JUDGMENT: “The ability to judge, make a decision or form an opinion objectively, authoritatively,and wisely,especially in matters affecting action; goodsense; discretion:” Or so say the guys who write dictionaries. Okay I can memorize that and tell you in seconds what judgment “is.” Given a few minutes I could probably write an essay about it, but spewing words about it is one thing – using that ability when its needed is quite another.
Most of us learn to use judgment by paying tuition to a long-bearded guy called “Professor Experience.” Although he is a great teacher his time is valuable and comes at a high price. The check you make out to him may be covered with blood, sweat, and tears. I bought some of his time in late February, 1984, but he was relatively kind to me. All he wanted in payment was for me to crash an airplane and then hang upside down in the pilot’s seat while it was lying on its back in a snow bank along an ice-covered runway in Marion, Ohio. I paid him on February 29 of that year and I did learn what he set out to teach me.
At that time I was the Assistant Superintendent for Instruction in the Marion Ohio City School System. In the `80’s computers were just being introduced into education. One day my mail brought a circular advertising a conference focusing on the use of computers in education. It was to be held in Dallas TX in late February, 1984.
Since my job was to supervise instruction it seemed like a good idea for me to attend that conference. (And besides, it gave me a wonderful excuse to make a long, cross-country flight.) With the superintendent’s “blessing” (said “blessing” being a travel expense voucher with his signature) I reserved the Flying Club’s Cessna 172 and made preparations for a nice flight and a worthwhile conference.
Our youngest son Nathan was now in eighth grade and had always done quite well in school. He wouldn’t suffer any educational loss by missing a few days of school. Besides, he had actually developed into a useful, if unofficial, “Co-Pilot” for me and was already committed to becoming a professional pilot. It would be a long trip, I could use the company, he would definitely be helpful to me and it would be a good experience for him. So I told “Mama” and his principal that he would be going with me. I had no idea just how much experience he was going to get.
After several small details had delayed us we left on a frosty mid-morning a few hours later than we had planned. Given how things were starting, perhaps my guardian angel was giving me time to reconsider. But like the ancient sailors who were called to their death by “The Sirens” of Greek mythology, the “sirens of my thoughts of how pleasurable this trip would be” were seducing me.
The weather wasn’t all that great when we took off but the prognosis was for “acceptable” weather all the way to Cape Girardeau which was our planned fuel stop. But Private Pilots have a saying about weather forecasts: “The weather will be what you see through your windshield.” We weren’t too surprised when, about halfway there, our radio advised us that some unpleasant weather had developed along our planned route. We decided to take a detour to a different airport.
One of the instruments a pilot often needs is called an “Attitude Indicator.” It shows whether the plane is climbing or descending, turning or staying level and it’s a critical instrument when the pilot is flying inside the clouds. Shortly after starting our detour to the alternate airport I noticed the Attitude Indicator had quit working. That was no problem at the moment because we were above the clouds. We wouldn’t be able to land anywhere close, however, without descending through the clouds and without the attitude indicator that would be dangerous. Fortunately by using the radio I found that Terre Haute Indiana’s airport had “Precision Approach Radar” (PAR) which is the ability to guide planes down through the clouds and to a landing by radar. It’s a procedure that requires listening to instructions and following them quickly and precisely. Very few non-military pilots have done one. It is not a part of our training. In my wildest dreams I’d never imagined I’d be called upon to fly a PAR, but I had told “Professor Experience” I wanted to learn what I could about making a long cross-country trip: Another example of “be careful what you pray for.” A gallon of sweat and a years-worth of adrenalin later Nate and I were on the ramp at the Terre Haute airport. I was shaken but in my pride I ignored the fact that this trip was coming unglued. I hadn’t learned “Professor Experience’s” lesson yet. After waiting for the clouds to dissipate we pressed on towards Dallas. It was now mid-afternoon.
