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August 27, 2007
August 9, 2007
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September 25, 2007

……..Continued from August 27, 2007

Since my mission plan called for minimum altitude over the target, I had wound the trim forward and stuck the nose of the little airplane down, in order to get to the planned altitude by my objective. A satisfying hiss of air washed over the airframe and the little A-65 Continental engine took on a serious note as the airplane slid down the slope I had created. The whole airplane took on a vibration I had never felt before as the airspeed indicator needle reached for the red line that marked 'this fast and no faster', and I wondered if anyone had ever flown it at this speed before.

About a mile from my parent's house, the twisting river made an oxbow of its meandering path toward the Ohio, and as I passed this point, centered between the stream's grassy banks, something flashed by, close beneath my wheels, so fast that I couldn't estimate by how much I had missed it. A power line, I noticed belatedly, now spanned the river here, and was hanging from supporting towers that crowned the tops of the hills bracketing the stream bed. How much I had missed the heavy cables I couldn't say, but I the image of the windings that were built into the cables during manufacture remained burned into my brain like a photograph, and it shook me.

LuscombeAfter a much-too-late, involuntary jerk on the control stick, I shakily continued my descent into the river valley. My heart was pumping what felt like quarts of adrenaline through my system and my breath came in short pants as I banked the Luscombe quickly right, then left, to stay over the twisting river. One last sharp bend remained before the short, straight run the river made past my parents house, and as I came around it in a near vertical bank, my altitude was about 200 feet above the river. A few seconds later the familiar white farmhouse flashed past my left wing and I was climbing as fast as the little airplane could, to escape the valley.

I had done it. My mission had gone like clockwork, if you didn't count the fact that I'd almost killed myself on the power cable that I had nearly hit. Now satisfaction joined all the other emotions that were having their way with my brain. Rising above the steep, wooded hills surrounding my village, I aimed the airplane back toward Philippi, to join Route 20 again.

Sunset Slowly my heart rate and breathing returned to normal and I looked about me. With the concentrated effort and the excitement of finding my way to the destination, I had lost track of the day's progress. I was as they say, shocked and saddened to see that the sun had just set. I looked at my watch, as if I could argue with the sun if I found it was quitting early. No, it was setting exactly as it should. Where had the time gone? For the first time I realized that the straight line that my friend had plotted for my journey had in no way resembled the drunken path I had scribed through the air above the roads I'd followed. I'd taken nearly twice the allotted time to fly the distance and I'd used up most of the precious daylight. Once again my heart was trying to hammer its way out of my chest, presumably trying to get someplace where I couldn't kill it. The control stick and throttle grew slick from my sweating palms. I frantically reviewed my options and I immediately thought of the warning from my instructor after I'd soloed the Luscombe from the grass at Stewart. "Do not land this thing on a paved runway until I ride with you. You'll ground loop it". That eliminated almost all of the airports that I could get to before dark. The few that were left were much shorter than anything I had ever landed on. Should I go to one of those and crash now, or continue toward Parkersburg and crash later. My decision was aided by my penchant for putting things off that I didn't want to do. Crashing an airplane easily fit into that category, and I opted to continue on toward Parkersburg.

I felt trapped, and for the first time in my short flying career, I wished I were on the ground. By now I was over Route 50, heading westward toward the glow that the setting sun had left on the horizon. Aloft I was still bathed in afterglow, but darkness was spreading quickly on the ground below. Automobiles now had their lights on, and while I could still make out the path of Route 50, it was getting harder to keep it located beneath me. Salem passed underneath, the downtown area lit brightly as people finished up their day and got ready to head home, the street lights brightning their way.

By the time I reached Pennsboro the ground was totally dark and now I was following the lights of moving cars that I fervently hoped were moving toward Parkersburg. Worse, I had no lights on the airplane and nothing to light the instrument panel, which at this point was a just a dark shape in front of my knees. I had never been in an airplane at night before, and as the visual cues that I had used in flying, without even thinking about them, slipped away one by one, I felt like a man being swept by swift waters to a waiting waterfall. The brassy taste of fear was in my mouth.

The speed of the little airplane over the ground now seemed reduced to a snail's pace, and the indistinct gloaming below passed ever so slowly. The sky, still with faint afterglow on the western horizon, had darkened above me and stars were beginning to appear. I kept trying to comprehend the fact that I was flying an airplane alone, through a night sky.

