September 1, 2003
In the summertime in Florida the cumulus clouds start building early in the day and can easily develop into thunderstorms as the afternoon heating feeds them. This fact was brought to my attention on my first solo cross-country flight in June 1954 in a Cessna 140.
I was repeating the same trip I had made the week before with my flight instructor, Joe. We had departed Craig Municipal Airport in Jacksonville, Florida, flown to Keystone Airpark in Keystone Heights, continued on to New Smyrna Beach Municipal, and then returned back up the coast to Craig Municipal.
On my solo trip I was following the same route, navigating only by pilotage and dead reckoning. (I had 300 hours before I ever used a radio. It wasn't so important in 1954, believe it or not.) I noticed that the cumulus was building faster than it had on the previous trip. By the time I departed New Smyrna Beach northbound, there were towering cumulus everywhere over the land. I kept an eye on them, however, and just knew I could scoot up the shoreline on that last leg, which would only take 45 minutes or so.
As I approached St. Augustine, thunderstorms were developing inland, and I found myself descending to remain below the clouds. I had been cautioned not to try to climb on top and get caught above an overcast layer. I was now down to 800 feet abl (above beach level). I could see the lightning inland, but conditions looked pretty good as I passed St. Augustine Airport along the coast. Not landing at St. Augustine was my first mistake — I should have landed there and waited for better conditions. But I opted to continue with only 20 miles to go, and a case of "get-home-itis."
I could see Ponte Vedra Beach when it really started to rain. I descended farther as the rain splashed into those little round air vents on both sides of the 140's windshield. Now I was at 100 feet over the beach, and the sunbathers had all gone home. I noticed a Navy Douglas Skyraider perhaps 500 feet above me heading south in a hurry. The pilot seemed to be trying to get south of the weather, and I should have made the old 180-degree turn and done likewise, at least heading back to St. Augustine.
Now things went from bad to critical. The only clear-looking area was out over the Atlantic Ocean and I wasn't going there. The 140 wasn't equipped with floats! I was having no trouble seeing the ground since I was at 50 feet over the sand. I did observe that the tide was out and the wind was blowing straight down the beach rather than the usual sea breeze. Perhaps the thunderstorm might have caused that. I made the 180-degree turn (a bit late) around (not over) the water tower north of Ponte Vedra, rolled out into the wind headed south, and after dragging the beach a little, made a good landing, in the strip of beach between the wet sand and the soft sand. I picked an area where there were no runouts that might have nosed me over.
I taxied up behind an old drive-in café. I think it was Bill's Ocean Drive-In. The name escapes me now, but I was glad to see Bill! I chocked the wheels with beer cans and phoned my flight instructor. His first question was, "Is the airplane all right?" I guess since I was talking to him he figured I was OK. He told me not to get back in the 140 but to make sure it didn't blow away. He drove his car the 12 miles to the scene of my embarrassment, and I drove his car back to Craig Municipal.
In our postflight debriefing (a.k.a. chewing out), I confessed I had learned not to push my luck with the weather, and never to pass a perfectly good airport where I could have landed and phoned him. I also learned how to use the radio after that. One good VOR receiver is hard to beat, even today with all the exotic and expensive gear available.
I would not want to come any closer to being a statistic than I did on that cross-country trip. I didn't quite finish that first solo cross-country, even though I logged it, but I'm sure the FAA would understand after all this time.
Richard Sherlock, AOPA 133864, has logged more than 2,300 hours since he first soloed in 1947. He is a retired flight service specialist and flight instructor who now works as an extra in movies and commercials.
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