Never Again Online: Trapped on top

September 1, 2004

I was due for my flight review, and my friend and neighbor Bruce (a pseudonym) was an instructor. This was one of those brilliant blue autumn days, the kind that make their way onto a meteorologist's top-ten list, and when I noticed Bruce dutifully raking leaves in his yard I suggested that there might be a much better way to spend a Sunday afternoon. He readily agreed and put up his rake.

Bruce and I were members of a flying club based at New Jersey's Monmouth Executive Airport, 20 miles north of our Toms River homes. "Day like today, the club planes'll be booked," Bruce said. "But why don't I see if the Yankee's available?" A first officer with an international airline, he had just partnered with six other pilots to buy a vintage Grumman Yankee. The plane was based at Robert J. Miller Airpark, less than 10 miles to the south — half the driving distance to Monmouth.

I'd never flown a Yankee, so this would be an opportunity to check out in a different aircraft as well as complete the review. As a middle school teacher, I recognized in Bruce the qualities of a superb instructor, one whose cockpit demeanor held no threat of intimidation: He was never a "Why didn't you —?" but rather a "Maybe the next time, you might — " kind of guy. Easygoing, laid-back, supremely assured of his own abilities, he inspired the same confidence in me.

Today I would learn the difference between confidence and blind faith.

The two-seat Yankee was painted school bus yellow and looked like it had been used as one, an impression the preflight didn't do much to correct. The canopy stuck in its tracks, and we had to muscle it back in order to climb aboard. I started the engine and before beginning to taxi reached for the radio.

"Oh, don't bother with that," said Bruce nonchalantly. "The com's down. Don't worry, though, we don't need to do radio work today."

Miller's a nontowered field, but I felt a little funny. The flying club's airplanes were meticulously maintained, with dual nav/coms. Bruce's Yankee had only one radio, the original, and I didn't feel too easy about being incommunicado. But Bruce knows what he's doing, I said to myself. Besides, we won't be leaving the training area anyway. So off we went.

The sun was just a few fingers above the horizon when Bruce said, "You did fine. Now let's shoot a couple of landings and call it a day."

I turned to head back to Miller and gulped. "Where'd the airport go?"

Along with the sun's descent the temperature had fallen, right to the dew point. A thin layer of cloud had formed behind us while we were doing maneuvers, and neither of us had caught it.

Bruce looked at me and said, "All right, what do you think we should do?" He was still using his light-hearted instructor tone.

"Well...the cloud layer looks paper thin...."

I waited for Bruce to admonish me. Instead: "Sneak under? Well, we're close enough to the airport; shouldn't be a problem."

Should we really be doing this? I thought as I reduced power and nosed the Yankee over. But Bruce is a professional, and besides, it's his airplane. Certainly he wouldn't do anything to jeopardize it — or us.

"There's nobody flying above the cloud deck," Bruce observed. "Take us just below and let's scan for the field."

The sun was down and a full moon was rising as we dipped under the edge of the cloud cover. It was black down there. The airport had been carved out of the Pine Barrens, and only one road cut through it. I saw a car's headlights below me and decided to follow.

"You look down and I'll look for the airport," said Bruce. "Just keep us below the clouds."

In a matter of seconds the car's headlights were behind me, and ahead was only blackness. I alternated my scan from outside and down to the view out the windshield. I eased the yoke forward; had I been climbing, or was the cloud deck lowering? I wasn't instrument-rated; just keeping the wings level in the darkness tested my ability.

My eyes were straining to see the road again when I felt the yoke pulled suddenly toward my chest, heard the engine surge to full power. The airplane lurched skyward, into the clouds. Bruce had taken the controls. "Did you notice those high-tension lines?" he asked.

The imminent possibility of my own death brought with it a memory from the past summer, a memory that, combined with Bruce's indifference toward the failed radio, should have red-flagged this flight.

Bruce had bought himself an old 25-foot sea skiff and asked if I'd like to join him in a day's ocean fishing. Neither Bruce nor I had ever owned a boat, so I suggested we take my friend Ron — a lifelong boater — with us. It was one of my better ideas.

The weather was clear as we set out, with cumulus clouds growing to the west. The waves in the normally calm inlet were rollers that day, great ground swells that tossed us corklike over their crests and down into their troughs. Ron observed Bruce's marginal boat-handling skills with a frown but kept his own counsel.

Once at sea and a couple of miles off the coast, we were about to bait our hooks when fog rolled over us and the coastline disappeared. Prudence dictated that we make it back inside — a relatively easy task, Ron assured us, if we followed the compass.

Bruce looked a little sheepish as he said, "Um, the compass isn't really working right."

"It's a wet compass," said Ron, perplexed. "How can it not be working right?"

"I'm not sure. Maybe it's not as wet as it should be. I think I might have to add fluid. But don't worry. I'm sure I know the way back. I'll just keep the waves to our stern."

Dumb luck brought us to the inlet, but now a new problem faced us: The seas had grown even larger, waves curling and crashing at the inlet's mouth.

