In February 2006 I was a brand-new flight instructor, and Dave was the first student I was taking through private pilot training. The mission was to fly with him on his night dual cross-country in our flying club’s Cessna 150 trainer from Blacksburg to Danville, Virginia, and talk flying with my then-fiancée, also a pilot, at a restaurant near the airport. It was a simple plan and a short flight, definitely doable without refueling even for the modest 150.
We had no GPS, just a single radio and VOR receiver. I was proud to emphasize pilotage and dead reckoning on all of my student cross-countries.
As the day of the flight wore on, I realized I needed to ensure the airplane was topped off, but I managed to call the airport just as they were closing, and they couldn’t accommodate me. There was still a chance it would have been topped off anyway, so we’d just have to see. Just in case we needed to refuel at Danville, I looked up its attended hours in the A/FD and saw fuel should be available until 10 p.m.—well after we planned on being back home—so fuel shouldn’t be a problem regardless.
I met Dave at the airport just as the sun was setting to look over his plans in the warmth of his car, as the terminal was closed. Everything looked to be in order, and the aircraft’s flight log showed a half hour flight earlier in the day, without having added fuel afterward. According to his plans, despite the lower fuel quantity, we should still be able to return with plenty of fuel. This also agreed with the computations I ran in my head, as I’d made the flight from Blacksburg to Danville several times to see my fiancée, with each flight never taking more than two hours round trip. I also made mention that fuel was available until 10 p.m. if we needed it, so we decided to make the flight.
The trip down was uneventful. It was a nice calm moonless night, with familiar cities dotting the horizon nearly 50 miles away. Dave navigated wonderfully, and I was able to sit back as a proud instructor. Soon enough Danville appeared ahead, right on schedule. We landed, taxied onto the deserted ramp, and observed a most definitely closed FBO. That didn’t agree with what was published in the A/FD, which was annoying. No matter, we were soon on our way to the restaurant. We told flying stories and had some laughs but eventually needed to start back.
Back at the airport, we used the dipstick to measure our remaining fuel, which was plenty, and after some discussion, decided to make the 60-mile flight back to Blacksburg. We were soon on our way, climbing to 6,500 feet to keep us well above the mountainous terrain along our route. It took us a while to get away from the city, but that didn’t surprise me much, as Danville is surprisingly large to be considered a small town.
As we leveled off, I again got to enjoy the beauty of night flight, as Dave kept us on course. To keep him on his toes, I’d periodically ask him where we were on the map or ask what small town that dot of light on the ground was. Once when I asked, I saw the lights of Roanoke off my side, and the familiar patch of light that was Rocky Mount below us, and was happy when Dave knew right were we were. About 15 minutes or so passed while the only thing I heard was the drone of the engine, as absolutely nothing was happening on Roanoke Approach’s frequency.
A decent amount of time had passed, but the lights of Roanoke were in the same place in my window, and we were still over Rocky Mount. This was not good. How long had this been going on and I hadn’t noticed it? My instincts were telling me something was very wrong, yet I didn’t want to alarm my student. I casually remarked that we must have run into a headwind, because we didn’t seem to be moving very fast. He claimed to have noticed but figured we’d get home eventually. Strike one for the student; the instructor must always be on his toes. The time showed we should have made it home already, but we were just over halfway there. Something needed to be done.
I suggested we divert to Roanoke, which was closer then Blacksburg, where fuel was available 24 hours. Dave changed course toward the lights on the horizon and advised Roanoke Approach of our diversion, and Roanoke gave our position as 20 miles south of the airport. After five minutes we still appeared to be over Rocky Mount. I asked Roanoke for our distance, and the controller saw us as 18 miles south of the airport. We had covered two miles in five minutes, giving us a groundspeed of 24 knots. At that speed it would take us 45 minutes to reach Roanoke. That wasn’t going to work, and we needed another plan immediately.
