Ever since I was a small child, I loved flying. I remember when I was five or six years old and my parents took me to an airshow somewhere around the Chicago area. Later I found out that my dad wanted to show my mom the B-29 that was there on display. He worked on the radio systems, repairing them when he was stationed on Guam during WWII. I remember being so fascinated with all the airplanes there and especially the B-29. It was so silver, so shiny and so huge. Later on, I had dozens of plastic model airplanes hanging from the ceiling in my bedroom.
During college, my older cousin learned to fly. He took me flying when we visited him and our family in Joliet, Illinois. That did it. When we returned home to California, I started to take flying lessons. By the time I was 21 and in graduate school, I had my commercial, IFR and CFI ratings. I joined a small flying club where I could rent a C-150 for $7 per hour wet. Can you imagine that? Of course, this was in the early 1970s.
During college I was the president of the flying club at Santa Clara University in Santa Clara, California. I met my lifelong friend there. He is a Jesuit and a pilot himself. I shared many great flying hours as I taught him to fly. He did get his private pilot’s license and flew many people over the years. Both of us never scratched a wingtip in the thousands of hours we accumulated.
In the mid 70s, my Jesuit friend and I flew to Sacramento, California (KSAC), from Reid Hillview Airport (KRHV) in San Jose. We visited some friends there and had dinner. It was night time before we arrived back at the airport to fly home. It would be a great night flight as the weather was “severe clear.” Winds were their usual, from about 300 degrees, variable 5 to 10 knots. It was winter in California, so it was cold at about 45 degrees Fahrenheit. We preflighted the airplane, taxied out to the active and took off to join up with highway 80 southwest bound.
Flying to Sacramento during daylight hours, I flew a direct course from San Jose. That happens to be almost due north. However, coming back, I did what I always do for night flights and flew only over freeways from airport to airport. It would be a zig-zag course adding about 10 minutes to our flight time. At night, I consider freeways a very long runway. Also, in the Cessna 172 I was flying, its landing speed matches quite well with freeway speeds.
If I were a bird, I would be a big chicken. I remember what my private pilot flight instructor always told me: “There are old pilots and bold pilots. Hard to find any old, bold pilots.” That stuck with me. Good thing, too.
It was about 10 pm when we arrived at the airport. The airplane we were flying that night was an oldie but goodie C-172 made before Cessna discovered it was a good idea to put in a rear window behind the cockpit. The plane performed great on the trip up, but not so good on the return flight.
My cruising altitude at night is always significantly higher than daytime for obvious reasons. On this flight, I chose 8,500 feet. The airplane was light as there were only two of us on board and three-quarters fuel. The route of flight would be a zig-zag back to San Jose for another reason. If we did encounter mechanical problems and we flew the same straight line course back to San Jose, that would put us over the Sacramento Delta, which is full of wetlands, bogs and mud. This is terrain that you should never fool with. Therefore, my route of flight was KSAC to join highway 80, turn southwest to the UC Davis airport (EDU), down highway 80 to over Nut Tree airport (VCB), passing Travis AFB (SUU), continuing over highway 80 past Fairfield.
I could see the lights of Concord from a little south of Fairfield, so I turned south. This put us over an area of wetlands but highway 80 was within very easy gliding distance off to our right.
Then it happened.
Right over Suisun Bay where the Navy stores a large number of dilapidated ships, our engine decided to cough, sputter, lose all power as it vibrated a lot. Things got unexpectedly quiet in the cockpit except for the wind noise.
So, there we were, almost completely dead engine, at night over water. This almost sounds like the movie “The High and The Mighty” with John Wayne. I remember my first words to my friend were something that is not printable.
I dialed 121.5, declared mayday, gave my position and Buchannan Airport (CCR) gave us immediate clearance to land any runway – my choice. I ran through the checklist which frankly is almost nothing, and set up proper glide speed toward Buchannan airport. I glided directly toward the airport. Now something happened that I never expected. As I arrived over the airport, I could not see it anymore. We now were about 4,500 feet and no airport. The lights of Concord were all around us, I could see highway 680 below, but where the heck did the airport go?
Then it dawned on me that the airport lights are aimed horizontally and not vertically. So, I turned west and glided for about a little over one minute. I turned around and saw my favorite sight in the world: the rotating beacon. From there, it was just airmanship, making sure to get to pattern altitude about a half mile west of the runways. I landed the airplane and coasted off the runway. We then realized that our trusty engine was making just enough power to taxi to parking.
We spent the night. Next morning, a mechanic found the problem very quickly. A part inside the carburetor fell off and went somewhere into the engine, never again to see the light of day. This missing part caused the fuel to gush into the engine way beyond any useable mixture setting. This also explains why we had a very rough engine on the ground producing just enough power to taxi.
Looking back at the timing of events, if I chose to fly a direct course back to San Jose, the engine would have quit around the time we would have been over the southern part of Sacramento Delta with all its bogs and mud to greet us. Were we just lucky or prudent in flight planning?
So, what are the lessons from this memorable flight? First, your flight planning can save your butt. At night, fly higher. Fly a zig-zag course to wherever you are going. Be very aware of what kind of terrain is below you. If there are no lights below you, it is for a good reason that you do not want to tangle with. I always fly today with ForeFlight in the cockpit. It shows me instantly what my gliding distance is for my Piper Arrow IV.
I have flown now for 50 years and still have never scratched a wingtip.