On The Wings Of God
September 18, 1966
The sound of the rain on the roof awakened me and I groped for the clock to see what time it was. It was nine-thirty. I had overslept again. As always, I skipped breakfast – the sight of food is repulsive to me so soon after getting up. I quickly stuffed my bags in the car and headed for the airport.
“Rain diminishing by afternoon…” said the radio announcer. The temperature was 71 degrees…a normal fall day in Mississippi, but wouldn’t you know it would rain the day I wanted to fly.
“It’s all serviced and ready to go, Lew,” said Mr. Hooper as I bounded in the door of the operations office to keep from getting wet. The rented Cessna 172 was sitting on the ramp looking very sleek and shiny in the rain. “Great. Now turn that rain off so I can get started.” Hooper made some remark about the clouds being my problem, not the rain. I had to agree.
The office teletype clacked out a few weather sequences. None of them covered the final portions of my flight plan; but the weather gradually improved to the north of the field, so if I could just get out of here, I had it made.
Lowndes County Airport was an uncontrolled field. No weather station or Flight Service. The teletype and a telephone were its only links to the aviation world beyond. I had learned to fly here and had just passed my private pilot check just two days before. Now I could go anywhere. It was just like getting a driver’s license, or so I thought. It all seemed simple on paper.
My flight plan was to fly north from Lowndes County Airport to Columbus, Ohio, with a refueling stop in Bowling Green, KY. I had broken up my six-hour flight plan into two, three-hour legs, allowing myself a day in Columbus to plan the subsequent legs to Washington D.C. If I could get to D.C. on Tuesday, I’d have time to prepare for my wedding on Wednesday. My well-thought-out plans were slowly dissolving in the steady pitter-patter of rain.
The rain changed to a drizzle around noon. “Looks like you got a thousand feet if you want to give her a try,” suggested Mr. Hooper. I eagerly agreed. “Yeah, it looks good,” I said, not having the slightest idea what one thousand feet straight up looked like.
Mr. Hooper helped me load the plane and, after a quick preflight, I taxied out for a look. Ha, who was I fooling? I was going, period. It might look rather nasty now, but the weather would surely improve as I flew north. Heading north, my convictions were confirmed. The ceiling slowly gave way and the rain gradually stopped. By the time I crossed into Tennessee, my Cessna was droning along in the clear, and I was humming the Wedding March and making big plans. Bowling Green was below me before I knew it, and I was on my flight plan to a tee.
“Fill ‘er up,” I said and wandered off to the snack bar for a little servicing of my own. Later, I made a weather check; conditions at Columbus, Ohio were not good – cold and rainy with a ceiling of 1,200 feet. I wasn’t too concerned since I had just flown through worse. No sweat! I called my folks and told them to meet me at the Columbus Airport in three hours. I would have the evening and most of the next day to spend with them. After I hung up, it occurred to me that by the time I got there it would be close to seven. I wondered what time the sun set in Columbus, but the thought passed quickly.
By 4 p.m. the Bowling Green Airport was below and behind. If I maintained my airspeed a little higher, I could reduce my ETA and still have gas to spare. I pinched the throttle forward and adjusted the mixture. A broken cloud deck at 4,000 feet caught my eye, but I didn’t think much about it. To the north the weather looked bad, but the weatherman had said 1,200 feet would be the worst, so I pressed on.
As the clouds descended, so did I. I liked being low, and the Kentucky landscape was a fascinating collage of rivers, streams and farms. I couldn’t get over the excitement of actually flying alone from state to state. It was power and freedom in one beautiful package.
My excitement slowly changed to concern as I spotted one or two of the higher hills poking up into the clouds. I began map reading and located my exact position. I was over Fort Knox, right on flight plan. Then my heart skipped a beat – I saw that Fort Knox was a prohibited area for flying, and I was right in the middle of it. I had a crazy thought that I’d be shot down – or whatever they do to aircraft flying through prohibited areas. It was pure agony until I passed beyond it.
I was receiving the Louisville VOR (VHF Omnidirectional Range) earlier than planned, but as I descended to stay beneath the cloud cover, the VOR broke lock. Now it was low-level navigation or nothing. As more and more hilltops disappeared into what had suddenly become an overcast, I strained to locate powerlines and towers ahead. It was now painfully clear that if the present trend of clouds meeting ground continued, I could not continue the flight. But the thought of spending a night in Louisville motivated me to keep going. Then the Ohio River Valley appeared ahead, and I knew it would lead me to Cincinnati. I headed for it.
