It isn’t often that a person who is afraid of heights AND afraid of flying becomes a pilot. Being stubborn, chasing your dream, and wanting to fly solo- all worked together to make that person able to overcome his fears…and fly. I know. That person was me.
It took more than ten times the average number of hours to solo before I soloed. It took almost five times longer than the average number of hours to get my Private Pilots License. I wasn’t a slow learner- just afraid. It took two years, two of my Instructors Visa’s expired before I finally got my license, and the Party my little airport threw for me was epic.
Many of the Old Timer’s thought I would quit. I did not. I often wonder how big the pool got for the folks betting I would never get my license and the folks betting I would. I do know that the latter group was a very small number. LOL
To my credit I can honestly say that once I got my Ticket (Private Pilot’s License- Single Engine, Land) I flew more long cross countries than anyone who wasn’t actually a Professional/Corporate Pilot. Most folks just fly enough to go get the fabled $100 dollar hamburger. Others fly once to Oshkosh, Sun-n-Fun, or maybe a neighboring state. I flew over dozens of states, into Canada, and routinely made 700 mile Cross Countries. Still scared of flying, still scared of heights.
I thought I was an okay pilot. I knew my limits, and for me, what was legal and what were my personal “go/no go” standards were literally miles apart. The Old Timer’s used to tease me when I went to fly out of the tiny airport I learned at in North Carolina:
“Kevin, there is a cloud in Iowa…you sure you want to take off?”
Laughter all around. I took off.
It was the beginning of February. I was flying up to a College in North Eastern Ohio. I had planned the trip for two days. I called the weather for an update every two hours- which was my normal routine. I was afraid of flying…so I wanted everything to be in my favor. I studied the weather ferociously in those days.
My personal limits were so conservative that most pilots asked me why I even flew. I thought I was just being safe. My preflights were serious and complete. My planning for even a simple two hour flight rivaled the Moon Landing preparation. Fuel? Well, some folks flew with half full tanks, or would remove fuel so that they could squeeze one more passenger aboard for a short legged flight.
(NOTE: Most small General Aviation Planes have Four seats. Not many can fill all four seats and fly with full fuel too. There aren’t many that can fly with two seats full, and full fuel. The more modern planes have improved that quite a bit - and they get better fuel economy to boot. But they cost almost half a million dollars…or more.)
I always flew with full tanks. If I could only take one person with me- well, that’s life. LOL
So my prep was done, I had a flight plan on file- full fuel, a beautiful crisp Winter’s day to soar into the sky with. I opened my flight plan, got Flight Following - another thing I did whenever it was available. This time, I was truly glad I had Flight Following. It saved my life. A giant: "Thank YOU!" to the unknown ATC guy who kept me calm, got me on the ground safe, and just considered it part of his job.
I had fuel for five hours (with a 30 minute reserve). I had my charts in order. My flight plan on my lap, a bottle of water (and a Pepsi), some sandwiches to nibble on and a beautiful clear sky. What we call in Aviation: CAVU…Clear Air Visibility Unlimited.
My Flight plan would take me to an airport in West Virginia to refuel and use the rest room- that first leg was supposed to take me two hours. Then up in the air again for another two hour leg over to a small college town in Northeastern Ohio near the Pennsylvania Border. The air was super smooth. I was thinking what a wonderful flight this was going to be.
I was wrong.
I must tell you that I had heard about Alberta Clippers coming out of Canada. Those clippers were mentioned in my Weather Studies. I knew all about them. How an entire Air Mass was streaming along out of the Rocky Mountains of Canada with the whole airmass moving at sixty miles an hour…or more.
In my briefing that morning the guy giving me the briefing over the phone mentioned that an Alberta Clipper was going over Chicago about the time I was going to get to the airport. Chicago was some four hundred miles from my destination - not a factor. Or so I thought.
That was the first hint I missed. The Weather Briefer was way ahead of me for spotting a potential threat. I never did the math in my head. Ouch.
I had been cruising up to the NC mountains following Interstate 77 - which goes almost due North. I was sipping my Pepsi and a part of me noticed that cars were actually going faster than I was. I never noticed it consciously. Later it became apparent that I was only going about 48 knots or so. Why? Because I was flying into a sixty five mile hour headwind.
The Controller called and asked if I wanted to amend my flight plan. I checked my fuel…I had four hours left. I had plenty to make my primary - or my alternate. I did check to see if everything was in the green- yep. I told him no. I would fly as filed.
That was the second and third hints …I missed both of them. Cars going faster than me (and my plane cruised at 125 Knots!) and a concerned Controller asking me if I wanted to amend my flight plan. The air was smooth, the engine running fine, and I had four hours of fuel. What could go wrong.
Twenty minutes later the Controller calls again. “Do you want to amend your flight plan?” I checked my fuel, my gauges, my navigation (no computers back then…all dead reckoning. I prided myself on how accurately my position reports matched my estimations before I left the ground. (Pride cometh before the fall.) All was fine.
“No thank you.”
I ignored that hint. Controllers rarely call when you have Flight Following except to warn you about traffic, or to cancel Flight Following. This guy had called me twice in less than half an hour. He was seeing the Big Picture forming. I was seeing cars blow by me on the ground.
Then the hint that should have woken me out of my comfort zone- the NC Border. Pilot Mountain, and Mt. Airy of Andy Griffith Fame just off to my right. And I had been in the air for more than two hours. I should have been in the Shenandoah Valley area of Virginia. I was not. It still did not dawn on me that if I flew 100 miles in two hours, I was nowhere near my predicted flight plan for fuel consumption, or time.
The Accident Chain for “Pilot Error” was forming links at an alarming rate. It was all me. The plane and the ATC system were working fine…I was the only one not thinking. I was fooled by the smooth air and limited experience with a rapidly moving air mass that was not turbulent. The Alberta Clipper was clipping along.