As night closed in on us we were over southwest Missouri and needed dinner and a good night’s sleep. Besides, without an attitude indicator night flight is not recommended. There are two airports fairly close together in that part of the state. One is Mansfield; the other Ava. Mansfield was closest so I headed for it – I thought. To my surprise, once on the ground I saw we were at the Ava airport. No matter; there was a nearby motel and country café’. I fell asleep thinking, “Tomorrow will be a better day –we’re out of the “bad winter weather” zone.” To quote one of my favorite “Looney Tunes” characters, “Foghorn Leghorn,” Professor Experience was pitchin’ but I wasn’t catchin’. Like any headstrong student I was ignoring the old professor’s lessons.
The next lesson for me was “You can’t always count on getting what you need the minute you need it.” I wasn’t dumb enough to head home with an inoperative attitude indicator. I thought one would be readily available at any larger airport’s shop. Wrong. . . The shop at “Love Field” in Dallas had to order the instrument and being a transient pilot, I had to wait my turn behind the local pilots.
The conference ended but our plane wasn’t ready. The days drug on. After an additional three days had passed with me calling my boss every day to say I couldn’t head back yet he was becoming a little testy. He mentioned things like docking my pay. Also, Nathan was missing more school than I wanted him to. All of which added up to creating within me a bad case of “Get-home-itis,” which has killed many a pilot.
Four days later than planned we left “Love Field” and headed home. At this point My Teacher, “ol’ doc experience” began to play rough – literally. After leaving Dallas we flew for hours in terrible turbulence, bouncing and being pushed all over the sky. After an overnight stop filled with restless sleep we were back in the sky. Both Nate and I were truly exhausted; both from the “beating” we took in yesterday’s turbulence and from the stress of being gone too long. We made a fuel/food stop at Quincy Illinois where we laid on some wooden benches for an uncomfortable cat nap then out over Illinois and Indiana. I HAD to get back to Marion Ohio that day.
The weather was cold. Snow showers were in the forecast over Indiana and Ohio. As I passed over Muncie Indiana, I looked down from several thousand feet above and saw their airport. A small voice whispered, “You should stop and get fuel.” I cynically told it “No, I wanna go home.” Muncie is not all that far from Marion OH and the weather, while nasty and mid-winter cold with snow covered fields below, wasn’t so bad to fly in. The fabled “Sirens” were singing their most seductive song: “Come to me, come to me, it’s safe here. Home, good food and a warm bed are only an hour away.”
If “Experience” was truly an entity he would have shook his head and said, “Okay, you’re asking for it. Here it comes. You WILL learn this lesson.”
Some twenty minutes away from Marion I called the airport weather service nearest Marion to find out what the weather was and from what direction the wind was coming from in Marion. He basically told me all was good: Nothing about snow flurries, nothing about the runway at Marion being covered with a sheet of ice.
Not more than five minutes away from Marion I was suddenly flying through a blizzard – controlling the plane strictly “on instruments” because I couldn’t see the ground or anything around me. I considered flying on another half hour to land at Columbus OH, where there were good radar facilities. Then I remember – I hadn’t stopped at Muncie for fuel. I wasn’t sure there was enough fuel in the tanks to fly another half hour. I had gone an airport too far. As my great instructor, Bob O’Haver, had often told me, “Takeoffs are optional. Landings are mandatory.” I would be on the ground one way or another fairly soon.
I managed to find the airport with its beacon flashing through the blizzard. I pointed the noise toward the runway and began descending for a landing. At a point a couple hundred feet before and less than a hundred feet below my planes landing light showed a sheet of ice where there should be a nice, black runway. I was terror-stricken. I was going to have to land on a sheet of ice with the wind blowing directly against the side of the plane. It honestly didn’t occur to me at the time but there is another “joke” among pilots. “If you’re landing at night, when you get close to the ground turn on your landing light. If you don’t like what you see . . . turn it off.”