Ron knew that the danger of pitch poling — tumbling end over end — was very real should the boat slide into a trough, and he asked Bruce if he'd like him to pilot the vessel into the inlet. Bruce was happy to comply, and Ron managed to balance the boat on a wave's crest until it carried us safely into the calmer waters inside.

The fog stayed out to sea, but to the west black anvils were growing taller and starting to growl. Bruce said, with customary good cheer, "Well, fellas, I guess that's it for today. We should probably dock someplace and wait out the storm, but it's only 20 miles back to home. Let's see if we can outrun it."

We had been fortunate then. Now, climbing through the cloud layer, I wondered if this would be the time when Bruce's luck would run out — along with mine. The "old pilots and bold pilots" adage passed through my mind as we broke out on top, the full moon bathing the clouds in cold, lonely light.

"Look to the south," said Bruce. "The clouds end there, just past where I think the airport is. Let's try to sneak in from there."

Bruce's confidence won me over again. No harm in looking, and if the airport beacon was visible we'd be home free. I turned the Yankee southbound for a look.

Once past the edge of the clouds, I turned and descended to the darkness beneath. This time, there wasn't even a road to guide us, just black pine trees against black ground in the blackness of a cloud-covered night sky.

"I can't see the beacon," I declared. "I'm going up."

Bruce didn't demur, and up we went again, radioless, unable even to declare an emergency. On top, we saw that the cloudbank had grown from horizon to horizon. There was no way down. For all we knew the clouds went all the way to the ground.

Panic and die, I thought. Keep your cool and consider your options. I breathed deeply, flexed my damp fingers on the yoke, and found within myself a certain measure of calm. I looked at Bruce with a "what now" expression that the panel lights probably didn't pick up.

"The fog shouldn't be as far inland as Trenton," he assured me. "Once there we could circle the tower until they green light us. 'Course, then one of our wives would have to drive out there and pick us up. They'd be pretty PO'ed about that. Let's head north and see what we can see."

Bruce was so calm I half expected him to yawn and reach for a sandwich. We passed over an illuminated patch of clouds, indicating the lights of our hometown. Farther north, Lakewood cast its own glow through the clouds. I dialed 115.4 MHz on the nav — the Colts Neck VOR in Monmouth County. The needle jumped to life.

"Good idea," commented Bruce. "We know how to get to Monmouth airport from there." I was just hoping Monmouth was VFR. It wasn't.

The airport was due south of the VOR, about seven minutes away at Yankee speed, and high-tension lines in Colts Neck posed the only obstacle between us. Bruce suggested that we cross the VOR, turn to a heading of 180, and maintain our 2,000-foot altitude for three and a half minutes just to be sure that we cleared the lines. Then we'd descend through the clouds to 300 feet msl. If we hadn't broken out by then, we'd give up, climb out, and head to Trenton. It was a plan.

Three and a half minutes after crossing Colts Neck and establishing our heading, I lowered the nose and went on instruments again, watching the altimeter tick off the feet and seeing nothing out the windshield. Then, at exactly 300 feet, we broke out directly over State Route 34, which bisected Naval Ammunition Depot Earle — not a good place for an emergency landing. The highway was unlit and cars were few. And the ground elevation was already at 150 feet msl.

The omni-bearing selector said we were headed straight for the airport, but something was wrong — again.

"Bruce, I don't see the airport, and the ground's awfully close."

"Oh, yeah, well, the omni's been acting up lately. It's a little off true." My innards started to churn. There was a tall antenna not too far east of the airport.

"There's the beacon," said Bruce. "To the west." About 60 degrees to the west, I noted silently. "Want me to take it?"

Bruce greased the airplane onto the silent airport's runway, making the lowest approach I'd ever experienced. We tied the plane down and called home from the flying club. While we waited for our wives to arrive, he signed me off on my flight review. The next day, he got a ride to Monmouth and returned the Yankee to Miller. I was back at school, my seventh-graders wondering why I was more "up" than usual that day.

There are some questions I decided never to ask Bruce: Were you as apprehensive as I was but feigning nonchalance so I wouldn't panic? Were we really in as much danger as I perceived we were? Was your casual approach to the situation a display of the right stuff, or did you really believe that mortality wouldn't pop up and bite us? I wouldn't ask those questions because they are, in the end, irrelevant.

Was it Bruce's fault that we got trapped on top? If so, it was also because of Bruce that we eventually got down safely. Ultimately, though, this misadventure was my own fault for not aborting the flight as soon as he told me the com was down. I did learn that I could keep calm in a crisis, but I also learned that it is up to me not to precipitate a crisis in the first place.

We continued to fly together on occasion, but always in daylight, always in a club airplane, and never without a weather briefing. And I personally preflighted the plane every time as if each rivet were in danger of popping out.

Later, Bruce sold his share in the Yankee and relocated to a vacation destination some 400 miles away. He telephoned once to tell me that he had picked up a Stearman and was selling aerobatic rides to tourists. "Come on down," he said, enthusiasm evident in his voice. "First ride's on me."

I never went.


Stephen DeBock earned his private certificate in 1968. He is now retired from teaching.


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Posted Thursday, September 09, 2004 10:26:46 AM