It was December 1978, and I had been a private pilot since July 11 of the same year. Christmas would be our first trip – to Gulf Shores, Alabama, from Austin, Texas, to visit the wife’s parents and show off the four-month old baby girl.
The July afternoon after my checkride at the old Austin Mueller airport, I wasn’t home ten minutes before I grabbed a cold drink and my eight-month pregnant wife’s hand. I rushed her to the car for her first airplane ride with me, with the final words of Tom Webb, my FAA check airman, fresh in my ear: “Keep your head out of your a**.”
We made the drive back out to Bird’s Nest Airport (6R4, now Austin Executive) where Mary Harding kept my plane safe from would be renters after my checkride until I returned with my wife. A 100 degree July afternoon in the central Texas sun and turbulence in a 152 is not the best place to put an eight-month pregnant lady to impress her, but I never heard a word of complaint. We toured the north and west reaches of Austin for about 45 minutes and returned. And now my wife – after watching me from the ground do takeoffs, touch and go’s, stalls and spins – could finally ride shotgun.
Six weeks later our first baby girl was born. I remember putting her in Momma’s lap in the VW bug for the ride home down I-35 in Austin. I was scared to death. Removing our precious child from the safety and warmth of the hospital into the asphalt, cement and sheet metal world of the interstate was a real shock for the two of us. It hit us: we were the only two things between the outside world and our defenseless little daughter.
In the period between July and December I logged a little over 18 hours. These included numerous family members who had never flown, and Sunday morning rides to nearby airports to sample the coffee.
In October, I loaded my wife, two-month old daughter, Mom and Pop in a 172 and left Bird’s Nest again for Corpus Christi to visit my uncle (dad’s younger brother). When we called the Corpus tower after being handed over from approach, the controller asked if I would participate in a ground controlled low approach. Our arrival was a little after sunset and the dusk/nighttime conditions were perfect for the controller to remain current if I participated. The controller explained the procedure and I was glad to oblige. It was an interesting exercise and gave me confidence if I ever was put in that spot (zero vis, no instruments, etc.) a landing could be accomplished.
It was the perfect execution of this short cross country (3.8 hours round trip) and our daughter’s perfect traveling manners convinced us to fly to Grandma and Grandpa’s for Christmas.
The aircraft we chose was a two-year old Hawk XP, N733DV with a digital DME, to me a wonder of technology. It could compute time to station on the fly and would prove useful on our flight.
Christmas was Monday in 1978 and my father allowed me Saturday, Monday and Tuesday off from my job as an integral part of the tire business we had purchased in the spring. As part owner, days off were rare. We planned to leave Saturday, December 23, at 8:30 am, fly the VORs roughly along V306 to east of Houston, then continue to Baton Rouge for fuel and on to the Mobile airport. About 4.5 hours.
The Friday night before the flight I drove to Bird’s Nest to pre-pre-flight the bird, asking Mary Harding to refuel it that night while I was present to assure the tanks were filled and caps tight before I left for home.
The morning of Saturday December 23, 1978, was broken overcast ranging from 3500-4000 feet, temp in the mid-40s, but the wind out of the southwest. The weather along the route showed ceilings from 3500 to 5000, but the south-changing-to-southeast wind along the route and the high humidity concerned me, since I had seemingly read every word Richard Collins had ever written about weather flying.
We launched shortly after 8:00 am, daughter quiet as a mouse in Momma’s lap. We climbed to 5500 feet, dialed in the Navasota VOR and, after leaving Austin approach frequency, contacted Houston Center for flight following. After reaching Navasota, we turned northeast slightly to the Montgomery County Airport NDB as it kept us out of the then-busy Houston airspace (no Class B yet).
The ceiling and visibility began to drop, the DME showing slower than normal groundspeeds shortly before Montgomery County. While monitoring the flight watch frequency I heard a pilot announce, “The barometer is dropping like a rock at Waco.” Not a good sign as it was northwest of our location.
Tracking the inbound NDB to the Montgomery County airport (now the ZMSKL intersection on V306; NDB not there anymore) we advised flight following we were dropping to 3000 to remain clear of clouds. With no announcement from any ATC, a Mooney from my 1:00 position approached rapidly and flew under our right wing. A lot closer than I would have liked, but we had arrived over the NDB together.
The visibility ahead became ominous as we turned to the southeast to the Daisetta VOR. The flight watch frequency was buzzing with weather reports from my area and it just did not feel right. I remember reading Gordon Baxter’s warning of how the weather can drop over the “spooky Trinity river bottom lands” and that was right where we were heading. As the needle was flipping from “to” to “from” over Daisetta, the ominous blue curtain ahead and rapidly narrowing field of vision (visibility now down to 4 nm) we both decided to perform a 180 while fuel remained to get us home.
Arriving back at Bird’s Nest shortly after 11:00 am, Mary greeted us at the airport and congratulated us on our decision to turn around. A couple calls to the in-laws to apologize and calls to flight service confirmed our decision. BTR, our fuel stop, was 4 miles and fog. Mobile had deteriorated to 5 miles and a 1500 foot overcast at landing time.
Yeah, it was an education but wise advice from every pilot I consulted before the flight and the wisdom of some good aviation authors saved our bacon. We might have made it, but I learned to fly for enjoyment, not adventure and did not want to make my family fearful of flying. And yes, we had a Merry Christmas.
It worked out just fine.