I hadn’t wanted to work on Christmas Eve; my family had its own plans, and I had wanted to be a part of those plans. Nonetheless, I was fortunate that the three-day trip I had been assigned was scheduled to end at nine o’clock p.m. on the eve of Christmas that year instead of late on Christmas Day. I had to steel my resolve and think stoically. After all, it was my job; it was my responsibility.
In the early 1980s, aviation jobs were not plentiful. Therefore, if one had his sights set on an aviation career, one had to join most any (questionable) outfit promising a lot of flying that came along. The job I had when I took the following flight was with just such a stellar employer.
Before I obtained an instrument rating and began using IFR charts, I, too, relied primarily on visual cues; I never paid a lot of attention to actual geodetic elevations of obstacles and terrain. This type of “feel-as-you-go” operation is fine in good, daytime visibility. But in darkness or reduced visibilities, it can quickly lead to disaster. Simply said, when the visibility goes down, you need a better plan.
I descended until I was, in fact, right on top of the waves. The visibility was better there, but, of course, at that altitude, I could no longer receive any VOR signals, and the airplane had no GPS equipment – no airplane did back then. All I had was a coffee-stained sectional chart, and it looked coldly aloof and insultingly bare of any useful information at the time.
It feels good to be a mentor. I have never been one before – at least in aviation. If anyone out there reading this has any words of advice I could give to the young man I would sure like to hear them. Seeing his passion for flying kind of rekindles my own.
All was normal at the top of descent until we both spotted what looked like an undulating patch of orange mist ahead and slightly below us. There was a sort of velvety sheen appearance to it. My captain and I looked at each other with the most unflattering miens, I’m sure, and exclaimed simultaneously: “Northern lights…!!”
Suddenly, I was jolted out of my delectable dreamland by a violent roll to the right. Instant paralyzing fear, equivalent to several thousand volts of crippling electrical current, seemed to anesthetize my entire body. There was no time for panic, but that’s all I could manage to do.
They say that in every life a little sunshine will beam on occasion. Freight dogs learn quickly to take advantage of every streak of light they can find and they usually don’t tell anyone about it until well after the fact, because they’re never quite sure if what they’ve just done is legal or not.
Upon passing the VOR I called the Center controller to inform him that we were entering the hold at Sea Isle and was immediately called on the carpet by my pilot friend with me. He informed me that the controller told us to call him when we were “established” in the hold – not when we were passing the VOR.
I was flying the daily mail run in a saddle-worn Cessna 402 out of Abingdon, Virginia, on a very cloudy, turbulent, rainy, miserable night in mid-March. We had just leveled out at 5000 feet when the radar approach controller in Roanoke called to inform me that I appeared to be turning toward the north.
Sometimes in aviation we learn valuable lessons that reach far beyond the technical aspects of flying – like this story. I was young and full of youthful hubris at the time, and I thought I knew everything. I especially thought I knew more than all the “old-timers.”
Reader Dave Sandidge’s uncle, Bernard Threet, was an ag pilot in the Mississippi Delta region for many years. After his uncle’s recent death, Sandidge wanted to honor him by sharing the story of his memorable cross-country in a Piper Cub crop duster. And what a story it is.
The little Cessna heaved a surrendering sigh as if air were being forced out of a Tupperware bowl. The stall-warning horn began its reedy squall as the nose went up higher and higher. The world went sideways in a multi-colored blur. Then it became deathly quiet; all sound curiously vanished.