Never Again

The phantom runway

December 1, 2001

My wife and I flew a Piper Tri-Pacer from Fort Worth, Texas, to my sister's home in Washington, D.C., on December 22, 1952, to visit my mother for the last time before she passed away from cancer.

L was a young, struggling flight instructor, and this was the third time in three months that my boss had graciously lent me one of his airplanes and given me the time off to make the trip.

"What the heck, John," he said. "It's Christmastime. Don't worry about the extra leave and flying time. It's all on me. Business is always slow during the holidays anyway. You can stay till after New Year's if you want to."

My brother Woody and his family lived in a Virginia suburb of Washington. We all got together on Christmas Eve. We were discussing how fast Mom had wasted away during the last month when my sister said, "It's a shame all of Mama's brothers and sisters are so far away that they can't visit her one more time." They all lived in and around our hometown of Gastonia, North Carolina, nearly 400 miles away.

"I could shuttle them from Gastonia and Washington in the airplane," I said.

"I'll pay for the gas and oil if you're willing to make the flights," said Woody.

So I called my boss and he said it would be OK. On Christmas morning I flew my wife back to Gastonia to stay with her mother while I flew the shuttle. We contacted all of my mother's brothers and sisters to see if they were interested in making the flight to Washington. All six of them wanted to go.

Three of my aunts and uncles flew back to Washington with me on December 27. Bad weather kept us there for two days, and I flew them back to Gastonia on the thirtieth.

Although Jack didn't set an exact date for me to be back to work, I didn't want to stretch his goodwill any further. I felt obligated to get back to Fort Worth no later than January 3. But I didn't want to let my other aunts and uncles down either. So I flew them to Washington and back on January 2. I told them they could stay only about an hour with mother before we had to leave on the return trip to Gastonia.

Our turnaround time in Washington was twice as long as planned. We also had a slight headwind on the way back. My hopes of getting to Gastonia with a little daylight left sunk below the horizon with the winter's setting sun. It was totally dark when we arrived. Gastonia's Lynwood Airport, where our cars were parked, had no runway lights. In fact, there were no lights on the field except a dim glow from the hangar. Knowing the airport very well because I learned to fly there, I thought the landing light would provide sufficient light for landing.

Lynwood Road paralleled the east border of the 1,600-foot landing strip. The runway and ramp area was somewhere in the pitch-blackness between the automobile lights on the road and the dim glow from the hangar. I buzzed the strip, hoping someone would come from the hangar and park a car with its lights on at the end of the runway. No one did.

Flying around the field again, I decided to drag the airplane in low and slow with my landing light on to find out if I could see the runway. Since we had a headwind all the way back, I made the approach from the north. Holding the nose of the airplane a little high, I lined up about 150 feet west of the car lights on Lynwood Road — about where the runway should be. Using a little power, I let the airplane sink slowly toward the ground. When the landing light picked up a smooth, flat surface, I closed the throttle and eased back on the wheel for a full-stall landing. The airplane fell right through the surface I landed on and a moment later hit with a hard, teeth-jarring ka-plunk.

I grabbed the brake handle and pulled with all my might to shorten our landing roll into the black unknown. We stopped in a very short distance. The blacktop beneath the wheels assured me I had correctly guessed the position of the runway. But it was about six feet lower than I expected.

What was that ghostly phantom runway surface I saw in the beam of my landing light? It was a thin layer of ground fog about six feet above the runway. The fog was invisible until my landing light picked it up.

Never again, in my 50-year career in general aviation and the FAA, did I even think about landing on an unlighted runway at night. I should have landed at the Gastonia Municipal Airport, about 15 miles on the other side of town, where runway lights were available.

We flew back to Fort Worth the next day, and I went back to work on January 4. Nine days later, mother passed away.

That was not a very merry Christmas or happy New Year. But I'll never forget Jack Robinson's generosity that year — or the once in a lifetime adventure of landing on a runway that wasn't there.

John Hull's career has spanned more than 60 years and 5,500 hours. His book, "Takeoff:" Career Adventures in General Aviation and the FAA, is available through XLibris, telephone 888/795-4274.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts should be typewritten, double-spaced, and sent to: Editor, AOPA Pilot , 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.