As I flew along in the Ohio River Valley and between its wonderfully high and wide banks, I marveled at how well my plan seemed to be working. But soon I found myself trapped between the river banks and a ceiling of clouds a few hundred feet above me. After a few nerve-shattering squeezes between the tops of bridges and the bottom of the clouds, I had to go in and out of the clouds to clear bridges. About this time, I realized that if my meandering course along the Ohio River were straightened out, I would probably have reached Columbus by now. I was way behind my flight plan, and something had to be done. I began a 300 feet-per-minute climb and the engine hummed reassuringly. My five hours of dual instrument instruction were sure paying dividends as I was now totally consumed by the clouds. Never mind the fact I was on a VFR (Visual Flight Rules) flight plan.
I was maintaining a heading of approximately 70 degrees, which should take me to Cincinnati from the point at which I left the river. It was raining now, although not heavily, and I continued to climb toward what I hoped would be a sunny sky. While passing through about 7,000 feet, I realized that my VOR should be locked onto something, but it wasn’t. Nothing would come in. A glance at my map told me the Cincinnati VOR should be within range and that my heading was good.
Then I noticed that my gyro compass was reading almost 35 degrees off the magnetic compass heading. My instrument flying suddenly went berserk as I quickly resent the compass and realized that I was lost. After regaining control of the plane, I took up a heading of 90 degrees in hopes of correcting back to course.
I was now at 10,000 feet, but nothing but more rain and clouds. Suddenly the airspeed indicator dropped to zero. Ice!! I quickly turned on the carburetor heat and pitot heat and started what I thought was a rate of descent, using the attitude indicator and the sound of the wind on the airframe.
I had read many times that, during an emergency, a pilot should keep calm. I decided to try it, and for about three minutes I sat back and relaxed as much as I could, knowing that I was lost in the clouds with no airspeed indicator or navigation equipment. When I had collected my thoughts, I checked the chart for terrain elevation in the possible area of my aircraft. I decided to descend no lower than 1,800 feet MSL.
By the time I reached 1,800 feet, I had my airspeed indicator back but was still in the weather. I wondered how accurate my altimeter setting was. I hadn’t reset it since leaving Bowling Green. I checked Cincinnati VOR and hoped for a weather broadcast. I could remember what time the weather was broadcast.
All of a sudden, there it was; a hole in the clouds that I had been praying for was right below me. It was a small hole, but I thought I could make it. By the grace of God, I didn’t get disoriented in my steep spiral down through the opening. As I broke out, freeway signs flashed below. I could recognize the makes of cars on the road and estimated my altitude at 200 feet. I had driven the route a number of times and recognized it as the outer belt around Cincinnati.
It was dark as I followed the interstate. My ETA for Columbus had passed, and I still had 40 minutes of flying left – according to the mileage signs on the freeway. My sectional showed two arrows on the southwest side of Columbus with the name Taylor beside them. I decided that it must be an intersection. I called Columbus Airport approach when I reached the intersection, but the controller had never heard of it. I told him it was located 30 miles southwest of Appleton VOR. He asked me to call over Columbus.
“Columbus Approach Control, this is Cessna 7080 Tango.”
“7080 Tango, go ahead.”
“Over Columbus, VFR, for landing.”
There was a pause.
“Cessna 7080 Tango, did you say VFR?”
“7080 Tango, the airport is about to close for all traffic due to weather. Stand by.”
I stood by, but soon found myself right on top of the city trying to avoid the tops of buildings that were jutting into the clouds.
“7080 Tango, cleared to land on runway zero nine. Can you find the field?”
“Roger, I’m familiar with the area.”
“Call field in sight.”
I followed the streets leading to the airport and felt reassured because I was in familiar territory. The runway strobe lights came into view just in time for me to zigzag and land. It was all over.
I turned off the runway and was cleared by ground control to the general aviation ramp. I said “Roger”, not having the slightest idea of where the general aviation ramp was. A follow-me truck intercepted me. As I followed the signals and maneuvered for a parking spot, my engine suddenly sputtered and died. Looking around the cockpit, I soon found out why. The fuel tank selector was on left tank – the same position it had been in when I took off. And that tank was now empty.