that I maintain an altitude over 2,000 feet above the ground until I was closer to the airport.
That news immediately put me between Scylla and Charybdis: “I could continue scud running and hope I didn’t slam into that tower or hook its guy wires, or I climb into the clouds where I would have to “fly blind,” relying on skills I had not yet been taught.” Although I knew that an untrained pilot flying into the clouds is one of the most common causes for airplanes to corkscrew a smoking hole in the ground, I chose that risk over the risk of crashing into that tower. What I did was and is also totally and unforgivably illegal and could lead to losing my coveted pilot’s license. At that point, though, that was a feather-weight concern in my thinking.
Reluctantly I pointed the nose upward and climbed into the clouds. They enveloped us and I began relying completely on skills I had only read about and practiced with an instructor aboard for only a few minutes. I asked for navigation help from the Control Tower and he put me on a course that would take me east of that forbidding tower. I began scanning the instrument panel, watching needles that told me how fast I was going, whether or not my wings were level, was I climbing or diving, and was I on the course I’d been given. Accident statistics show that a pilot who has not been fully trained in instrument flying will lose control of the airplane in about 5 minutes once he is forced to rely solely on instruments. Although I wasn’t consciously thinking about that. I most certainly had learned it. “The book,” which I had studied, and my very fine instructor had pounded these words into my head should I ever get into this situation: You must not panic. The task at hand may seem overwhelming, and the situation may be compounded by extreme apprehension. You therefore must make a conscious effort to relax. My training kicked in. I shoved all my emotions into the basement of my mind and tried to become a machine.
The man in the control tower and I maintained an unspoken “Don’t ask, don’t tell” with regard to whether or not I was in the clouds and was legally qualified to fly on instruments. Blessedly, after what seemed like forever but was actually only a few minutes he told me I could descend whenever I wanted to. I gingerly pointed the nose toward the ground and was never happier to see anything than “Mother Earth” beneath my wings, even though she was swaddled in murky unbecoming clothing. Unfortunately, in getting me away from “the bogie man” he had “steered me” off of my course and in my inexperience as a pilot I had no idea where I was or in what direction the airport lay. Providentially almost as soon as we came down out of the clouds I saw a beautiful, unmistakable landmark: The Mississippi River. I knew then we were going to make it because I also knew two important things. We were north of the airport and the airport was close to the river. All I had to do was follow the river to the airport.
I was so glad to see that beautiful strip of asphalt that, whether it was because I was totally jangled from the stress of the past ten minutes or just happily inattentive, I didn’t pay enough attention to how I was landing. I just wanted the wheels of that Cessna to be on that asphalt. Well,I got them on it . . . briefly . . . then we bounced ten feet into the air and slammed down again – hard. But Cessna’s are built to take almost anything an inattentive or inexperienced pilot can dish out. We rolled down the runway and turned onto the ramp. I shut the engine down and we just sat for a while, saying nothing. We climbed out into a murky, dampness so thick it was almost raining, tied the bird down and walked into the terminal. I picked up the phone and called the man in the control tower and, trying to hide the shakiness that was now in my voice, thanked him for his assistance.
The interaction between Nick and I was a little strained and stiff as we ate dinner, showered and went to bed. The following day the sky was beautifully blue. We reached Van Buren, rented a canoe and headed for the Current River which is classified a “Wild and Scenic River” by the government. It was both. I still have a mental picture of Nick swatting at insects as we sat around the campfire. He enjoyed the float trip more than the plane ride ONLY because he knew how to swim and the river is not wide. But . . . although he is now in his mid-fifties and only recently completed a 25-year career in the Army, in which capacity I’m sure he did far more dangerous things, I have no doubt that he DOES remember clearly his 21st birthday celebration with his dad.
While it was my pleasure to recall and recount this story, it wasn't a pleasure to go through that experience. I was a very blessed pilot - I did a number of really dumb things as a pilot and survived in one piece. I think of Robert Kennedy, Jr. and his spiral into the water off Martha's Vineyard . . . he was "guilty" of no more "pilot error" than I was on this trip. Perhaps the only difference - if a human reason can explain it - is that I had excellent instruction. I WAS able to compartmentalize my mind, shove my fear into a sealed compartment and not panic. I had an instructor, a Mr. Bob O'Haver, who put me, or allowed me to put myself, into more than one frightening situation. I once tried to land at a very excessive airspeed - would surely have run off the end of the runway - His comment as this was happening was "My, my, we're going to land at 120 mph. Can't wait to see how this is going to work out." I screamed at him; "Do something!" He came right back with "You do something. You're the pilot." I then did what he'd taught me to do; aborted thelanding, went around and did it the right way.
Good flight instructors are worth their weight in gold. I have to add that Bob was a "Bird Dog" pilot in Viet Nam. His job was to fly low and slow in a Cessna type plane over places where the enemy was suspected to be hiding; taunting them to fire at him so he call in an airstrike in on them. After a year of that there just wasn't much I could do to frighten him. Thank you, Bob.
Thanks, Dick. While it was "my pleasure" to recall and recount this story it wasn't any pleasure to go through that experience. I was a very blessed pilot - I did a number of really dumb things as a pilot and survived in one piece. I think of Robert Kennedy, Jr., and his spiral into the water just off Martha's Vineyard . . . he was "guilty" of no more "pilot error" thank I was on this trip. Perhaps the only difference -if a human reason can explain it - is that I had excellent instruction. I WAS able to compartmentalize my mind, shove my fear into a sealed compartment and not panic. I had an instructor that purposely put me into more than one very frightening situation during training. I once tried to land at a very excessive airspeed - would surely have run off the end of the runway - His comment was: "My, My, we're going to land at 120 mph. Can't wait to see how this is going to work out." I screamed at him: "Do something!" He came right back with, "You're the pilot, you do something." I did what he'd taught me to do; aborted the landing, went back around and did it the right way. Good instructors are worth their weight in gold.
May I ask that you attach your comment as an additional(edited) paragraph. It fits into the narrative perfectly. Good stories are too few to dismiss without a show of appreciation.
Again, thanks, Dick. It's done. I added in a kudos to my flight instructor. He was like a god to me. Highly competent, always cool and always ready for a teachable moment. My only problem with him was . . . he was a chain smoker. Every moment I spent in the cockpit with him was bathed in smoke. It was worth it.