This story happened many years ago to my father-in-law and me, and the statute of limitations has hopefully run out on any broken or bruised FARs we might have encountered during the course of events. Nevertheless, there is a debt to be paid: that is the debt to one’s own conscience when, years later, you look back on things and realize your own stupidity. There is a sense of guilt that almost overwhelms your sense of gratitude, knowing that you survived when others in similar circumstances did not.
It all began innocently enough. My father-in-law, Tom, and I were both private pilots with several hundred hours between us, and I was the proud owner of a battered but airworthy 1966 Cessna 150F. My in-laws are all originally from Oklahoma, and one summer afternoon Tom suggested we get a few things together and make plans to fly down to Lake Eufaula, where his mother had a place, and spend a few days immersed in fishing, boating, and Okie culture.
We started off a few days later from Henry County Airport in Napoleon, Ohio, where I was based. The day was warm and humid, with scattered cumulus all along our route, but no projected thunderstorms or convective activity. It was a little bit bumpy due to our casual, late morning start, but nothing a couple of seasoned pros like us couldn’t handle. We traded legs flying and navigating. Our navigation was virtually all pilotage in those days. Lorans were increasingly popular among the corporate and big iron types. Nobody had a GPS. Although I had a single, scratchy nav/com in the old girl, we trusted a chart and our own eyeballs, confirming landmarks as we bounced through the fleecy, hazy, midwestern skies of Indiana, Illinois, and Missouri, pushing ever onward to our destination.
Pushing is the operative word for the rest of our story, because as the day wore on, that much time in the air began to wear us down. We had stopped for fuel a couple of times already and didn’t really plan to stop again, but in Missouri we had to do so unexpectedly. I mentioned that we traded off flying duties, and after sitting through an off duty leg with Tom flying, I became sick, my first and only time in an airplane. Consequently, we made an unplanned stop that pushed us behind schedule.
It was already getting dusky when we departed, me with a newly but tentatively settled stomach and Tom with a strong drive to get down to Arrowhead on Lake Eufaula before dark. We had already been flying several hours and it would have been a better plan to call retreat for the day and set out early the next morning with all day to reach our destination. Instead, we forged ahead.
The countryside of southern Missouri and northwestern Arkansas as you approach northeastern Oklahoma is rolling and sparsely populated. It is largely free of good landmarks and at night it can be difficult to tell exactly where you are sometimes. That’s in a car. In a plane, on a hazy night, after a long day, with no GPS and one scratchy radio and a barely reliable VOR head, it’s damn near impossible. Adding to the difficulty of our task is that the geographical area previously described was at the margins of our sectional charts, and it was difficult to determine the usual overlapping points where you can typically identify a town or landmark common to both charts. We flew on, in what was the correct general direction but certainly not a precisely laid out course.
One by one, the pieces of kindling were being laid on one another for a potentially fatal fire: a late start, fatigue, unreliable equipment, no back-ups, an overly casual approach to navigation, limited visibility due to the remaining haze, darkness, and now, as we continued to bore through what had become a less than comfortable sky, diminishing fuel. Did I mention no flight plan? Oh, I knew how to file a flight plan, all right. I’d done so once or twice in the course of getting my ticket, but at that stage of my flying career, Tom and I tended to hang out with a bunch of independent, scarf-and-goggles types. They weren’t exactly outlaws, but all of us tended to shy away from much contact with the FAA. This applied even to benign activities like filing flight plans or flying into controlled airports. The general feeling was the less truck one had with the “guvmint,” the less they could find wrong with you or your plane.
Eventually, we discussed our problem. In the years following, as I pursued a commercial ticket and advanced flight ratings, I encountered the concept of CRM, or Cockpit Resource Management. It was being forcibly introduced to us that night in the tight, increasingly uncomfortable cabin of my little 150. At least the lights seemed to work, although they were a little dim. Kind of like the two pilots who squinted through their dull red glow at the panel in front of them.
“We need to find something pretty soon.”
“You mean Arrowhead?”
“Arrowhead, hell! I don’t know where we are.”
“It can’t be much farther.”
“We need to get down. I’ll settle for anything with a runway at this point. We’re getting low on fuel.”
“Well, I sure as hell don’t want to run out of gas up here in the dark!”
About this time we found ourselves, after fruitlessly exploring one mercury vapor light after another, above a major highway. I had no idea at the time, but it was Interstate 40 and we had flown west of our objective. I recalled any number of articles and books from over the years, and I was determined not to run out of gas and let that determine where we landed. I preferred to utilize the old but time-proven device of a precautionary landing. If I had to, I would land on the highway beneath us, but it was hard to determine terrain, and as we drifted lower to maintain visual contact, I shivered at was obviously a lot of heavy truck traffic.
“There ought to be something on one side or another of this highway. It’s got to lead to a town with an airport,” I said.
“All right,” said Tom, “you watch for something on your side of the road, and I’ll watch on mine.”
Then, after an agonizing few minutes, Tom shouted.
“Hey, I got a rotating beacon!”
I banked into a steep turn that I thought most fighter pilots would have been proud of and picked up the beacon.
“Okay, I’ve got it! Looks like grass. Good eye. I’ll get set up.”
“You want to drag it first, just to have a look?”
“Hell, no! We’re liable to run out of gas in the process. Besides, where else do we have to go?”
I flew a tight left pattern then to what is still one of the best landings I ever made in my life. The grass was tall and reduced our landing roll so that I had to give her a little throttle to continue forward. Tom volunteered to hop out and try to find a tiedown spot and I followed him in the dark. I could feel my hands trembling on the control wheel and throttle.
There were some low barracks-like homes nearby, and after introducing ourselves to the Native American couple who lived in one of them, we got directions and a ride to a nearby motel. Tom seemed visibly relieved when we got there. I know I was.
“Man, I don’t ever want to do anything like that again!”
“Agreed. Uh, let’s not say anything about this to Vicki or Faye, okay?”
“Don’t worry. This is one flying adventure I’m not inclined to brag about.”
The next day we were refueled by a duster pilot who was the primary user of the strip, and we related how we had managed to land in his little corner of the universe, a grass strip just outside of Okemah, Oklahoma.
“Glad you guys were able to find the place. You say you had lights?”
“Yeah, they came right up when I keyed the mike on the unicom.”
“Hmmph, funny. They’re usually turned off after dark. Locals here like to shoot ‘em out. Well, you’re all set.” He put the hose away.
Our flight from Okemah to Arrowhead was brief and uneventful as was our ride home to Ohio several days later. We went home and back to our usual routines, but in the following years of flying in pursuit of a commercial license and various flight ratings, I kept that flight and that night over the Ozark foothills in the back of my mind. When I became an instructor myself, I offered the following advice – Don’t be in too damn big of a hurry to get somewhere, regardless of the reason. There’s always tomorrow, unless you cancel it and all your other tomorrows today.
Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: firstname.lastname@example.org