April 1, 2004
It was early April, right around the time that the clock had "sprung" forward for spring. Excited about the extra hour of daylight, I decided to go up for a local after-work flight. I had purchased my first airplane, a 1967 Cessna 150G, a couple of months earlier and was eager to fly it every chance I got. I departed Waterbury-Oxford Airport in Connecticut and headed west toward the Hudson River to explore some of the numerous grass strips there. The visibility was pretty poor and only grew worse as daylight began to fade. As I crossed over the border into New York near Brace Mountain, navigating became noticeably tougher. Had I turned back at this point, I probably would have made it back to Waterbury just in time. Instead, I decided to press forward, which was probably a mistake. I was amazed at how quickly the last few traces of daylight had vanished and how completely the darkness had engulfed me. I was genuinely having trouble seeing. I had never been in a situation like that before. Fear started to build, but I kept a cool head. I was barely able to make out the Hudson and the lights of Kingston in the distance. Knowing that there was an airport in Kingston, I made a beeline for the lights and had an uneventful landing.
There was absolutely no way that I was going to take off again under these conditions. I called a cab and spent the night at a motel close by. The next morning I had the owner wake me up early, had breakfast, and arrived back at the airport before dawn. Calling the weather briefer didn't reveal a much better scenario. Patchy fog with a 2,000-foot overcast and 5-mile visibilities. Despite the forecast, things didn't look too awful in my immediate area as the day dawned, and I didn't want to miss another day of work. I decided to make a run for it. After takeoff it seemed like navigating wouldn't be much of a problem — at least for the first few minutes. However, the fog turned out to be much more widespread than predicted, at least along my route. Soon I found myself flying VFR on top with very few glimpses of the ground. Once in a while a hole would open up underneath me, and trees and fields would slide past. Boy, this really would be a bad time to lose that engine, I thought. Having to glide through that low layer without instruments and then trying to find a field and set up an approach in the couple of hundred feet of clear air left underneath were not things I wanted to do.
The overcast above also disturbed me somewhat. Several clouds that I had to circumvent appeared in my path, which made navigating tougher. Occasionally, the overcast above with the fog underneath and clouds on the sides would give the illusion of flying through this white, magical tunnel. It was all very surreal — the sun was trying to break through at times, illuminating the area with an eerie glow. I was awestruck with the beauty of my surroundings, but I was also honestly quite afraid. The situation was disorienting, and I was worried about all these white walls suddenly closing in around me, as I am not instrument-rated. Then, as I began to climb to avoid a cloud, I really did not like what I heard. As I advanced the throttle, the engine began to cough and sputter. Slightly, but noticeably. Here, now, with no sight of the ground. I pulled the throttle back to where I had it before and the engine seemed happy. It ran smoothly and everything seemed normal. Waterbury airport was coming up close on my loran — seven miles now. But I was way off course because of all the zigzagging around the fluffies. And how would I ever be able to see it? Underneath me was an ocean of white.
Then, as I was correcting to get back on course, I saw a very welcome sight ahead in the distance — an opening in the fog. As I flew closer, I noticed what looked more and more like a runway on the ground. Sure enough! The hole had opened up just over the airport, exposing about two-thirds of its runway. I couldn't believe it — what a wonderful coincidence! I pulled the carb heat out, eased the power back, and I literally stood that little airplane up on one of its wingtips, spiraling down toward my home base like a hungry vulture.
Once I descended through about 700 feet, I tried to add a little power for a miniature traffic pattern. And nothing happened. The engine, although still running, stayed at idle. I felt the adrenaline surge through my veins, but somehow I wasn't that afraid anymore. I knew I had the field within gliding distance, and I had been practicing my engine outs like religion within the preceding weeks. And the little 150 had an ace up its sleeve — 40 degrees of flaps, guaranteed to make one emulate the flight path of a meteor. Instinct took over. I turned base early, followed by an immediate final. This put me right over the runway's threshold, but I was still a couple of hundred feet up. Down came the flaps and up came the ground. I had a nice, smooth landing about halfway down the 5,000-foot runway.
With the engine still running at idle, I was able to taxi all the way back to my parking space. As I shut down and got out, I noticed that fuel was pouring out of the carburetor like a faucet! It could've ignited in midair. Or, if that engine had quit only a few minutes earlier, I would've had to try to make it through that low fog layer without instruments, and then attempt to find a field and set up an approach. Not an easy task. I truly felt that the Almighty had watched over me.
Thinking about it is still pretty unpleasant. I stood there on the deserted ramp alongside my airplane for a few moments, reflecting on what had just happened. I chose to go too far from my home base with too little daylight left, without even getting a weather briefing — and then the next day I launched and pressed on, VFR above the clouds, which left me a narrowing set of options in the event of an emergency. Now I always get a thorough briefing before every cross-country flight I make, even a "local" one.
George Berka is a private pilot with about 400 hours. He owns a Cessna 150G.
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An original "Never Again" story is published each month on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/never_again/), and you can see an index of "Never Again" articles published in AOPA Pilot ( www.aopa.org/members/files/pilot/idxna.html).
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