On a murky afternoon in late December, 2001 I landed my son's Mooney in Mena, Arkansas after completing a demanding flight from Gladewater, Texas. The weather had been bad throughout the two-hour trip. The solid blanket of dark clouds was never more than 2,500 feet above the ground. I had flown into and out of rain showers; with forward visibility so poor I could see nothing past the propeller. It was late afternoon when the Mena airport slid behind me off to the right beneath my wings. The clouds ahead were darkening and lowering. A few miles past Mena they blended with the mountain tops. I could not possibly slip between the bottom of the clouds and the top of the mountains. Since I wasn’t properly equipped to climb into the clouds and fly under “Instrument Flight Rules” my flying for that day was done. I did a 180-degree turn and flew into and out of one last torrential rainstorm as I was turning. I emerged from the rain shower and peered into the gloom ahead of me searching eagerly for the Mena airport. A few minutes later I gratefully felt the asphalt of the runway at Mena grasp the wheels of the Mooney. I tied my bird down and went into the office. The manager of the airport was very hospitable but he was about to close up shop for the day.
He suggested a motel and by the time I caught my breath and washed down a "Snickers" with a bad cup of coffee the owner of the Mena "Harvey House Inn" graciously picked me up. Fifteen minutes later I was lying on a comfortable bed reflecting on the wisdom of the old pilot’s adage, "It's much better to be down here wishing you were up there than being up there wishing you were down here."
I had seen a Wal-Mart alongside the highway coming in from the airport and I recalled its being fairly close to the motel. After resting for a few minutes I decided a snack and soft drink would be nice for later in the evening so I set out on foot to find the Wal-Mart. At the motel's entrance onto the road I turned left and started walking along the busy highway towards where I remembered seeing the Wal-Mart. Within a couple of minutes, it began to drizzle. But I was feeling much too good about how well I had handled a difficult flight to let a little rain dampen my spirit so I continued walking on my quest to find the Wal-Mart. A few blocks and several minutes later the drizzle had turned to a waterfall flowing over the brim of my cap. I was feeling definitely wet. Exercising a 69 year-old man's privilege of talking to himself, I muttered, "That Wal-Mart is a lot farther from the motel than I remember." After walking on for about a half-block I gave up, turned around and somewhat dejectedly headed back towards the motel.
I had arisen at 5:00 a.m. that morning and spent most of the day standing around watching a mechanic work on the airplane. Along about 3:00 p.m. he pronounced it airworthy. I took off into a overcast sky, set my course for Springfield MO and then spent the next two hours in a state of high alert flying in, at-best, marginal VFR weather. But now the adrenaline that had been coursing through my body was fighting a losing battle with the fatigue that was attacking it. I was bone-tired and now quite wet, and cold. Wilting and worn-out I disappointedly trudged back towards my room.
Full darkness had set in by this time. Whatever moon there might have been was above a curtain of clouds. I was wearing my brown leather flight jacket and black trousers as I trudged along on the shoulder of busy U.S. 71 concentrating on taking the next step and craving the comfort of my motel room. I considered crossing over to walk facing traffic but the added steps seemed more burdensome than the possibility of becoming road kill. Suddenly I heard a car horn behind me. Startled, thinking I was about to experience a pilot’s worst nightmare of being killed on the ground after successfully battling the elements in the sky, I jumped and turned toward the sound. I saw a little Japanese pickup. Its driver had pulled off onto the shoulder and stopped behind me.
I walked back to the passenger side window which was now rolled down and peered in. A young woman was driving. She asked me if I wanted a ride. I was so taken aback that I said, "What?" She repeated her question, becoming a little flustered herself, saying, "You want to drive, I mean, ride?"
"I sure do," I told her, as I got into the little truck, happy to sit and be out of the rain. She was not homely but also not especially attractive so none of ”those thoughts" entered my head. I was truly stunned that a young woman would pull off the road and pick up an unknown man who was walking alongside a dark highway with his back to her. Unless my Tim Conway gait gave me away there’s no way she could see it was an "old" man she was going to invite into her car.
The car heater blasted welcome hot air onto me as we exchanged pleasantries. She took me to my motel and pointed out that I had turned the wrong direction. The Wal-Mart was right next door, to my right.
I have no idea who she was. I didn't ask her name. The only thing she learned about me was that I had flown in, was afoot, and looking for the Wal-Mart.
Angels come in a lot of shapes, forms, and sizes. I don't know if I met one that evening in Mena, Arkansas or not. But if not, I hope God was keeping score for she behaved angelically towards me.
I hope she has a great life and that someday; when she needs it, she meets her angel.
I wrote a version of this story a year or so after it happened and submitted it to a regional little "newspaper" for pilots. The editor refused to publish it. He said that lady was crazy for picking me up and he wouldn't do anything to encourage it. To this day I still have some "feelings" that she truly was an angel. I'm absolutely convinced angels appear to us in human form. God is great. He can do anything and he knows we poor, simple human beings need a boost now and then.
Things like this happen for sure. I've had close friends and relatives tell tales of desperation, inspiration or a number of other situations where if it weren't for "that unknown person" being there things could have turned out much, much worse. Good stuff.
Geez Don, what an experience!! I didn't know you were a pilot. Nice Mooney. My former business partner was the southwest dealer for Lancair's Columbia 400. At the time it was the first GA aircraft certified by the FAA since the 50's. Forbes called it the "Lexus of the skies". I bought one and started flight school. It was such a cool plane that when he landed at big airports all the jet pilots marveled and I could hear the traffic controllers asking him about it.
Sadly, as experienced as my partner was, having crop dusted and delivered airmail in the desert since he was a kid, he and his flight instructor partner crashed into a spur sticking up over a mountain in southern California and they, his wife and dog were all killed. They attended an air show in San Diego where he had his own luxury apartment over a fly-in hanger. He could've easily stayed overnight and waited out the bad weather but they got "Get home-itis" which is the kiss of death for pilots. I miss him all the time and I stopped my flight training that day. So, I have an appreciation for your decision to stay at the hotel at a cost of nearly dying anyway on the ground. Great story!!
Yeah, I got my Private Pilot's License when I was about 50 yrs. old. Got an instrument rating a few years later. I logged about 2,000 hours of flying time total. I chose to quit flying a few years ago. You gotta' know when to hold `em, know when to fold `em. I couldn't handle the stress anymore without getting tense. A tense pilot is a dangerous pilot. I understand "Get Home-itis." I have a story about how that turned out with me and my youngest son on one of our flying trips. It'll kill you. We got off lucky.
Good story, and I agree with Tom's comment on the wisdom you showed in postponing your flight. Knowing "when to fold 'em" is a great thing.