I advised Roanoke of our fuel status and that we would like to divert to the nearest airport, which they told me was Smith Mountain Lake, that it was fairly close, and provided a vector for me. Smith Mountain Lake’s airport is a fairly short strip surrounded by tall trees and only has fuel during the day, but for now it was somewhere we could land, figure out what was going on, and refuel the following day. I had Dave do the flying so I could focus on thinking and communicating with Roanoke. Looking in the direction and distance Roanoke advised me, I saw nothing but black. I strained to find a beacon down there, which I’m typically pretty good at, but couldn’t for the life of me. Roanoke advised us that we had flown past it and gave us another vector. I advised Roanoke I would momentarily switch frequencies so I could use our one communication radio to turn on the lights, but I still couldn’t find it anywhere.
Soon we had burned another 10 minutes, and the fuel gauges were reading empty. It was the worst, most helpless feeling I have ever felt in my life. Stuck in a minimally equipped Cessna 150, high above a black sea of nothingness, with invisible mountains nearby, miles from a usable airport, and running out of gas. I finally gave up searching. I notified Roanoke that I saw the lights of Lynchburg to the east and was going to try to make it there. My reasoning was that we had run into a huge unforecast wind coming from the west, so hopefully we could use it to our advantage by flying east. I throttled way back and leaned the mixture, hoping to buy at least a few more minutes.
It worked. The lights of Lynchburg grew rapidly, but we couldn’t distinguish the airport beacon or lights from the glare of the city. I observed a beacon south of the city, off our two o’clock, and figured it was Brookneal Airport and confirmed it with Roanoke Approach. I momentarily switched frequencies to turn on the runway lights, and when they came on I had never been happier in my life. In a snap decision I said we were landing there, even if the sectional showed it not having fuel even in daylight. It would put us on the ground. I took the controls and stayed high until we were over the airport, then throttled back and spiraled down to land. Shortly before canceling our flight following, the Roanoke controller asked me to call him on the phone when we landed to let him know we made it safely.
We landed just after midnight and pulled off onto another deserted ramp. I figured my fiancée (now wife) would be worried when I didn’t call on time, so I let her know our situation. I figured she’d tell me, “Oh, that stinks; have a good night and call me tomorrow.” Instead she perked up and saw it as an adventure and said she’d find the place and be there in two hours. Yeah, she’s a keeper.
In the meantime, that left us two hours to think about what had happened and shiver in the bone-chilling cold. Even though the plans said we’d make it, and the headwind was completely unforecast, I still felt responsible for what had happened. I felt maybe I didn’t have what it took to instruct and considered quitting, but I compromised by telling Dave I wouldn’t charge him for the remainder of his training, so that every time I flew with him and didn’t get paid, it would serve as a reminder to never be complacent, as I could lose more than just money. This continued until Dave got his certificate, at which point he surprised me with a new Garmin GPS “so you always know where you are and how fast you’re going!”
Rachel, my fiancée, drove us to Lynchburg, and we got a hotel at 3 a.m. to hopefully catch a few hours of sleep. The next day, we bought a gas can, took it to the Lynchburg airport, and bought five gallons of 100LL to drive to our airplane stuck at Brookneal. Before filling it, I measured our remaining fuel with the dipstick, and it showed three gallons, barely enough for our fuel reserve. We poured in our new fuel then flew the short way to the Lynchburg airport to top off before returning to Blacksburg.
Once we returned, we were able to debrief what had happened a little more thoroughly. The headwind was indeed unforecast. The Danville airport wasn’t attended; therefore the A/FD was inaccurate. The kicker was the fact that Smith Mountain Lake Airport had a notice in the A/FD that its lights and beacon were out of service indefinitely. In the heat of the moment, we didn’t have time to check the A/FD and instead relied on the fact that Roanoke suggested it as a suitable place to land, and we burned a good 10 minutes searching in vain for an unlit airport. That could have meant the difference between landing at an airport or not if we had spent much more time searching. It would have been much better if Roanoke notified us of that fact, but this demonstrates that when it comes down to it, the pilot in command is responsible for the safety of his ship and nobody else.
The moral of this story is threefold. First, never underestimate any flight, even if it’s over familiar territory. Every flight has hidden dangers. Second, any pilot must be always on their guard for the unexpected, especially an instructor. Even the most prepared and talented student is a student after all. Third, if you find a significant other who is willing to drive out in the middle of the night into the middle of nowhere just to be with you, hold on to them!
Lee Smith is a 1,500-hour cargo pilot and flight instructor based in Blacksburg, Virginia.