I was in my twenties in 1964 when I was a new dental officer in the U.S. Army, stationed in Ft. Sam Houston in San Antonio, Texas. I had always been interested in airplanes as young kid but had never been flying in a small, single-engine machine. That was until one day when my 19-year-old dental assistant, Specialist Hal Goff, who had a Private license, introduced me to small airplanes in a late afternoon ride in a Taylorcraft flying out of Hedrick Airpark—a grass field in San Antonio. I was hooked, and shortly thereafter I started taking flying lessons. After about 17 hours, I fearfully soloed in a PA-18 Super Cub.
After my first solo, there were several supervised solos and eventually an area checkout and a triangular cross-country in Texas. After about 40 hours I felt emboldened enough to caravan with another Cub piloted by Goff, my dental corpsman. We flew to Del Rio, Texas, tied the airplanes down and then crossed the border into Mexico to buy two-dollar vodka. We hung around for a few hours and then flew back to San Antonio, or at least that’s what I intended to do.
I set the course to the San Antonio VOR, but most of my navigation was by following Hal Goff in his Cub, who was going a lot faster than I was. My unfamiliarity with the airplane, its engine, and perhaps the fact that Goff was red-lining his airplane (which had 30 more horsepower). It made the gap between us increase more and more until the dot I was following on my wind screen, which I believed was Goff, turned out to be an insect splatter. Suddenly, I was flying alone and in the dark.
Dutifully, I followed the line on the VOR, but it became increasingly obvious I was not getting to San Antonio in what I thought was a reasonable amount of time. More and more I began to doubt that I was on the proper track and perhaps, considering the amount of time I had been airborne, I had already passed San Antonio. Was I going to the VOR or from? Visions of the recently found Lady Be Good, a B-24 Liberator lost for 17 years in the Libyan desert, made me think that perhaps I too was doomed. Like that unlucky air crew, I had wandered past the destination and would be forever lost in a barren area of Texas. Panic overcame me and I fought hard against it, realizing that I was the only person up there who could save me. I could not think of anything but getting on the ground and even considered landing on a deserted road.
I decided that I was not going to let panic kill me and continued to fly the airplane. At some point, with the stick between my legs, the dim red light illuminating the sectional splayed across my knees, and desperate for a familiar face or voice, I called San Antonio Tower to announce my impending arrival. I was given the proper instructions, wind direction, and barometric pressures, which I acknowledged as calmly as I could. After a long period of time, the radio crackled to life with San Antonio Tower asking politely as to my intentions. My unprofessional hesitation, or tentative reply, made the tower controller ask if had I passed Kelly Field, which was a familiar Air Force landmark in San Antonio.
I hesitated a long time, but in that long pause I finally saw the city lights of San Antonio on the horizon. There were lots of flashing lights indicating various airports in the San Antonio area. At least one of them was going to be Randolph Air Force Base, a place where I preferred not to land. My slow response was followed by the controller saying he would turn the tower lights on and off and asked me if I could see San Antonio International. Moments later I excitedly replied, “I see you.” The controller then proceeded to provide me with what I later learned was a Directional Finder (DF) steer.
My new best friend in the tower told me to turn left 90 degrees and then turn right 90 degrees. He then said “I gotcha!” He gave me a heading to follow and a rate of descent. The Cub had no VSI, but I saw that airport and, VSI or not, I was not going to miss that airport where I made my first and only night landing.
In the remaining years of flying I have never been so fearful as that night. But I have since learned there are things called headwinds and also things like hypoxia where, at altitude, you probably are getting a little bit confused and doing reciprocals to figure out if you are coming or going. I also learned that if you allow panic to take over you are dead meat. As I crossed over the approach threshold to runway 12, the cross-like light pattern looked a lot like Constantine’s sign to me and, for a very short moment, I silently thanked some higher power for my safe landing and a verbal to my friend in the tower.
As I taxied up to the T-hangars, Goff was just descending the ladder after topping off his Cub and hollered over to me laughingly, asking, “Hey Doc, what happened to you?” I don’t remember what I said to him, but I was unable to share in the humor of what had been one of the scariest moments of my life and I was just thankful to be back on the ground.
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].
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