Mid-December hung over the airfield in Hebron, Nebraska, like a cold, gray shroud. Rapid City, South Dakota, was 400 miles to the northwest, and I wanted to be there before sundown. Stacks of flying magazines had been read while downing a bottle of soda pop and several candy bars as I waited all morning in the small flight office for the weather to break. A glittering of snowflakes sporadically floated down from the dull overcast. An occasional orange glow hinted that the sun was trying to burn a hole in the drab sky but its efforts were defeated by the thick clouds.
My newly-acquired Piper Super Cub could cruise at just over 100 miles per hour. After liberating it from its life as a crop sprayer, I was taking it home to convert it into a backcountry flyer. If I could get off by one o’clock, I could make my first stop, Rapid City, before dark.
“A low, thousand-foot ceiling all the way with possible light snow,” the voice of the weatherman at the Flight Service Station predicted.
My plane had no instruments for flying in the clouds, and no radio for communication. Visual Flight Rules were the only option, and that didn’t look too promising.
The time of go or no-go was approaching rapidly. The low ceiling would not be a problem if it held. I had plenty of experience close to the ground. I could put the Cub down in a field or on a road if I had to, although the thought wasn’t too appealing given the freezing temperatures.
Scud-running – flying the thin layer of clear air between ground and a low, ragged overcast – that is what I would be doing. Young and foolish? Yes, but the decision was made.
I called the Flight Service Station back again to file a flight plan. My destination at Rapid City had a control tower. Since I had no radio, I asked the briefer to alert the tower to my estimated time of arrival of 5:00 pm. Normal procedure for non-radio airplanes was to circle outside the traffic pattern within sight of the airport until the tower operator beamed a green light from his light gun, indicating a clearance to land. I would get there at twilight and look for the signal.
With a full tank of gas and my aviation chart on my lap, I lifted off into the dreary sky and took up a heading to Rapid City. For the first hour, the long, boring expanse of brown and barren Nebraska cornfields crawled by under my wings on an endless conveyor, dotted occasionally with a farm house or small town. I had to wonder about the people who chose that lifestyle. What kept them in this mundane, flat, and frigid country with miles between neighbors?
The bare trees and occasional frozen ponds gave no hint that the wind was picking up from the west. Although the ride was smooth enough, the fields and country roads passed by more slowly. I took time measurements between waypoints and found my ground speed had decreased. I wasn’t traveling at the 110 mph that I anticipated. The developing headwind had reduced my progress to 80 mph. The afternoon light was already beginning to fade. Luckily, the overcast remained stable above me and only a few flakes of snow struck the windshield. Rapid City was still a long ways away as I flew on.
My watch read three o’clock when I reached the halfway mark on my chart. Light snow began to flash over my windshield. The fields below turned from brown to white. My ground speed remained slow as the headwind continued to restrict my forward motion, like swimming upstream against the current. The ceiling ahead was dropping. Ragged gray wisps hung low beneath the overcast. I was going to miss my ETA by at least an hour. The Super Cub droned on as my grip on the control stick grew tighter.
The sky slowly darkened and snow began falling heavier. Forward visibility was a blur of white streaks crashing headlong into the windshield at a hundred miles per hour. Looking straight down from the side windows, those same flakes fell gently to the ground to join a peaceful carpet of their relatives. How strange to be blinded looking forward, yet perfectly clear and serene looking down.
I held the compass course and followed the landmarks with my finger along the straight red line I had drawn between Hebron and Rapid City. Forty minutes to go, I estimated. The sky was now a dull gray as the light faded, but the snow added a strange iridescence as it reflected the remains of the day. The onslaught of angry flakes blocked all forward visibility. Down and behind were my only points of reference. I could see where I was, where I had been, but not where I was going.
Red and green wingtip navigation lights gave an almost festive glow to the white powder speeding past them, although I felt far from festive. This is getting serious. I had to find the Rapid City airport soon and needed some definite features on the ground to guide me. I let down to 500 feet to better see the ground that was disappearing in the time between day and night.
There’s a highway. Is it the interstate? No, the angle is wrong. Wait. It’s a railroad track. Check the chart. Yes, that’s what it is – it’s the track that runs into Rapid City from the south. The airport is somewhere north, but there is no way to find it. I can barely see a quarter mile ahead. If I leave the railroad track I won’t know where I am. Stick with the track. Follow it into town – it eventually crosses the highway. Then I can follow the highway out to the airport.
Down to 300 feet. Snow came down hard as I watched the railroad tracks not far below my wheels guide me through the white curtain ahead. Slowly buildings appeared, sparse at first, but more and more as the town unfolded in the small circle of vision below. Soon there were the flat roofs of commercial buildings with parking lots. The tracks led on.