After what seemed to be an eternity, an indistinct glow of light appeared at my 1 o'clock position. It slowly grew brighter as I came on, and in a bit I passed over a lighted service station. I could see an attendant pumping gas into a pickup truck that sat washed in the flood of the island lights, and as I looked down the attendant's white face turned up toward me, no doubt wondering why no lights showed on the airplane passing over. I recognized the station as one on Route 50, where I occasionally gassed up my car. Now I knew I was not far from Parkersburg and that I was over the right road after all.

Sweet relief coursed through me as I realized that I wasn't lost, that I had found home and that I was going to survive this. Soon I could see the outskirts of the city, well lit by the street lights and the signs of stores. The huge, orange colored Mr. Bee's Potato Chip sign that sat above the street leading to the airport came into view like a friendly beacon, as I made my way over the now familiar path.

A few minutes later my high spirits fell, as I reached the area where I knew the airport to be. There were no welcoming strings of runway lights, only a large square area of total darkness, contrasting sharply with the myriad of city lights all around it. My lack of night experience was complete. Not only had I never flown at night, I had never been to the airport at night and didn't know the runway wasn't lighted. Now I had to land an airplane at night for the first time, do it without benefit of seeing my instruments, and as a special topping for my flight of idiocy, also manage to hit an unseen runway.

NightAs I flew across the center of the field and looked straight down, I could see the outline of white airplanes parked on the dark grass, as they reflected the glow of the city lights. Using that position as a guide, I turned downwind and pulled on the carburetor heat, as I'd been taught. With no way to see my airspeed or altitude in the darkened cabin, I knew I had to rely on the patterns established by the hours of landing practice with my instructor. I would have to rely on the feel of the airplane against my hand and the sound of the air moving past the ship to gage my airspeed. I hoped my inner clock would let me time the length of the downwind and base legs of my pattern, then I'd aim for the square of darkness that was the airport, once I'd rolled out on final approach.

As I pulled the throttle back to idle I said a small prayer, asking God to forgive me for being so stupid and to please let me survive this mess I'd made. I hoped it was true that God protects drunks and fools, for I had completely qualified for the latter nomenclature.

Giving the trim the number of twists I remembered from my other landings in the Luscombe, the little airplane settled into my hand and I began the glide. Seconds passed, then when I thought the time was right I made the 90 degree turn onto the base leg of the pattern, careful to neither pull the nose up or let it drop. The airplane felt almost normal in spite of not being able to see instruments or runway. When the square of darkness filled my left window, I made the last turn onto the final approach for the runway.

While I had been over the streets and neighborhoods of the town or pointing away from the field, the lights on the ground had given me reference, and made maneuvering the airplane almost like daytime. Now I was pointed at a dark hole and as I sank lower it became harder to sense the attitude of the airplane. I concentrated on not make changes in the controls and listened intently to the sound clues the ship gave me. I seemed to be centered on the blackness that I knew was the airport and as best I could tell, my altitude looked about right. Suddenly I saw the top of a shadowy hill silently ghost by beneath my wheels and realized I'd passed the flood wall that marked the south end of the airport. I was about as well positioned as I could hope to be and I looked desperately for some clue to tell me where the ground was, as I sank down into the darkness. When I could stand it no longer, I broke the glide and started feeling for the ground. The Luscombe stalled and droped and I knew I had flared too high. I jammed the throttle forward and eased up on the stick until I felt the wings gain purchase again, then pulled the throttle back and began the process over. This time the ground was just beneath the wheels when the airplane stalled and we touched and with a small bounce settled and rolled through dark and the mist that was starting to form above the wet grass.

As one could imagine, my failure to return to the airport before dark had not gone unnoticed. As I taxied slowly in I was met by a mighty contingent of cars and people, looking to me at the time much like a lynch mob. It was led by my instructor, a giant of a man named Red Bozo, who looked ten foot tall in the wall of headlights backlighting him. When I cast my memory back to that moment, I could swear that the crowd was holding the blazing torches seen in Gary Larson cartoons, but they were probably flashlights. A caravan of cars led the way back to my tiedown and I made my excuses to Red, all lies, for what could I say?

I remember driving back my apartment feeling as if I just awakened from a long and wrenching dream. I knew that I had just experienced life on the very edge, and I also knew that things could have so easily ended another way. I was blessed to still be drawing breath. At that moment life seemed inexpressibly sweet to me and I vowed that I would never again do something so foolish. On the other hand, I had never felt so alive…..

Steve Weaver Aircraft Sales - Route 3 Box 696 - Phillipi, West Virginia - Phone 304-457-4523 - Fax 304-457-4799 For a restorative vacation for both your body and your soul, consider a week on the banks of the unforgettable Tygart River, in the heart of West Virginia. Click for more.

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