It was the trip of a lifetime, the fulfillment of a long-held dream I was flying from St. Louis to California in my small plane exulting as I watched the West Texas pastureland unfold below me. I had a chart across my lap to keep track of my progress but I’d been so enthralled with the joy of flight that I hadn’t connected the ground I was flying above to a spot on the chart in quite some time.
A Typical Aeronautical Chart
Besides, there in the center of my instrument panel was a LORAN navigation device. It picked up radio signals constantly from three sources and used them to calculate where my plane was and in what direction I should fly to reach my destination. Who needs a chart? Just look at the LORAN screen. I was lulled into serenity by its comforting presence. I knew I was “somewhere” over Texas and LORAN was guiding me unerringly.
A LORAN Receiver
Suddenly, with no warning, that screen went dark. Abruptly I was without guidance, flying swiftly but aimlessly over a strange land. It was a “bad news/good news” situation: “The bad news was I was lost. The good new? I was “making good time.” Since there is no place to “park” an airplane in the sky I had no choice but to continue flying towards I knew not where.
My plane carried fuel enough for three hours of flying time but I rarely pushed it beyond two hours because fuel gauges in airplanes are notoriously unreliable. When the LORAN died, I had been flying for just under two hours. The clock in my head was ticking very insistently. My training kicked in – don’t panic, fly the airplane and think.
The chart was opened across my lap. I could see where I’d begun this flight and could see where I intended to go, but that was only a long straight line across the chart. I had no idea where I was on that line. It seems trouble has a way of breeding trouble once it gets its foot in the door, and right now it had a big size 14 shoe planted squarely in the door of my consciousness. Straight ahead along my intended path a Texas-sized thunderstorm was beginning to develop. Not good. I had to make a choice, fly into the thunderstorm, turn around and go back, turn left or turn right. Flying into a thunderstorm is a kamikaze flight even for large airplanes. No choice there. I’d flown well over halfway as far as I could on one tank of fuel so turning around didn’t make sense. So – turn right or turn left? I looked at the chart on my lap. I could see that wherever I was, I was north of an Interstate highway and if need be I could land on it. Or I might get lucky and find an airport in some town along that highway. I turned left and began searching passionately for that double ribbon of concrete. Meanwhile that thunderstorm was edging closer and closer to the left wingtip of my little plane. It was a race, with the finish line either being consumed by a thunderstorm or my finding an airport or the Interstate.
Atheists do not exist in foxholes nor in the cockpits of pilots in trouble. I’m sure I proved that as I was flying south while the thunderstorm galloped eastward. The sky began darkening and all I saw below me was the scrubby pastureland of West Texas – until . . . there . . . over the nose I saw salvation. The Interstate highway AND a town beside it. Airport? Ah, Thank God, there on the west side of town a lovely strip of asphalt with a couple of metal buildings alongside it. An airport!
Contrary to normal landing procedure I did NOT “fly a pattern” before swooping down onto the runway. The runway lay in a north/south direction. I aimed straight for the northerly end of it and got my little blue “bird’s” wheels onto its surface as quickly as possible. I had won the race, but it was almost a photo finish. As I taxied to the tiedown spots near the FBO’s office the sky opened and rained huge, wet drops of defiance down onto me. Now my airplane was purposely made to look like a fighter airplane, complete with a canopy that slides back so the pilot can step out onto the wing.
I parked, cut the engine, slid back the canopy and endured the deluge. I accepted the minor discomfort with gratitude, secure in the knowledge that my fervent but short prayer had been answered. I had been led to an airport. My plane and I were safely on the ground and we would both live to fly again. The “again” came in about 30 minutes. As summer thunderstorms do in the Midwest, it blew over rather quickly after making a lot of noise and dumping a lot of water.
I discovered I was in Snyder, Texas, ate a candy bar and drank stale airport office coffee, had the plane refueled and headed west again with the sun shining brightly on the pretty blue surface of my plane. Next stop: Carlsbad NM, where I had another adventure relating to a phenomenon called “density altitude.” But that’s another story for another time.