Two black ribbons, side by side, emerged from the dim haze and cut across the tracks. The highway. That’s gotta be the highway.
I banked hard right to keep my new guide from disappearing from view.
I scanned the chart on my lap. There was barely enough light to make out the details. My finger made an indent where the railroad tracks and highway converge and then followed the highway east. Six miles to go. About five minutes more. I hope they can see me when I get there.
Car lights made the highway easier to follow than the tracks. I checked my watch every 30 seconds to make sure I had an accurate idea of where I was. But the light is almost gone and white all around, how will I see the airport?
The minutes ticked away as the highway seemed to be moving rather than the plane. The Cub felt motionless as though dangling in a white sky as the earth rotated below.
What’s that? A flashing beacon. Could it be the tower? The time is right. The dark white wall of falling snow reluctantly revealed a small flash of light every few seconds as the strong blinking beam penetrated the shroud.
I hope they can see me. Stay over the highway and I will be out of the traffic pattern, although I doubt anyone is landing in this stuff. I banked to the left and began circling, watching for the green beam that meant I had permission to land over there somewhere hidden from sight.
Wait, that beacon is wrong. It’s just flashing white. It should be alternating green and white.
I edged closer to the source until it came into view.
A water tower. It’s a water tower. Where’s the airport?
I rolled out, picked up the highway, and headed east once again.
What’s that ahead? It looks like lightning flashing through the clouds. No. They’re regular flashes. They’re the strobe lights of the airport lighting system! They must have turned them on for me. They knew I was coming.
Although I couldn’t see the airport or the runway, the glowing flashes of white drew me toward them. I knew they were located at the end of the runway and all I had to do was fly parallel to them to enter the pattern. Then I would extend beyond them and swing around, base to final approach, and the lights would guide me in. Once lined up, the three sets of bright lights at the end of the runway would tell me if I was too high, too low, or just right.
Snow was now falling from the sky in big flakes, obscuring everything around. The ground below was difficult to see but I had those lights – those wonderful lights. I flew the pattern and turned to the final approach, guided by luminary angels beckoning me to safety.
Stress flowed out of my hands and my grip on the controls loosened as I glided down the path to a smooth three-point landing and rolled to a slow taxi. The runway was long and wide, made for airliners. The Cub could have landed in the length of the large painted numbers barely visible on the end of the runway. In the distance I could see the glow of the terminal building, the beacon flashing green and white atop the tower, and the fixed base operation’s sign. I turned off at the first runway exit and taxied in their direction. The runway and taxiways were white with powder as clouds of the cold stuff trailed behind the Cub. I made my way to the tiedown area, pulled into one of the open spots and shut down the engine. Time to sit quietly, wings gently rocking in the wind, and let my nerves drain.
Reaching forward, I patted the top of the Cub’s instrument panel.“Well done – well done,” I whispered. A sense of pride spread over me. Sure, it wasn’t the smartest thing to do, but I did it and I survived.
I opened the door just as the FBO attendant, wrapped in a parka and shielding his face from the blowing snow walked up.
“Were did you come from?” he said in an excited voice.
“Hebron,” I answered casually.
“No, I mean just now.”
“Hebron. I just landed.”
“No kidding! You landed in this stuff?”
He helped me tie down the Cub for the night and invited me into the flight office for a cup of hot chocolate.
“I better call the tower,” I said, brushing the snow from my shoulders. “Can I use the phone?”
“No problem.” He swung the desk phone around and pushed it toward me. “The number’s there on the bulletin board.”
“Hello, this is Piper November 85 zulu. I called ahead for a no-radio landing clearance, and I want to close my flight plan.”
“Yes, we have your flight plan. You want to cancel it?”
“Yes, close it, I just landed.”
The voice on the other end sounded surprised. “You what? You landed here? When?”
“Yeah, a few minutes ago. Thanks for turning on the lights for me. It would have been tough to find you without them.”
“No kidding. You just landed? We never even saw you. Those lights were for a Frontier flight that decided to divert to Billings because of the weather. The airport is closed.”
“Really?” Uh, oh. I landed without permission and on a closed airport. “I thought I had been cleared in. Am I in trouble?”
There was a pause on the other end of the line, but I could hear a muffled conversation going on. A few seconds later the tower operator came back on the line. “No. We’ll let this one go. We’re just glad you made it down safe.”
I thanked him for his thoughtfulness, picked up my flight bag and turned to the FBO operator, “So, how do I get to a hotel?”
Editor’s Note: This article is from 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: [email protected]