It was May 1985. The big day that I had been training for was here. I had 35 hours of flight time and was ready for anything including my long cross-country solo. I received my weather briefing and filed an international flight plan. Oh, did I say this was taking place in South Korea? The take-off in the Cessna 172 from Osan Air Force Base went like a charm. I was off to the east coast to find my first landing spot. The weather was beautiful just as forecast. The navigation aids were scarce, but included a South Korea sectional, a watch, compass, and mostly pilotage. No flight following. I was on my own.
When I arrived at the Sea of Japan coastline, was I supposed to turn south, or was it north? Which way had the winds been blowing me? I did not recognize any landmarks on the chart. So, I turned south, flew for 10 or 15 minutes, and still did not find the expected landmarks—mistake number 1.
I did a 180 degree turn and headed north. Flying along the coast was beautiful. The landmarks on the ground seemed to start matching what were on the chart. However, going too far in this direction would get me close to the North Korean border, possibly shot down, forced to land, and arrested as a spy. Finally, the airfield on the chart appeared. My first landing was at a Republic of South Korea Air Base.
After landing, I turned onto the taxiway and was greeted by a jeep full of Republic of Korea (ROK) soldiers and signaled me to follow them to the ramp. They all had their weapons ready. Oh sh…! Did I fly too far north after all? Did I fly past the 38th parallel? My life was over. I shut the engine down and opened the door, but they would not let me out of the aircraft. My Korean was quite basic, hello, how are you, thank you. Their English was even less, none. Was I a defector from North Korea? They swarmed the airplane and looked at everything inside and out. I showed them my ID, put a smile on my face, and after much discussion amongst themselves, they finally understood that I was an American and wondered what I was doing there.
I found out later that the flight plan I filed with base operations did not get sent to their base as expected. After a few bows and more smiles from me, I was able to get one of the soldiers to sign my cross-country log. They never broke a smile. Quite stoic. Using sign language, I tried to explain that I had to use the restroom but was not allowed to. They gave me hand signals that I interpreted as meaning I was free to leave. No 100LL here. Not to worry, though. The flight plan I put together figured in the distances and winds. I had plenty of fuel. I started the engine and off I went.
After take-off, I headed southwest to the Yellow Sea. The next stop was the US Air Force Base at Kunsan. After a half-hour or so, I started to see some clouds building up. Hmm, the weather briefing I received didn’t say anything about clouds or adverse weather. As I got closer to the high terrain, the scattered clouds turned into an overcast layer (not forecasted). The only choice now was to climb above it to clear the mountains—mistake number 2.
It was clear and smooth above the overcast. I had never experienced anything like this before. It was beautiful. I thought to myself that this pilot stuff is really cool. Using my watch and verifying the landmarks before I got on top, my calculations showed I was about 45 minutes from landing, fuel, relief break, and a snack. I was humming along with no care in the world. But were my calculations correct? Questions started popping up and apprehension was setting in. Was I really where I thought I was? Then all of a sudden, a flight of F4s began buzzing around the sky above me. Can they see me? Will they crash into me? This is where I started to panic. I needed to get away from these guys, so I began to descend—mistake number 3.
It was not long before I entered the overcast and lost total control of the aircraft. Was I upside down or right side up? I had less than an hour of training flying on instruments. Spatial disorientation and vertigo were things I had only read about. So, this is how my life would end, crashing into Korean mountains. In my near-death experience, I asked a favor of the big air traffic controller in the sky. I promised that if he got me out of this, I would owe him big time. It seemed to be an eternity, but somehow, I broke out of the bottom of the clouds and was right-side up. However, I was very close to the mountain tops. I wasn’t going back up, so I hung at the bottom of the overcast. There was good visibility and I had just enough room to stay above the peaks.
As I got closer to my destination, the clouds gave way to clear skies. Seemed like forever. I could see the coast now. I was home safe, ha. I tried contacting the tower. No response. Did I have the right frequency? Had I written it down correctly? I finally got closer to the base and made contact. I notified the tower that I was inbound for landing. They had a copy of my flight plan and were expecting me. What a relief to be able to talk to someone who knew where I was. I was home safe. Then just as I finished my call, the F4s flew right over me. The tower cleared them to land ahead of me and vectored me out over the sea. I faithfully followed their direction. Did I mention fuel? When I finally had the presence of mind to look at the gauges, they were both hovering on empty. Did I tell the tower I was low on fuel? No. Mistake number 4.
After the F4’s were on the ground, I was cleared to land. The best landing of my long aviation career. Ground directed me to the aero club. I shut the engine down and rushed to the restroom—what a relief. I picked up a candy bar to get my blood pressure back down and went out to top off the tanks. Looking at the meter on the pump and doing some quick math, I realized that I only had one gallon of fuel remaining when I landed. What happened to the 30-minute reserve? I guess that was used up on the east coast folly. But wait. I still had one more flight back to Osan. Do I really want to do this?
I had thoughts of just leaving the airplane and taking a bus back. I could make up some issues with the airplane. But the issues were mine. I had just been through an experience that really scared me. I did not want to lose face, so I decided to launch. The sky was clear and calm winds. In an hour, I was talking to the tower at Osan. After landing, I taxied to parking, checked in at the aero club, and showed them my cross-country log with the signatures, 4.7 hours of flight time. I do not remember getting it signed at Kunsan. But I must have because my instructor shook my hand. I mentioned the situation that occurred at the ROK airbase. They told me that the flight plans are sometimes not sent out correctly. Luckily, my cross-country log had verbiage in both English and Korean. That is why the ROK soldiers eventually signed my log. I did not mention the overcast, the F4s, or the one gallon of fuel remaining. I was too embarrassed and thought they would pull my student ticket and tell me to try a different hobby.
After a long shower and some real food, I started to think that maybe this flying thing was not for me. I gave it a few days. I ultimately decided to finish up the remaining hours. The first thing I did after passing the oral and checkride was to start working on additional instrument training.
Panic is a dangerous state of mind, especially in the cockpit. I learned that maintaining total situational awareness both inside and outside of the aircraft along with communication are paramount. Accepting the situation and taking the appropriate action are key elements to safe flying. I am fortunate to still be aviating and I continue to learn something new on every flight.
- Surviving my solo cross-country flight in South Korea - May 26, 2023