Never Again

Whiteout

January 1, 2007

On a cold February morning, 57 years ago, I began a 75-mile VFR flight from Ithaca to Rochester, New York, where I had to attend a business meeting. I had rented a Piper PA-12 Super Cruiser — a three-place tailwheel airplane configured with a single pilot seat in front of two passenger seats.

I had logged 200 hours, just enough to be dangerously confident. On top of that, flying during the 1950s was somewhat more casual than it is today. So, I approached this flight the same way as if I was going to drive my car. With good visibility under a high overcast, I didn't even bother to check the weather at my destination.

The windsock hung limp as I lined up on the runway at Ithaca Municipal Airport, located at the south end of Cayuga Lake. The Super Cruiser lifted off briskly in the cool air. Climbing out over the lake, I watched the Cornell University campus sink below the right wing and the 800-foot hill on the west shore recede under the left wing.

The air was so stable that the aircraft seemed to hang motionless. Once I reached a comfortable altitude above the hill, I turned on course and leveled off at 2,500 feet msl, cruising above the partially snow-covered farm fields. Cayuga Lake slid behind the aircraft, and the long finger of Seneca Lake materialized ahead. Relaxed and enjoying the scenery, I began the letdown over the northern tip of Canandaigua Lake.

My destination airport was Genesee, a nontowered grass strip located five miles southeast of Rochester. About 10 miles from the airport, visibility slightly decreased as light snow began to race horizontally past the wing struts. I became alert, but not too concerned; I was very familiar with the area and close to my destination.

Soon the snowflakes became larger, racing straight toward the windshield, then spreading out in all directions. It was almost hypnotic, like staring into the throat of a large brass horn. I had to avoid looking into it. Visibility was now barely one mile. I feared zero visibility might be next, and neither the aircraft nor I could handle IFR conditions. The situation demanded a one-eighty, but I was within two or three miles of my destination and kept going.

The airport came into view, but as I flew over it my heart sank. The field was completely white. Fresh new snow covered older snow, masking the runway.

Again, I should have turned back but did not. Less than two miles to the west was Hylan, another nontowered airport, with runways paved with black coal cinders — a remnant of bygone days. I decided to take a look at it.

I followed Jefferson Road to the friendly orange roof of the Howard Johnson restaurant at the end of Hylan's runway. Then I saw something that made me hopeful: A 200-foot black patch emerged just past the roof. Apparently a low area of the runway had flooded and frozen over, creating a smooth surface where the wind had swept the snow away.

Visibility was deteriorating rapidly. Only a small circle of terrain was still visible, creating the illusion that the aircraft and I were at the apex of a cone, with the base outlining a circle on the ground below.

As I executed a shallow left turn to circle back to the runway I lost sight of the airport. Nervously flying north, I found Jefferson Road again, and followed it. I saw the runway once more and quickly made a steep descending left turn. Once I passed over the orange roof, I slipped steeply to lose altitude, touched down on the icy patch, and coasted to a stop.

I just sat — with the engine idling and my heart pounding — shaking a little and trying to calm down. As I looked around I saw the ghastly flying conditions I had just survived. The air was thick with falling snow. I could not see the trees along the perimeter of the field. The hangar and operations shack were barely visible.

Unicom was not available yet so I couldn't radio for help. I waited for someone to see my yellow bird on the runway and come out to help bring it in. No one came.

Then, advancing to a new level of stupidity, I decided to find the ramp on my own. I added a little power, and moved slowly down the runway, while looking for the taxiway. The ground was completely white, and the wheels began to drag in deeper snow. I held the stick back and added more power to keep moving. To my surprise, all of a sudden the wooden propeller burst into a thousand toothpicks before my eyes.

I had not felt the aircraft nose over.

All was quiet now except for the sound of gasoline dripping from the wing tank vents. I cut the ignition and master switches and sat leaning forward in the seat. Too late I realized that with only the pilot's seat occupied, the aircraft's center of gravity had shifted to the forward limit and increased the nose-over risk.

Disgusted with myself, I got out and tried to reach the aircraft's tail but it was too high. Then I tried to lift the nose but it was too heavy. Finally help came. Aided by a tractor we were able to put the wounded bird in the hangar.

I made my meeting on time, though chagrined. My nonflying friends thought I had been caught in a natural disaster beyond my control. But you and I know better. My own foolishness and violation of basic flying rules had trapped me.

The three airports no longer exist. Ithaca is now a city park, Genesee a factory, and Hylan a shopping center. Fortunately, I'm still here, much older and a little wiser. In the years since, I've executed several one-eighties that I might not have carried out if it had not been for this flight.

Earl J. Yawman, AOPA 051183, holds a commercial pilot certificate with single- and multiengine land and sea ratings. He was a radio operator on a B-29 bomber in the Pacific theatre during World War II, and has owned Taylorcraft and Luscombe airplanes during more than 700 hours of flight time over 59 years.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts may be submitted via e-mail to neveragain@aopa.org or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.