I’ve waited almost a lifetime to fess up to behaving badly. The statute of limitations has hopefully expired in sixty-six years. Specifically, in 1954 at age twenty, 165 hours total time, no IFR training, and growing up on a rural Pennsylvania farm, I was living a teenage fantasy for adventure in a far-off land. Having earned a private ticket and graduating from high school in the same summer, then graduating two years later from Spartan School of Aeronautics with an A&P, I connected with LeTourneau Manufacturing, Long View, Texas, for training as a heavy construction equipment operator and mechanic.
President R. G. LeTourneau was in fact a lay minister in his Protestant church denomination and widely acclaimed for practicing his faith in business and for his abundant philanthropic generosity. In February 1954, the Peruvian government granted LeTourneau 990,000 acres of virgin Amazon headwater jungle acreage in exchange for building a 31-mile roadway to open up the jungle area for refugee colonization.
LeTourneau disassembled earthmoving equipment, along with a Cessna 195 on floats, a Tri-Pacer, and a 135 hp PA-18 Super Cub and loaded all on flat-bottomed, ocean-going ships that moved up the Amazon as far as possible before unloading on the river bank. They named the riverhead Tournavista.
In June that year, the HR department didn’t need to ask me twice! By mid-July, along with seven others, I got to ride in a Douglas A-26 modified for civilian use, winging south to a Peruvian jungle outpost with a single clay airstrip at Pucallpa, Peru. At Tournavista, the senior pilot flying the C-195 on floats gave me a check ride in the Super Cub. This Cub was truly a “Plane Jane” workhorse, without radios and a bare bones panel.
Tournavista was located roughly 40 nautical air miles from Pucallpa. In late October, 1954, Hector, a Chilean LeTourneau Tech student getting course credits for a year in Peru, had been suffering with a monumental toothache for two days. LeTourneau’s nurse recommended that he fly to Lima, doubting dentistry in Pucallpa could competently deal with his condition. Faucett Airlines flew DC-3s between Lima and Pucallpa twice each week, arriving about 10:00 am in Pucallpa.
The next morning with two passengers—Hector and a Peruvian worker wanting to visit his family in Pucallpa—I took off into a clear, cloudless sky. Sometimes I flew two passengers in the Cub if one was of small physique. We kept a small kitchen step stool on hand for the third passenger. They would sit with their chin on their knees in the open baggage compartment behind the passenger’s seat, for a 25-minute flight. The plan was that Hector would connect with the 10:00 am flight to Lima.
About halfway to Pucallpa, I needed to climb to stay above the scattered cloud layer, which was too low to fly underneath. I could easily navigate by watching the river slide by under the scattered clouds. The cloud tops were fluffy white and flat in brilliant sunlight, the air smooth as silk. I thought about turning back to Tournavista as the scattered clouds morphed into a broken layer (smaller holes) but decided to continue.
A few minutes later, I needed to climb higher a second time to stay on top. Relaxed in perfect harmony with a gratifying flight (fat, dumb, and happy), it abruptly occurred to me that the point of no return had passed. Turning back to Tournavista and getting lost over endless jungle was too big a risk if the cloud deck drifted over Tournavista too. My safety exit of returning to Tournavista was now closed. Besides, we were almost there. I kept going, thinking about Hector’s toothache and not missing his flight to Lima. Soon, thatched roofs started showing up in the cloud openings. Then minutes later, Pucallpa’s dirt airstrip appeared, right where it should be.
After circling over the airstrip several times looking for the biggest hole, I throttled back to idle, pulled full flaps and started a mushing descent, near stall airspeed for smallest radius turn and steepest possible descent angle, I started a gliding turn into the biggest hole I could find over the runway.
Suddenly, to my complete surprise, I flew through a wisp of cloud! But I had neither the advanced training nor instruments in the airplane to fly through IMC. Realizing the hole was too small to turn inside, I panicked and momentarily forgot everything I had ever learned about coordinated flight! Pushing left rudder to keep the airplane inside the hole, I had to use right aileron to keep from rolling inverted, at the same time yanking the control stick full back into the right corner and full throttle to climb out of the hole.
