Nodding off at 10 feet above the waves

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.

Cub
A Cub is a tough old airplane, but…

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: editor@airfactsjournal.com

28 Comments

  • I learned to fly in a cub in 1948. I’m very familiar with that great little airplane. One thing puzzled me a lot with that pilot’s tale. Why would his first thought be that the prop had hit the water? The tires are almost a foot lower than the spinning prop in level flight.

    Obviously the WHEELS would have hit first (which they probably did). He’s very lucky the plane didn’t flip over when the wheels hit. Water acts very hard when hitting it at that speed and most likely the plane bounced up when the wheels hit – saving him.

    • Obviously, you are a superior airman that would have woken from a dead sleep with water cascading across the windshield and into the cabin and deftly analyzed exactly what happened and the ramifications. I guess at 20 or 21 years old, I just wanted to try and figure out if I needed to land on the beach or keep flying. I have, in later years, “landed” a Cub on the water where I eased the wheels onto a calm lake and skidded along the surface. I was awake when I did it, though.

  • Great story Daniel! I completely understand the fatigued. I towed banners along South Florida beaches and at times it was tough staying awake.
    I can remember at least once getting way too low and possibly allowing the banner to hit the water.
    I’ll never do that again!

  • Maybe you should have just called in sick that day. Very poor judgement all the way around and nothing to be proud about. No superior airmanship here – just plain luck. By the way, since you did suspect a prop strike with the water, did you even consider the requirement to tear down the engine for the required inspection?

    • This event took place a half century ago. If you can look back 45 years and say you haven’t done something stupid, you’d either be a liar or a weekend pilot.

    • Thanks, Dad. I needed to be scolded for something that happened 45+ years and 25,000+ hours ago. I wish it was the last mistake I ever made in an airplane.

  • Several stories of contact between airplanes and water at my home drome, one inadvertent and several vertent. The inadvertent one was odd. A wheel fairing got smashed off of a Decathlon one night. The crew reported fatigue, water on the windshield after the second contact… all that. I saw no evidence of seawater on the airplane but wasn’t sure it would be be visible anyway. The prop was fine. After the new wheel fairing was installed, some wag put a handmade sticker on it showing an ocean wave with a red circle and slash over it.

  • Josh, thanks for sharing. I am very glad you were able to survive that one. And thank you for the bravery of posting this publicly. to the ‘holier than thou” posters here, shut the heck up. Clearly you are so perfect you don’t need to even read this column. He was a kid, made a mistake, and admitted it. pointing out someone’s mistake after they have already admitted it makes you a pompous arse.

    • Amen, Bro. Well said. This was over 45 years ago. I certainly don’t hold it up as an example of superior airmanship, it was just fun to write about. I was a wild kid in a souped-up Cub having the time of my life damn near 24 hours a day, and learning a lot of lessons whether I was at the airport or not. Now I’m a retired guy with a souped-up Cub and still learning lessons.
      I re-posted this because I’m not sure whether it went to Josh’s email.

  • Amen, Bro. Well said. This was over 45 years ago. I certainly don’t hold it up as an example of superior airmanship, it was just fun to write about. I was a wild kid in a souped-up Cub having the time of my life damn near 24 hours a day, and learning a lot of lessons whether I was at the airport or not. Now I’m a retired guy with a souped-up Cub and still learning lessons.

  • Dan,

    Thanks for a great story. I guess any of us can take it “for what it’s worth…,” whether as an entertaining story, or a “lesson.” It has elements of both. I suspect at the time it was a great “lesson.” Cheating death always has those elements (I drive on I95 every day and that’s why I got an airplane…fewer “lessons….”) which have a tendency to sharpen our awareness and skill sets. Good job on your part because you have fallen into the category of being an “old pilot.” Congratulations

    • Thanks for the post. It was a fun story to write. Over my 25,000+ hours I’ve certainly had some luck and I try to learn something every day. Whether it was a Cub or a 747, they were all good teachers if you were willing to learn. I do more writing now than flying, working on another book.

    • Thanks for the kind words. It was fun trying to take the reader into the fatigue I was feeling and turn them to the wide-awake jolt of fear I felt in a short space.

  • Dan, I learned to fly with Shore Air back then and got up once with Cecil in his BT13 sky writer one day when he was practicing. Paul had taken over for Duff back then. Dirk was my instructor. I must have known you but can’t remember too many faces from back then. It was a great place to be back then.
    I use to take the Chief out at night and do the same thing you did but I never went below 100 feet. Down to AC and back. Great ride. Thanks for the memory.

    • Hey, Richard. Your name sounds familiar. I showed up at Colts Neck in the fall of ’68 when I was sixteen. Duff was gone and so was Dirk. I’ve met Dirk several times, never met Duff. Paul had a handful of 150’s and a 172 and he leased two 150’s from Bud Fenwick who ran a maintenance shop in the hangar next to the office. There are a million stories from those days. I worked there until ’78 when I started the airline thing. Even when I was flying 99’s for Brownie in ’77&’78 I still towed banners for Cecil on the weekends. I have a pic next to one of Cecil’s Cruisers from when I was 18 and going out to tow some banners. I’ll send it to your email, maybe you’ll recognize that. A lotta wind has blown across the runway since then. Someone told me Trump built a golf course on the airport. An ignominious end for such sacred ground. Ha

  • Great story. Growing up in New Jersey and spending many summer vacations at the beaches of Stone Harbor, Wildwood and Cape May, this story brought back many memories. As a very young future pilot, I loved watching the banner towing planes flying by longing for the day when I would get to fly. Thanks for sharing your story.

  • Had never heard of “DF Steer”. I’m in the pattern at an airport, talking to a tower. Number of the runway is different than I expected. Where am I? I tell the tower. They say “ever hear of DF Steer?” No. Just key the mike and we will tell you where you are and give you directions to us. Which I did and arrived at my home field just fine. Good way to learn something new!!!

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