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Scud running the Hudson

From CAVU to gray clouds in seconds

By Ben Moses

It was a clear and beautiful Friday night in May as a work colleague and I lifted off Teterboro’s Runway 1 for a short trip to Schenectady, New York, his home. 

Illustration by James Carey.
Illustration by James Carey.

A nonpilot, he got his first look at the stunning skyline of Manhattan off our right wing as we climbed north, and his mouth dropped open. He was an auditor for the large international company I worked for, and after the annual two-week deep dive into my division’s finances, he had just given us a clean bill of health. He talked about taking a bus the 130 miles up the Hudson River home, but in my relief (and gratitude) at getting a clean report, I offered to fly him up. Besides, I loved flying around New York City at night. For me there’s not a more beautiful nighttime panoramic scene in the world.

Minutes after takeoff, practically the entire East Coast became visible at 7,500 feet; it wasn’t long before we could make out Schenectady and Albany on the horizon, still 100 miles away.

Between my occasional exchanges with radar, my passenger and I chatted about the joy of flying, greatly enhanced by this CAVU evening and silky smooth air. He marveled at the beauty of my panel, lit just enough by dim post lights, and the strobes, beating time with some imagined Beatles tune, he thought. By the time we squeaked onto the pavement at Schenectady County Airport (SCH) my new friend was determined to begin flying lessons “tomorrow.”

We said goodbye and I taxied out for the return trip, expecting to get home in plenty of time to have a late dinner with my wife back in the city. In solo reverie now, at 6,500 feet, I clicked on the wing leveler and basked in the vista before me, the cities and towns shining bright on either side of the dark snake that was the Hudson.

I passed Kingston, halfway home, and flipped the number two radio to Teterboro’s ATIS. Nothing had changed in the 90 minutes since we’d left. CAVU, light wind. I began trying to make out the Empire State Building 60 miles away, when I noticed a faint red and green light in the dark off my right wing. Must be a distant radio tower, I thought…but red and green together? What shows both red and green lights? Either something coming toward you or something going away from you, but which is it? I couldn’t remember, and I couldn’t see my own wing tip lights to check. I turned all my interior lights off. It was still out there.

I decided to turn toward it, but after several minutes, the lights didn’t get larger. It must be something very far away. I turned back toward New York, still keeping an eye on it. Five minutes later it was still there, still directly off my wing. I was flying at 120 knots. Even something far away would have moved slightly.

Then the mysterious red and green lights suddenly disappeared, and in the same instant the entire East Coast display ahead of me disappeared! One moment I could see for 100 miles, the next I was swallowed in gray cloud. What the heck?

I cranked the wing leveler into a one-eighty and got out of the stuff, thinking it was small enough for me to descend and get under it. But it was all the way down to 2,000 feet, and all around me. Where did this come from?

Horizontal visibility was less than 10 miles now, too. From CAVU to this in seconds. I saw Poughkeepsie’s Hudson Valley Airport five miles away, on the east side of the Hudson. Having no choice, I headed for it, dug up the tower frequency, and called. I hoped they had a hotel nearby.

The next morning I woke up to nearly zero-zero weather. I wandered over to the pilot’s lounge and called flight service.

“Wasn’t forecast, just popped up. Very strange. Blankets the whole East Coast. Isn’t going to burn off until late afternoon,” I was told. This not-yet-instrument-rated pilot was stuck.

I hung out at the airport most of the day, fueled the airplane, and checked weather every hour: 600 feet and 1,700 feet, and 2 miles. Argh. The snack machine supplied my lunch—candy bars, chips, peanuts, sodas. Then at 3 p.m. I called again. “Poughkeepsie: one thousand and three.” VFR! Well, technically. “How about Teterboro?” One thousand and three, but would close up again closer to sunset.

I’m going! I would fly straight down the Hudson at 500 or 600 feet, lift up a bit over the Tappan Zee Bridge whose tallest towers are at 419 feet msl, and slide into Teterboro a few miles beyond.

The plan started out great, then soon deteriorated as the river narrowed and took some crazy turns. I slowed to 90 and extended flaps. With barely three miles visibility I had to make quick decisions when the river suddenly made sharp turns and I was staring at the New Jersey Palisades dead ahead. My chart didn’t help, it wasn’t detailed enough to trust. Neither did the wing leveler, it can’t turn me steep enough.

I slowed down, held my breath, and guessed each turn, sensing for an opening to the left or right as I sped down the river, still at more than 100 miles an hour and 600 feet msl—less than that above the water. Finally, the river straightened out and widened, but the ceiling had now lowered to 700 feet. I descended to 500. The Tappan Zee Bridge came into view ahead, two miles or so, but as I approached it the ceiling lowered again. Now I was at 400 feet, a mile-and-a-half away—at 90 knots that’s barely more than a minute. Now the bridge towers were in the clouds. I pitched up, shoving the throttle to the wall. I climbed to 1,200 feet, flipped on the wing leveler, and called La Guardia Approach.

“Do you need to declare an emergency?” was the controller’s first question. “Can you maintain control? Do not make any abrupt turns, do not reduce your gauges. We’ll bring you into La Guardia.” Then, “Delta 746 be prepared to make a three-sixty for emergency traffic.”

“No, no!” I insisted. “I have control of the airplane, I’ve got a wing leveler, I’m working on my instrument rating currently. I’m OK, just take me over Teterboro and let me down. I’ll be all right.”

The controller wasn’t convinced. The last thing I wanted was to land at La Guardia, screw up the traffic, and spend the rest of the day explaining to the FAA.

The controller relented cautiously. He could see my speed, altitude, and track, and after a few moments I heard his voice begin to relax. “Fly heading one-eight-five, I’ll take you over Teterboro.”

I was in the clouds another five or six minutes when the controller told me I was over Teterboro and should carefully make a circling descent to 800 feet. I broke out at 1,000 feet and he handed me off to the tower for landing. Tower had a message. “The Common Eye wants to talk to you.”

The “Common Eye” was officially the Common IFR room at JFK. Uh-oh. I parked, grabbed a cup of coffee, collected myself, and called the number from the pilot’s room at the FBO.

“The weather at Poughkeepsie and Teterboro was VFR,” I told them. “I figured I could make it down the Hudson, but the ceiling closed up on me and I didn’t want to run into the bridge.” There was a long pause while the FAA voice on the other end checked the weather reports. Then: “OK, glad you made it.” And that was it.

How simple that flight would have been with an instrument rating! I got mine a few months later, and my commercial and multiengine after that. Flying has given me a lifetime of joy ever since, and I’ve flown all over North America for more than 3,000 hours. And I’ve never seen a UFO. Or maybe I have…

Ben Moses is a documentary filmmaker and pilot.

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