The Super Cub obediently stalled before getting the throttle much off the idle stop, rolled further left and uncontrollably pitched nose down into the neatest spin entry one could hope for. Being at gross weight, tail heavy (with the CG likely beyond aft limit) and cross controlled, spin entry was a sure bet! My primary flight instructor taught me spins and loops before turning me loose to the private flight examiner.
What a blessing. Panic over—been there, done that. I knew exactly what to do next. I looked over the left side and straight down as we rapidly rotated above the runway. When the runway appeared to be widening swiftly and the thatched roofs were suddenly looking big, I recovered from the spin paralleling the runway and added partial power, thinking to slide in under the cloud base; the heck with the wind direction. The ceiling was low and visibility limited. The top of the 120 ft. communications tower near the airport administration building was in the clouds as I flew past it.
Beyond the runway’s end I made a wide, shallow-banked teardrop turn over the thatched roof houses and landed. Flying at rooftop level and not wanting to lose sight of the runway’s end in the mist, I started the turn too soon and ended up over the threshold in a shallow right turn barely off the ground, getting lined up with the runway.
On the way down, I was totally focused on closing the throttle, holding full left rudder, the stick against my gut and ailerons neutral. Flying the airplane during the spin, in a flicker I debated whether to retract the flaps, and decided no, not to risk disturbing a perfect spin. Flying the teardrop turn to a landing, I remember thinking, “So far, so good. Don’t do something really stupid like bank too steeply and drag a wing tip through a thatch roof!” I also remember my eyes hadn’t adjusted from brilliant sunshine to lower light levels under the clouds and how strange to see nothing but thatch roofs ahead at my level and all around, close in and almost touching the wheels—like flying through a wide tunnel in a surreal dream!
I was uncommonly lucky that day. The spinning airplane stayed inside the hole so that I never lost visual contact with the ground. If we had entered the clouds, I could not have known when to start recovery nor had time to recover under the 100 ft. ceiling.
Climbing out of the airplane, Hector said he enjoyed the scenery looking down on the fluffy white clouds in the smooth air, but coming down so fast made his head hurt even worse. Before I could say, “Sorry about that,” he added that the Peruvian behind him in the baggage compartment, had grabbed both shoulders and dug his fingers in so hard that his shoulders still hurt.
Then I noticed the Peruvians on the ground were behaving strangely—laughing, waving their arms in the air, and pointing to us. I asked Hector, “What are they saying?” (I didn’t understand Spanish.)
He listened for a minute, then turned to me. “They heard us circling overhead and when the engine noise stopped, they looked up thinking we ran out of gas and were going to crash and then saw the airplane twisting out of the clouds, in a dive near the ground.”
In the afternoon, with clear skies and returning to Tournavista alone, I repeatedly beat up on myself, remembering that spinning through a cloud layer was more or less routine for 1920s airmail pilots. Why didn’t I think to do an intentional spin through a hole?
But I knew at once that I had exercised inexcusable poor judgment, flying above the clouds without proper radios and instruments. I violated safe flying rule number two: never get trapped into a situation without a safe exit plan. I might have killed myself, taken two other humans with me, and ended the useful life of one perfectly good airplane.
Years later, flying commercially with pilots of varied backgrounds and experience levels, I had a revelation. Flying is about control. Intellectually, control might be central to the reason we learn to fly in the first place. For example, there is an extraordinary sense of “being in control” that pilots experience when flying. That skill returns feelings of accomplishment and satisfaction. Pilots that have disentangled from at least one dicey situation facing catastrophic consequences, yet keep on flying, have a heightened appreciation for the true meaning of control. They never take airmanship for granted, and are always circumspect. And their flying technique has a respectful, humble, and restrained approach to the application of control that clearly shows to other pilots. High time flight hours alone don’t always qualify. I got my induction into that pilot fraternity earlier than most.
Waiting this long to confess, I now understand my reluctance as an ego defense mechanism—to escape advertising my stupidity. (Someone has famously said, “If I don’t talk, listeners can’t know whether I’m very dull or very bright; why talk and remove all doubt?”) Lifelong, I rarely spoke of this experience except to close pilot friends and even then, the telling usually ended the conversation; not much remains to talk about. Moreover, what would be the point, who would believe it? Such colossal idiocy, shadowed by equally eccentric dumb luck, almost passes beyond belief.
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].