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It rained a lot that November 1964 November in Cedar Rapids, but by mid-December the well-drained grass runway at McBride Field was in good shape.  The tie-down area where the Cessna 140 was parked was not.  The wheels had sunk into the mud a bit and had frozen, making it quite a tussle to kick the tires free and wrestle the beast up onto level footing.

airplane parked on grass

The wheels of the 140 had sunk into the mud a bit and had frozen.

Today had been busy at work, but Wayne and I knocked off promptly at 4:30pm and drove the two miles to the airport with anticipation of a pleasant adventure to punctuate the day.  The purpose of the trip was to drop the airplane at Wathan’s Flying Service at the Eastern Iowa Airport (CID) to repair the airplane’s only radio, a Superhomer VHT-3 (crank-tuned VOR/VHF com and nav).  Even though we were both design engineers with avionics experience, neither of us felt like taking on the repair work ourselves.  It would be no fun to do it without manuals, test equipment, or the blessings of the friendly aviation administration.

I had already phoned the tower and obtained permission to enter controlled airspace without communications.  It was a clear day, but it looked just a bit hazy outside when I called, so I asked if they had good visibility from the tower cab, some 15 miles south of us.  He responded with no hesitation in his voice that it looked fine to him.  Well, he should know.  With only about 80 hours in my logbook, I was more than willing to take the word of a professional.

We were going to be a bit late arriving at CID because of the time we spent getting the airplane loose from its frozen mud chocks.  I hoped there wouldn’t be too much of a hassle over that.  We got through the pre-flight and into the air as quickly as we could.

“Hey Wayne,” I said as we climbed through 400 feet.  “Look.  There’s a wisp of scud.”  “Scud?”  “Oh.  I see it.”  A bit later, as we climbed to about 2,500 feet to fly over Cedar Rapids, I pointed out to Wayne that there was a layer of lower clouds to the east, all the way to the horizon.  “There’s some south of us, too,” said Wayne.  “Where is the airport down there?”  “Oh, it must be this side of the clouds.  He told me they were clear,” I said.  But as we neared the center of the city, it was all too obvious that the undercast had completely blanketed the airport.  In fact, it now had blanketed most of the city as well.  “Oh-oh,” I said.  “We’d better get our tails back to McBride.”

By the time I did a 180 degree turn, there wasn’t a spot of open ground to be seen from horizon to horizon.  My first thought was that the view was absolutely gorgeous, with the sun now just below the horizon in the west and with full twilight on top of the undercast.  And there was one other thing:  the KCRG television tower was sticking up out of the cloud tops to the north a few miles from McBride Field.  In fact, quite a lot of it was sticking out.  It hadn’t dawned on me yet to feel threatened by the situation, but I did begin to wonder what we might do if we couldn’t get back to McBride.

overcast clouds

By the time I did a 180 degree turn, there wasn’t a spot of open ground to be seen from horizon to horizon.

At this point in my training, I didn’t even know what an approach plate was, but I knew I needed some kind of a plan for what to do next.  As I unfolded the chart, I remembered someone once told me that if you need to plot a straight line on a chart in the confines of a small cockpit, the best way is to make a crease in the chart between the two end points.  So, with Wayne acting as autopilot while I worked, I creased the chart between the tower and McBride field, measured the magnetic bearing and the distance, and wrote it in the margin.  Then I calculated the time it would take at a 70-mph glide speed, and the descent rate that would take us back to that 400 foot altitude where I first saw the scud forming.

We descended to about 2,000 feet and flew past the tower as close as we could (mind the guy wires) on the bearing to the airport.  We had no stopwatch, so Wayne double-checked my arithmetic, adding the inbound time estimate to the clock time passing the tower, and we started down at the calculated descent rate.  With no attitude indicator and no directional gyro, I knew that I had to rely on needle, ball, airspeed, and vertical speed.  Then everything went greyish white, as if we were flying in a bowl of milk.

What happened in the next few minutes was a combination of beginner’s luck with the benefit of a recent lesson on instrument familiarization from my instructor, Red Miner.  Even so, it probably never would have worked out if it had not been glassy smooth.  It seemed to be taking a long time.  Then it started to get darker.  I didn’t feel very good about that.  I had never been in a cloud before, so I didn’t realize that it does get darker as you descend through the base of an overcast.

Instrument flight

Making in through the IMC was a combination of beginner’s luck with the benefit of a recent lesson on instrument familiarization.

Things happened pretty quickly after that.  Almost to my surprise, the runway emerged from the murk off to our left just as we reached 400 feet.  Downwind and base legs were lower than I was used to, but the landing approach looked the same as always.  “Shouldn’t be much traffic,” I thought to myself.  Then, less than five minutes after flying past the TV tower, the wheels were rumbling along on the turf.  Twenty-four minutes for the logbook.

As we tied down the airplane, it started to get really dark, and then, finally, I got the shakes.  I was just catching on to the fact that being in a no-radio airplane above an overcast at dusk without an instrument rating is more than a casual little adventure.  Wayne and I had used up about seven years of our combined good luck to have a TV tower in a perfect spot to serve as a “final approach fix”, and then to break out with a reasonable ceiling to land under.  I vowed that our wives (and our life insurance agents) would never learn the true significance of this little episode, at least not from me.

The tower chief was in quite a state when I got back on the phone to him.  He was about to call search and rescue.  The subject of federal aviation regulations never arose in the conversation, though, and I was granted the privilege of chalking this one up to experience.

Don Grimm
Latest posts by Don Grimm (see all)
6 replies
  1. Richard
    Richard says:

    Don… I know that sick feeling myself. As a relatively newly minted private pilot with about 100 hrs, I got stuck above what I thought was an undercast over Lake Superior on the way back from Canada at night. Didn’t realize it was scattered to broken till we were over the lights of Cleveland. Found a hole and came down to 3000 feet to get under it. But, boy what a sinking feeling in the pit of the stomach.

  2. Bob Hamilton
    Bob Hamilton says:

    Wow! Think of all that could have gone wrong. Survival was certainly in doubt.
    This is not an uncommon or uncomfortable situation for an IFR pilot flying VFR-on-top. I’ve had similar experiences and it is not difficult. Call ATC, explain, request a pop-up IFR clearance, and go on.
    But to cope with that situation, without a radio, IMC training and experience, and an IFR rating, a serious level of luck is required.
    I always congratulate newly minted pilots, and follow with the strong advice to get an instrument rating ASAP. This story reaffirms that advice.

  3. Jeff Rowland
    Jeff Rowland says:

    Amazing some of us lived through the stunts we pulled, isn’t it? What a great story of common sense escape. Thank you for sharing!

  4. Rob Lyons
    Rob Lyons says:

    Focusing on the solution to the problem, the engineers way, probably didn’t allow for the heebie jeebies to set in. Having had to use the tower to landing zone method a few times while flying in far northern Canada, it seems to work quite well.

    However, I think that having at least five hours of under the hood time should be mandatory for obtaining any PPL given today’s environment and technology.


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