Soon it would clip my wings over West Virginia.
The Controller called again. This time he asked me how much fuel I had left. I checked. Can that be right? More than half my fuel was gone and I wasn’t even into the West Virginia Mountains. It was right. This time I listened.
“I am going to land at my alternate in West Virginia.“
I could almost hear the sigh of relief from the Controller.
He asked if I needed Vectors. I did not. My Sectional was out, I had a course already taped to it- so I changed directions a little and flew on. My airport was in a mountain valley next to a river. Which meant the two valleys acted like a Bernoulli flow- squeezing the fast moving air into a narrow space, making the air move even faster- with wicked turbulence.
Everything was fine until I got below five thousand feet. The first blast of turbulence pummeled my plane. I got slammed into the roof, breaking the knob off of my trim wheel. Then slammed sideways hitting the window and shoving my mouthpiece with such force up my nose that I started bleeding like the proverbial stuck pig.
I called Flight Following.
With a very nasal tone (since my nose was bleeding out one nostril) I explained that I couldn’t descend through the turbulence to my alternate. He stayed calm and gave me another airport thirty miles away. I climbed back up to 8,000 ft to stay above the wild air.
And then …it got worse.
The airport I was going to fly to…went IFR. Instrument Conditions. I am not Instrument Rated. The Controller gave me another…it went down too. And another. It went down too. And another.
Fuel was now an issue. So was landing. With my sectional out, and his calm suggestions, we figured out any airport in West Virginia was a no go. They were all becoming IFR…except for one right on the border with Ohio. I flew there.
It went IFR when I was only a few miles away.
My engine stopped.
So did my heart.
There is no quiet as quietly stunning as a single engine airplane at altitude without a prop spinning. I had run out of fuel in left tank. I had only a little in my right tank. I declared an Emergency.
I got that same Controller. He vectored me to an airport in Ohio. Luckily it was run by a Major University with a Flight School. So they had firefighting equipment and ambulances. I was hoping not to need either. Hope is a lousy fuel.
I was at 8,000 feet and had to make a decision. Should I climb (which uses more fuel) in order to have a longer glide ratio…or should I stay level until the engine quits for good. I decided not to climb.
The Engine quit for a second time. Another Pilot familiar with my aircraft said that I might get another few minutes of fuel if I gently banked the airplane. I did. It worked. I got two or three more minutes taking me along the Vectors the Controller gave me. Then…well, the engine quit for the last time.
I was a glider now.
“Can you see the Airport?”
"It is at your ten O’Clock and three miles. It runs parallel to the river.”
“I can see the river, but not a runway!”
Another Voice broke in on our frequency.
“I have a bright red Pitts (an acrobatic biplane). I am taking off from the runaway and will circle so you can see me.”
He did just that. I saw him almost as soon as he got a few hundred feet above the ground.
“I have you in sight.”
I was over the airport! But I was six thousand feet above it. Now I had to lose altitude, and speed, to descend to pattern altitude. I did my emergency check list. Told the Controller to call my Kathy and the kids and tell them I loved them- just in case. Then …I focused.
I trimmed for best glide speed. I made a long lazy spiral descent. I had to approach the landing at - or near- my normal landing speed, or I would just float down the runaway and crash into the trees and road at the other end. Or, if I landed in the other direction, go for a dip in the River.
I had the option of either direction. All air traffic was routed around my arrival. I had declared an emergency- everyone was just trying to get me on the ground without tragedy. Airplanes that had been in the Patter were circling nearby like a flock of gulls. The Red Pitts was a hundred feet above me and descending right along side. Escorting me right down to the ground.
I chose the runway that faced the wind. Down I went. Long looping circles to rid myself of both energy and altitude. Down. Down. Down. I began talking to myself. No one interrupted. I didn’t even know I was announcing my every action.
“Emergency Check list complete.”
“Door open and unlocked.”
“Airspeed 90 knots.”
“Short Final. Have to bleed off some more speed. Add another notch of flaps.”
“Slip it a bit…lose some altitude.”
I hit the runway a tad too fast. I ballooned into the air. I didn’t want to stall fifty feet off of the ground. I let the plane fly a bit…got stable, descended again. this time, a squeak of the tires, a bounce or two, then I think I managed to stand on the brakes.
I stopped at the very end of the runway... fifteen feet from a chain link fence. I stopped for a moment to thank every God that I ever heard of. The Fire truck interrupted my prayers.
“Get out of the plane! In case of fire.”
I chuckled as I exited to the runway.
“Fire? There isn’t enough fuel in this plane to light a cigarette.”
But I did what I was told. The Red Pitts landed as soon as they towed me to the taxi way. Followed in short order by five or six Flight School Planes. I called the Controller (by phone, my voice still shaking) to close my Flight Plan and to thank him for all his help.
“Just doing my job Buddy. Glad you are safe, and I didn’t have to call your wife.”
We laughed that shared laugh that only comes out when something really bad was experienced together, and turned out for the best.
My plane had no usable fuel left in it. I was exhausted. I got a rental car, drove to the gig (which I was almost two hours late for) made the College kids roll with a hyped up delivery of my stupidity. That night, I sat alone debriefing myself.
I made so many mistakes, missed so many clues, and showed my ignorance so much that I beat myself up over and over again in my mind. I learned though. Text book descriptions of Alberta Clippers, and real life experience with one - are two vastly different scenarios.
Simple geometry would have shown me that my time in the air would have me and the Alberta Clipper arriving in West Virginia about the same time. I didn’t do the math. I just thought Chicago was way over there…and I was flying way over here. Eight hours at 60 miles an hour covers a lot of ground - and left me fuel starved in the air.
The engine had stopped running at eight thousand feet. The prop stood still.