Never Again

Skiing into the darkness

October 1, 2010

Glass cockpits provide wondrous, seemingly miraculous information to today’s pilots, but it wasn’t always so. In the dim, dark ages when I learned to fly, we had no such tools—but we did have telephones—and my failure to use one before my first solo cross-country flight could have cost me dearly.

It was March 31, 1948, and I was 18 years old. I had recently soloed at Twitchell’s Airport in Turner, Maine. At the time, small airports in Maine were generally unplowed because in the winter the majority of light aircraft were equipped with skis, just like the Piper Cub I would take for this trip. The airplane, like most other trainers at the time, had no electrical system and no radio.

Once aloft, I’d be on my own with only a compass, clock, chart, and the view outside to guide me. VFR meant you looked at the ground and searched for features to match the map on your lap. You tried to judge the speed and direction of the wind by watching for smoke, swaying tree branches, and in summer the size and direction of waves on a lake.

My solo trip took place on a bright late-winter day with light wind. Although spring was coming, there was still plenty of snow on the ground, and ice on the lakes was solid.

I got a late start and didn’t leave Twitchell’s until midday. The first leg of my flight to the Heart-of-Maine Flying Service airport near Dexter was delightful. Visibility was unlimited in smooth air. I had marked the course on my chart and every landmark and checkpoint fell into place with regularity.

All went well until I sighted the airport and entered the traffic pattern. Dexter had a nice, paved runway, which had been totally cleared of snow. My problem was that the runway had been plowed, and the snow that had been cleared was piled on the left side of the strip where I might have been able to land on skis. There was snow on the right side of the runway, but I couldn’t tell the condition.

Someone came out of the hangar and waved his arms, but I couldn’t decipher his meaning and, after circling a few times, decided to land on still-frozen Lake Wassokeag a few miles away. I walked the half-mile into town and located a phone to call the airport. The airport manager answered and assured me there was sufficient snow to land next to the runway. I returned to the Cub, took off, and in a few minutes landed on the patch of snow. He signed my logbook, confirming I had indeed landed there, and then informed me that the airport was out of gas. There was no way to top off my tank for the remainder of my long flight.

I could either abort my plans and return to Twitchell’s and try again another day, or press on to my next planned stop at North Conway, New Hampshire, at more than 100 miles, a long way for a little Cub on skis. My calculations showed I would have enough fuel to reach North Conway, with a sufficient reserve. The airport manager kindly hand-propped the Cub, and soon I was off. The course to North Conway was southwest, and I was bucking a headwind. The Cub cruised at about 80 mph, but it soon became apparent that my groundspeed was slower than that. The engine droned sweetly on, time passed, and I watched that cork-and-wire gas gauge in front of the windshield slowly drop.

Should I call it quits and head back to my home field while it was still possible? Judging from the hills ahead, however, I was getting close. Finally, the airfield came into view.

The field was quiet as I approached to land. That surprised me since I’d been told this was a fairly active airport. But when I taxied to the gas pump, it was obvious the whole place was deserted. Everything was locked up and there wasn’t a soul in sight. I pondered this dilemma for several minutes. For one thing, I knew I had to have someone sign my logbook to prove I had actually landed there. There was a gas station on the road near the airport, and I walked over and discussed my problem with the woman who ran the place. She signed my logbook, so that problem was solved.

I considered buying enough auto gas to get me home, but she was selling Esso. I had been told that, whenever possible, if I had to use other than 80-octane aviation gas, I should try to use Amoco, which was said to be the closest to avgas.I thanked the gas lady, returned to the airplane, and took off.

My course was now due east back toward my home field. It was getting late in the day. The shadows were long ahead of me, the sun sinking in the West behind the White Mountains. Within a few minutes of leaving North Conway and gaining some altitude, I spotted a long, narrow, frozen body of water, which I recognized as Long Lake, north of Sebago. At its north end, I knew, was the town of Harrison and an Amoco gas station. I made a straight-in approach to the lake. There was no time for circling. The wire gas gauge had dropped to the top of the gas cap and stopped jiggling. I landed on the lake ice, jumped out, and hurried to town. The Amoco attendant cheerfully filled a can with five gallons of gas, and he helped me carry it back to the lake and out to the airplane.

By now, the day was spent, but I was only a few miles from home base. It was a beautiful evening, and the air was smooth as silk as I flew over Auburn and saw the glittering lights as I entered the traffic pattern for Twitchell’s Airport. Ronnie Twitchell was alone, still working in his office, when I taxied up.

“I figured you must have had a problem and had to stay over somewhere for the night,” he said in his quiet, Down East, Maine way. He signed my logbook and my memorable flight finally was over. What had I learned from this? Mostly, don’t assume. I could have learned about the fuel availability and runway conditions simply by calling ahead. I didn’t have GPS, or XM weather, or even a radio. But I could have found out everything I needed to know with a telephone—and I certainly had access to that.

Paul Fournier, AOPA 5799247, of Palm Bay, Florida, is a commercial pilot with about 2,000 hours total flying time.