Nearly 45 years after the fact, this is the first time this story sees the light of day.
I’d flown my usual contract banner that day: pick-up at Colts Neck Airport, fly out to Jones Beach inlet, work the New York beaches back to Coney Island, then turn south and work Sandy Hook to Cape May, drop the banner and fly the airplane home.
This particular day was a little different from the others because I’d been out playing the night before and had only gotten a few hours of sleep. It took a good four-and-a-half hours to do the tow and I just couldn’t keep my eyes open. I must have nodded off a half-a-dozen times or more, especially in the last hour as the day started winding down. It was turning into one of those “I’ll never do that again” days, something I would say regularly until I realized I was going to do that again and stopped saying it.
Finally, I was at the turn in Cape May. I dropped the banner, landed, rolled it up and tossed it into the back of the Cub to head home. It was a little over an hour to Colts Neck. Thankfully, we had enough gas for the trip, so I pulled the prop myself and headed out. We usually climbed up to 400 or 500 feet and followed the Parkway toward home but I had a different plan. I was so damn tired I crossed the beach at Wildwood and dropped down to ten feet. The sun was low off my left. With the doors and windows open, a cool breeze and the near water would keep me awake.
It was beautiful and fun. Zipping along five to ten feet above the ocean provided the buzz I needed. I made the turn around Atlantic City. It was a seedy place, then. From down on the ocean I looked up at the tower that the terrified diving horse jumped from and I could see the people on the boardwalk and at the concessions. From there it was a straight shot up the beach and less than an hour to home. It was a little chilly, so I closed the lower half of the clamshell door and pushed the power up a little, as if another hundred RPM’s was going to get me home sooner. Out of the right window, I saw my shadow ripping across the water.
BOOM. I awoke from a dead sleep with full power and a lot of back stick. Water streamed back on the windshield and there was some water on my arm. I was wide awake now. I leveled off at 200 feet and took inventory. Best I could tell I clipped the top off of a wave with the propeller. The ocean looked pretty calm. The Cub seemed to be running fine but I pulled the power back and tried to see if the prop was bent. I couldn’t see any damage. I stuck my head out of the window and doors and couldn’t see anything. I very gingerly climbed to 500 feet and pointed the Cub home.
Over the next half-hour I don’t think my heart rate got below a hundred. The Cub had saved my ass again. The empty airplane floated a little and touched beautifully into the grass of the runway. I put it away. The prop showed no damage. It was good.
The next day was rainy. No flying, so it was a good day to change the oil. I popped the drain plug and let the old oil drain into a five-gallon bucket, then pulled the metal screen, the cockroach catcher as Cecil called it, cleaned and replaced it. While I was waiting for each quart of the fresh oil to flow in I took my rag and wiped down the motor mount, the engine and the landing gear. I felt something not right. I looked and to my horror, one of the landing gear tubes had been ripped about ninety per cent through. Apparently, while I was sleeping, the Cub tires had bashed into the ocean and took the damage. My mind started wheeling 100 mph. With my normal takeoff load of forty-three gallons of gas and operating on a rough, grass strip it wouldn’t have taken long for it to fail. Had it failed, it would have probably taken out a wingtip, some struts and the prop, maybe even damaged the center section where the wings attach to the fuselage. The Cub really saved my ass, got me home and the aviation gods conspired to keep me on the ground and find it.
For the rest of the season, while we were debriefing, the talk came around to how that had happened. There were no marks where I had taxied into anything. Cecil and the great Jack Ekdahl, another tow pilot and an unbelievable mechanic, speculated. There was a lot of, “Damn, he must have been moving to do that,” and other such conversation. All I could suppose was that it was wear-and-tear from operating off the rough field. Jack just smiled that Cheshire cat smile of his. He knew something crazy had happened, he just couldn’t figure it out.
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: firstname.lastname@example.org