Thursday, August 30, 2007

The Flight that Almost Killed Me - Part II of II

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(Note to everyone: Here it is, the sequel to Part I but if you are pressed for time, please come back to this post later to relax with your favorite beverage because this is an exceedingly long one - probably the longest I've ever written to date but hopefully it will be an enjoyable read for you).


It was a good thing I departed Michigan on the 24th because Mother Nature threw a hissy fit and dumped several inches of snow in New York the following day, giving us the first white Christmas in a long time. This was followed by a low pressure system covering the entire Northeast, which meant I might be stuck for a few days longer than I anticipated.

A call to Berz Airport reassured me that they were not in a hurry to get their plane back. Several years ago, a renter pilot apparently felt pressured to return on time but got caught in a major thunderstorm and crashed. Not wanting to have another death on his conscience, the airport owner (Mr. Berz) went out of his way to remind renters not to mess with Mother Nature and to fly back safely. Taking his message to heart, I spent three tense-filled days waiting.

On December 29, 2002, I got the break I was looking for. Dad and I piled into his truck at 8:30 am and left for the airport. On our way there, butterflies were churning like crazy in my stomach, which was normal but mixed in there was a tiny twinge of anxiety. There was 400 miles of flying to do in the middle of winter where anything could happen!

Just as I pulled the plane out of the Schenectady County Airport hangar to conduct the preflight inspection, wet snowflakes began to fall.


Caught off guard, I pushed the plane back inside and borrowed several dry towels from the flight operations department to wipe the plane down. It was the least I could do to keep myself busy. Besides, I didn't like the idea of flying a wet airplane through subzero temperatures.

Meanwhile, the air traffic controller on duty that day, the same man who gave me a light gun landing earlier that week, came down from the tower to personally wish me luck. When I voiced concerns about the unexpected snowfall, he told me, "Oh, it's a temporary thing, don't worry, you'll be fine. It's just a snow squall passing through but the sky behind it looks quite clear." With a reassuring smile, he added, "You'll be okay."

But the snow showed no signs of slowing down. Since the plane was dry as a bone by that point, all three of us (my Dad, the controller and I) went inside the building next to the hangar and helped ourselves to some hot chocolate. At one o'clock, the sun finally broke through.

Due to the snowstorm the night before, the airport was still buried under several feet of snow. A couple of giant yellow plows were busy spewing snow over to the side. Only Runway 28 was clear. The other was halfway plowed, giving me just enough wiggle room to taxi over to Runway 28 for takeoff.

"Just follow me and I'll take you over there." said the friendly controller. It must have been a strange sight for anyone who happened to be watching this little parade. Imagine a red pick up truck slowly driving down a half-plowed runway with a small plane tagging after it!

The engine check at the run-up area revealed no anomalies. The controller parked his truck several hundred feet ahead of me, off to the side. He was leaning against the hood, holding a hand-held radio and watching me. The moment I gave thumbs up, he immediately began to talk on the radio, probably announcing to anyone who was listening on that frequency that a deaf pilot was about to takeoff from Runway 28, west-bound.

Positioning myself on the runway, I slowly pushed the throttle forward. The plane quickly gathered forward momentum and lifted easily into the sky, climbing 1,500 feet a minute. At five hundred feet, I rocked the plane sideways, bidding farewell to the controller. He waved back. Dad was probably watching from the opposite end of the airport but I couldn't see him. Still, I rocked the plane a second time, just in case.

On my way up, the clouds got closer. Should I stay below or climb over them?

Emboldened by the previous flight to New York, I put the plane in a steep climb, zigzagging around the clouds to avoid touching them. Soon, I was cruising at 10,500 feet, drinking in the glorious sunshine, a virtual carbon copy of the first trip.

On the way back, there was nothing to do but sit back and monitor the instruments, checking fuel/oil pressure indicators, the RPM and a host of other things. At one point during the scanning process, my heart skipped a beat when I noticed the fuel pressure gage bordering on red. Adjusting the throttle and fuel mixture controls seemed to have fixed the problem and the needle fell back into the green.

I was completely alone virtually the entire time I was up there. Only once did I see another airplane, a gorgeous blue and white Gulfstream jet depositing long white trails in its wake. It was flying several thousand feet below me, probably on its way to some airport in New York. Now I know why they say it's "lonely at the top"!