The instant the plane settled onto the ice the wind began blowing it sideways into a huge bank of snow the plow had deposited alongside the runway. I clearly remember saying to Nate, when I knew I’d lost control of the plane, “We’re going to buy it.” Meaning, I truly thought we were going to be killed in the next few minutes.
Immediately after that comment, the planes left wheel and nose wheel struck the snow bank. The propeller dug into the show and the tail began coming up and over. In that instant, I heard Nate, whom I had NEVER heard say a cuss word or vulgarity” yell, “S**t!” As you may have read or possibly experienced, time went into slow motion. It seemed the tail came over very slowly. The top of the plane smacked down into the snow with a “whuuump” kind of sound. Then all was quiet and both Nate and I were hanging upside down. My training then kicked in as I said aloud, for some idiotic reason, “Switches off” while turning off the master switch to prevent any electrical short from starting a fire.
My door was stuck shut. Nate got his open, unbuckled his seat belt, got out and then turned around to help me get out. We were totally uninjured. The plane? It was totally destroyed.
The rest was anti-climactic. We walked a quarter-mile over the snowy ground to the deserted terminal where I made several phone calls.
When I got calmed down I understood the lesson Professor Experience had provided had been hammered home. Never push your luck by betting you have enough fuel to do what you may have to do. As many a pilot has learned the three most useless things in the world when flying are: Runway behind you, altitude above you, and . . . fuel in the airport’s fuel tank.
My goodness what a story. You had me sitting on the edge of my seat. So glad to hear you both escaped with no physical injuries. Oh and by the way my family lives just east of Terre Haute in Rockville, IN
Pleased that you enjoyed it. I loved flying as a Private Pilot. Got too old several years ago - plus . . . retired and couldn't afford it. So now I enjoy re-living some of those times and writing so that others may be with me vicariously. So - thanks. Glad to have you aboard.
Don, you never cease to amaze me with your storytelling. The problem is they're all true!!
I think you may know that my best friend and partner in a former business was a pilot who violated the "get-home-itis" rule and as killed with his wife and dog in his Lancair Columbia 400. I'll never forget watching the news for 5 days until they found the crash site in the high desert of Southern California.
Thank God you are able to tell this incredible story.
My condolences for your friend. I have a poster on my wall with the words ""Aviation in itself is not inherently dangerous. But to an even greater degree than the sea, it is terribly unforgiving of any carelessness, incapacity or neglect." So true. My instructor, "Bob" also told me often "The FAR's (Federal Aviation Regulations) were written in blood." I was truly blessed on that trip and your last sentence summed up my episode of carelessness quite well.
I have had a fairly long life chock full of experiences both good and bad. I truly appreciate having a "repository" where I can share them with others and, hopefully, a repository that will outlast me. Thanks for that.
Don---INCREDIBLE lesson. And the manner in which you tell it is simply AWESOME. I love to read your stories and the lessons they contain. Your experiences will continue to go forth through time and certainly will outlive you because you have and are taking the time to share them. For this I am truly grateful.
Again I can only say "Thank you, Golden." God has been kind to me in so many ways - Oh, He allowed me to sustain some emotional and physical "wounds" by allowing me to make all the mistakes I wanted to - Never once did He negate my free will - but He always sent my Guardian Angel in to "clean up my mess for me." He also was kind enough to bless me with some talent in music, writing, and public speaking. I can no longer "make music" because of my hearing impairment and my position in life gives me very few opportunities for public speaking, but I love writing and He has left me with a fairly sharp mind and useful fingers. How could I possibly complain? (Oh, but I'm human - I DO.)
Don, This story was a nail-biter. Glad you lived to tell it. If anyone deserves recognition for storytelling, I nominate you for this beaut.
Your kind words and "nomination" are appreciated, Dick. The last 20 minutes of that flight was a nail-biter to experience first hand. The ONLY time in my life that I have ever truly felt I would be dead within the next few moments.