Freeway at night
6 min read

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.

Freeway at night

For a Cessna at night, a freeway is a long emergency landing strip.

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?

Sacramento Delta

The Sacramento Delta is not the best place for a forced landing.

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.

Rich Ferguson
Latest posts by Rich Ferguson (see all)
24 replies
  1. Aloyisus Fornortener
    Aloyisus Fornortener says:

    What did having a friend/passenger Jesuit priest have anything to do with this article, Rich?

    I scratched my head about you describing yourself as a chicken, and then babbling on about the old/bold pilot cliche’………attempting to figure out just what point you’re trying to make. Hmmmmm……………

    Otherwise….your writing is disjointed but the story finally explained your intent.

    • Greg Rumsey
      Greg Rumsey says:

      It was a great story. And I learned a few things from it so, don’t let SOME PEOPLE say other wise. Wow we have English critics instead of pilots enjoying each other’s mishaps and what nots. Rich it was a great story !

    • Glen Schweizer
      Glen Schweizer says:

      Perhaps, Mr Fornortenor would care to share his writing skills with those of us who enjoyed and learned from this story. Until then we wait… Thank you, Mr Ferguson, for sharing.

    • Nathan G.
      Nathan G. says:

      Great article, great story. I’m very familiar with the area. I worked line service at UC Davis and Woodland Watts while I was in college. Lots of great memories from the early ‘90s at those airports and learning all I could about flying.

      The easiest thing to be is a critic. Don’t take the counsel of those who would diminish your story.

      Thanks for a great read.

  2. Chris Barker
    Chris Barker says:

    I know that it’s easy to be clever in the safety of my chair in front of my computer, but it’s worth mentioning that flying the aircraft, getting the checks done and aiming for your landing spot (via the engine-out pattern, if possible) is all more important than talking to ATC – Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.

    Of course, it might be that you were really close to traffic zones and you needed everyone to know that you were about to blunder straight for a runway because your engine wasn’t working very well.

    • Rich
      Rich says:

      Glad you like the article. I only talked with the tower twice. The initial mayday and on downwind for a wind check. They called me to taxi to the ramp. That was it. Blessings, Rich

    JOHN SWALLOW says:

    Good story, Rich. Aviation is not without risks, but mitigating same can alleviate their severity. By altering the route of your return flight, you exemplified the “Six Ps”: Proper Prior Planning Prevents Poor Performance.

    (Sharp eyed readers will note that that there a really seven P’s; however, modesty forbids…) (;>0)

    • Rich
      Rich says:

      Thank you for your comments. I feel safer in the air than in a car. Got more control over the risk factors in my airplane than the car next to me on the freeway. Blessings, Rich

  4. David Braun
    David Braun says:


    Very nice article. It is both entertaining and a good reminder of how night time can make an emergency more difficult to handle than the daytime. Thanks for sharing your night flight thought process with us.

    • Rich
      Rich says:

      The older I get the more excuses I have not to fly at night. Eyesight not an issue as even in my early 70’s I have 20/20 uncorrected vision. I am IFR but night time turns that into I Follow Roads. Blessings, Rich

  5. Mike
    Mike says:

    I’m with Aloyisus- good story, less than good writing style. Could have got the point across with much more brevity. Making a story to the point and easy to read has it’s merits.

    • Chris
      Chris says:

      Jeepers, this is a flying magazine, not Literary Criticism Weekly. Please keep your irrelevant criticism to yourself.

  6. Mark
    Mark says:

    Aloyisus and Mike appear to have a youthful interest in aviation. If they are, in fact pilots, I pray they will grow old.

    Rich’s ways obviously worked out great and his experience tells him he doesn’t need to change a thing. I would fly with you anytime Rich, be it behind pen or prop.

    Blue skies, tailwinds, and perhaps…..fuel injection.

    PS: Aloyisus, perhaps the Jesuit and chicken have something to do with avoiding unnecessary risk.

  7. Neil
    Neil says:

    Hey Rich,

    Great story and good lessons to be learnt for planning a safe route.

    Mike, if you are going to criticize writing style perhaps you should learn some grammar – “has it’s merits” should, of course, be “has its merits”.
    “Its” being the third person genitive personal pronoun, whereas “it’s” is short for “it is”.

  8. Bob W.
    Bob W. says:

    The glider pilot in me says, “Well done, sir!” The more so since it was at night, you had a SECOND “moment of alarm” to handle (i.e. where’s the stinking A/P?!?), and you pulled it off without bending anything. Many a pilot in “roughly similar” circumstances finds a way to “depart from controlled flight”…often well-established in an “otherwise normal” landing pattern. Lotsa “take-home lessons” for Joe Average pilot, here…

  9. Bill Earl
    Bill Earl says:

    Good article – good story. That’s the point. We read this because it was interesting, not necessarily technical. I learned to fly out of Buchanan Field, Concord CA in 1967/ 68. I moved to Southern Oregon in 1968. I flew professionally in those years in light aircraft. Many flights included charters and mail
    runs over the mountainous terrain. One daily series of scheduled flights crossed the Siskiyou Mountains in a single night four times, all in the winter and all in the dark. I’m a cautious pilot as you are, but much of the time we are in God’s hands and hoping he is holding on tight. I’m still flying my own airplane after 50 plus years of flying adventures, and I’m thankful for all of them. May the Force be with you!

    • Rich
      Rich says:

      The older I get the more excuses I have not to fly at night. Eyesight not an issue as even in my early 70’s I have 20/20 uncorrected vision. I am IFR but night time turns that into I Follow Roads. Blessings, Rich

  10. Sam Tennant
    Sam Tennant says:

    Excellent article, great insight into altitude at night, stay in good a glide path of a runway or freeway and another check for ForeFlight !

  11. scott west
    scott west says:

    Great comment about the airport lights, didn’t think of that as an issue being directly overhead. Thanks for posting.

  12. Robert McHale
    Robert McHale says:

    Great article Rich. Unlike a couple of critiques, I enjoyed the background info. It provided context and made it YOUR story. Good job. Had a rough running engine just a couple of days ago, nothing too dramatic, but whatever happens with that single engine, it’s always something that grabs your attention and worth sharing to those who appreciate learning from others. So here’s another cliche’…good pilots are always learning.

  13. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    I also enjoyed the article, and despite being a picky editor, I didn’t stub my toe on the writing– the story brought me right along.

    Something to think about in night flight, esp. at the altitude chosen, is the effect of relative oxygen deficiency on night vision. I understand that on a night flight, a few breaths of oxygen at 5000 ft MSL make the lights come on dramatically. Especially as we age, night vision deteriorates anyway, so one might consider getting out the nasal prongs for some extra oxygen and vision for night flights.

  14. Rich
    Rich says:

    Your point is very well taken. This incident happened back when I was in my mid twenties and an athlete. Now I always have a bottle of supplemental oxygen with me no matter the flight planned altitudes. I wish I still have my turbo Arrow IV as it had built in oxygen system and easy to use. Blessings…Rich

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