Three hours after rocking the wings, I began the descend for a fuel stop and a weather update at a small airport in Akron, NY, just outside Buffalo. The New York-Canadian border was just fifteen minutes west of that airport.

On the way down, I saw what looked like a clearing just north of my flight path and made a beeline toward it. But by the time I got there, it disappeared, forcing me to pull up. Although I could see the ground through patches of broken cloud layers, the holes were rapidly opening and closing like a fish's mouth in water. The small plane was simply not fast enough.

My mind was racing, contemplating, strategizing, thinking, rationalizing.

How thick are the clouds?
How high is the bottom of the cloud level?
Should I do it?

For several minutes I circled above, debating. The puffy, white clouds were busy transmuting themselves into all kinds of strange shapes and configurations. The wing tips were barely brushing by them.

Then I did something I never, ever thought I would do.

Cutting the throttle back to idle, I aggressively shoved the nose down and instantly disappeared into the clouds! The engine shook while the plane slid down an invisible chute at 2,000 feet a minute in total whiteout conditions, rendering me completely blind.

Less than a minute later, the plane sailed into the clear as if nothing happened. Panting, I looked left and right to see if anyone else was near me. No one was. But my eye caught a control tower off to the right. In the sudden mad dash through the clouds, I had inadvertently punctured the outer fringes of their airspace. That meant an irate controller in a bad mood with a pair of powerful binoculars could have easily read the tail number off the side ("airplane's license number"), tracked me down and then reported me to the authorities. My heart raced at the thought.

Moving a little further to the west, I smacked my forehead rather hard, almost knocking myself unconscious when I realized that if had I flown just another couple of miles, I would not have needed to do the little disappearing act! The entire western portion of New York was clear!

Damn, damn, damn.

At 5pm, I landed at the Akron Airport and pulled up to the self-serve fuel tanks. Both tanks were quickly filled and paid for. A call to the weather briefer verified what I had already seen on the computer with partly cloudy to clear skies with unrestricted visibility. Excited about completing the last leg of my flight, I lost no time getting back in the air. It was 6 pm. The sun was starting to set.

As I was passing over the New York-Canadian border, I was transported back to my childhood when Niagara Falls came into view. As a family, we went there for vacation a couple of times. Although it wasn't yet completely dark, it was already lit up in its brilliance.

Pulling on the yoke, I added full power and began to climb when I saw some clouds several miles ahead at my altitude. But the more I thought about it, the more I realized it would not a good idea. Clouds are invisible and therefore deadly at night if you don't have an instrument rating. Turning around, I went right back down and flew underneath them. It turned out to be the best decision I would make that night.

Comfortably settling at 4,500 feet, I watched with great pleasure different cities light up the night sky like Las Vegas. A well lit bridge connecting the mainland to a small island added to the extravagant visual stimuli. Several large highways seemed to crisscross to a series of curves, loops and straight lines. The night air was extraordinarily calm, making for a smooth flight. The plane was flying without input from me - I barely had to touch the yoke!

About halfway into the flight, the landscape began to alternate between large black spaces and tiny, remote villages with very few lights. But I was not worried. Everything was just fine, I would be home in another hour or so. The Canadian-Michigan border wasn't far off now.

Little did I know everything would come unglued in just a few moments!

The first warning sign came in the form of rainbow-like rings around streetlights that could be seen when flying over some of the towns.

Then I noticed a faint outline of a runway for a private airport to my left, beckoning me to land immediately. It was as if God put it there just for me. That was the second.

The third came after realizing that although the weather briefer advised me to expect clear skies with unrestricted visibility, the city lights were gradually fading away. I found myself squinting through the windshield without seeing much of anything.

While subliminally trying to process all of these warning signs and wondering just what the heck was happening, BOOM, the airplane was suddenly swallowed whole and thrown in pitch blackness!

Sheer panic spread throughout my body, causing me clench tightly on the yoke, overcontrolling the airplane. It gyrated wildly, climbing and descending like a yo-yo over a thousand feet a minute, temporarily rendering the plane out of control.


Fighting to regain control, I prayed like I never did before, using every available ounce of energy to concentrate on the panel-lit instruments. Somehow I managed to bring the airplane under control and then decided to go lower so that I could see something - ANYTHING.

