In February 1983 I bought an aerobatic 1975 Decathlon in perfect condition. It was in Las Vegas, Nevada and I flew the airplane back to my home in Atlanta, Georgia. The first two days of ferrying the airplane home was fun but not noteworthy. On the third day, the plan was to fly from St. Landry Parish, Louisiana to Jackson, Mississippi for a fuel stop, then on to Marietta, Georgia for the night. However, it was not to be as the weather soon became THE issue of the day.
The weather was forecast to be no lower than 1,600 ft. overcast and four miles of visibility from Louisiana to Jackson. From there, the weather was forecast to be much better. We took off in the Decathlon and climbed up to the base of the clouds, which turned out to be about 1,200 ft. AGL. The visibility was at least three miles so we pressed on, counting on the forecast to be correct.
Approximately 30 minutes later, we were flying at 1,000 ft. AGL with visibility a little less than three miles. I said to my passenger, “I’m sure this is just a momentary deviation in the weather and soon it will be back up to 1,600 feet and four miles visibility.” A few minutes later we were at 800 ft. to avoid the base of the clouds, and then we were down to 600 ft. I decided we should turn around and land, as obviously the weatherman was wrong again.
By the time I turned around we were down to 300 ft. AGL and no direction appeared to be a good path.
Remember, I was a very experienced instrument pilot, but this airplane only had a large G-meter and engine instruments—but no other instrumentation for flying in IMC (GPS did not exist). I had a paper map and a whiskey compass! I begged for a way out, but weather was deteriorating in all directions. I needed an airport… fast.
All of a sudden, a giant water tower appeared in front of me. I was now at 200 ft. AGL and quickly turned around the water tower to find my position. Woodville, Mississippi was written on the side of the water tower. Yes, at least now I knew where I was. A plan developed in my head: I just needed to find an airport, draw a course line from the Woodville, Mississippi water tower to that airport, and I would be saved from potential catastrophe. I was flying circles, literally, around the water tower. I got out my VFR paper map and hunted for Woodville on that map, but I could not find it.
I had now made at least six circles around the water tower. I passed the map back to my passenger and asked her if she could find Woodville. Another six circles around the water tower and she threw the map at me and said she could not find it either. I folded the map up to focus on where we were, and there it is: Woodville, Mississippi staring at me. I drew a very careful line (while flying at 100 ft. AGL) from Woodville to the Natchez Airport, which was the closest airport I could find. On the next circle, I rolled out on the heading of 360 degrees. I figured I was 15 nautical miles from Natchez.
I was now at 200 ft. AGL or less. I looked for indications on the map for anything that would confirm that I was headed in the right direction. I saw what we call an antenna farm, a collection of antennas. I figured if I was on the right course, I should see all of them out to my left. My eyes were aching as I keep searching for the antennas. All of a sudden I saw an antenna off my right side, then two more on the left. Fear rose in my throat as I realized I was in the middle of the antenna farm.
The good outcome of this momentary fear was that I knew my exact location. I corrected my course 2 degrees to the left and looked at my clock for the time that was left to the airport. I was still less than 200 ft. above the ground with visibility less than a mile. I called final approach on the common frequency and asked for weather information. A voice replied, stating that there is a “very low ceiling and estimated visibility of 1/4 to 1/2 mile.” I had slowed to approach speed and kept hoping for a view of any landing spot at all.
Suddenly, there it was—the numbers 36 on a piece of pavement right in front of me! A few seconds later, I was stopping on that beautiful runway.
Thank you Lord! I promised I would never again put all my trust in a weather forecast with no backup plan.
I shut down in front of the small FBO that appeared out of the fog. The attendant came out and said, “Welcome to Natchez.” We were the only airplane to land that day. The scheduled commuter airline canceled all three of its flights due to the low ceiling and visibility.
- Never again – too much trust in the weather forecast - August 30, 2023