In a flash of divine insight, I suddenly I remembered there were tall wireless cell phone towers everywhere! At 1,500 feet, I was dangerously low, without much of forward visibility but I didn't dare go any lower.

Gratitude overwhelmed me when the faint outline of a well lit highway suddenly appeared through the murkiness. It crossed my mind to make an emergency landing there. Traffic was sparse at that time of the night and it appeared to be wider than a runway of a major airport. But before I could put that plan into action, a pair of blinking red lights mysteriously appeared out of nowhere, completely distracting me.

Both of them were blinking a hundred feet ABOVE ME.

And I was flying BETWEEN THEM!

It took me a full minute to realize what this meant.


Heart pounding relentlessly, I delicately maneuvered between the two towers, not daring to turn around and try landing back on the highway. Just when I thought it couldn't get any worse, another wave of shock thundered through my exhausted body.

The GPS was taking me to the wrong airport. Instead of flying west, I was going Northeast, taking me deeper into into no man's airspace!

Drawing every last bit of air I could fill my lungs with, I shakily re-entered Berz Macomb Airport's identifier into the GPS. A new pink line was immediately remapped, telling me to bear several degrees to the left.

The fog showed no signs of letting up. Completely relying on the GPS and the instruments, I did not know whether I would survive the night but I refused to give up.

With only three miles left, the unimaginable happened.

God took one giant hand and literally wiped away the invisible clouds in one clean swoop, instantly granting me unrestricted views of the entire metropolitan Detroit area! My eyes feasted upon the sea of lights that sprawled before me. The spectacular sight was so overwhelming beautiful, I nearly missed the faintly lit runway of Berz Macomb Airport right below me.

Wiping away tears of gratitude, I knew it wasn't over until I was safely back on the ground. Clicking the mic seven times to brighten the runway lights, the plane made its final landing of the night with nary a squeak, a miracle when considering both legs were acting like a pair of jackhammers.

Slowly making my way over to the parking spot between the hangar and terminal building, I noticed a small crowd gathering on the brightly lit tarmac. I was not expecting anyone at the airport so late at night. It was almost 10 pm.

The moment I shut down the engine and opened the cockpit door, five guys poked their heads in at the same time, their mouths agape. Their faces were begging for an explanation. But I was in no mood to talk. Not after that hell raising experience. I was still reeling in shock.

Someone handed me a cold bottle of water, lubricating my parched throat. My entire body shook while I took things out of the baggage compartment. One of the guys told me that the visibility was a mere quarter of a mile.

That's when I realized how dangerously close I came to death that night. If it wasn't for the handheld GPS that I borrowed from a pilot friend, I might never have found Berz Macomb airport and lumbered away into the abyss, meeting my maker that night.

Thank God for small favors.

Food for thought: Instead of writing what I learned from this experience, let me turn the tables and open this up for you, the readers, to share what life lessons you got from this story.

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Blogger Nita said...

GREAT and WELL-WRITTEN story, Stephen!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!!! I was totally glued to it! I knew you would make it because you are alive NOW! :)

Btw, what did you mean by this statement: "Clicking the mic seven times to brighten the runway lights..."? Can you please explain a bit further?

Again, great story!! Have any more like this? (Not that I would want you to be in danger in order to tell a great story! :))

7:18 AM  
Blogger Stephen J. Hopson said...


I'm THRILLED that you and others (I've been getting some fantastic feedback) enjoyed this story. I really, really appreciate knowing how much "The Flight That Almost Killed Me" impacted you and how you were riveted to the end. Thank you, thank you and thank you. I'm grateful for the ability to touch people in this way.

As you know, I truly enjoy writing. It's a gift that I humbly continue to hone over time.

To answer your question, "clicking on the mic seven times to brighten the runway lights" is a method by which the pilot can click on the radio button to activtate runway lights even when no one is at the airport at night.

In other words, the radios are somehow wired in a way that when you are tuned into the airport's radio frequency, you have the ability to brighten the runway from the cockpit! If you click on it 7 times, the runway lights are super bright. If you click the radio mic 5 times, the runway is turn on "medium." If you click 3 times, it is turned on low wattage.

Cool, huh? Thanks for asking me to clarify this one aspect of the story. I'll see if I can somehow find a link for the reader to click on for further information (like how I did with the telephone and radio light gun landing links in the first part of the story).


7:39 AM  

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