Flight Log, A Short Story
1965 Cessna 150
There it was again; a small, queer shudder emanating from the engine, and one that seemed to manifest itself throughout the airframe. I scanned the instrument panel once more, but all was well. Oil pressure and temperature was normal. Engine rpm was rock steady. Finally, I shrugged and scanned the sky again, looking for traffic.
The early morning sky was crisp and clear. Off in the distance, I spotted one lone cumulous, and that was it. I checked my calculator one more time and shook my head. The weather was CAVU (clear and visibility unlimited), but I was battling a fierce headwind. The winds aloft forecast had said nothing about this.
When a pilot finds himself out of glide range to an airport, the engine goes into what we laughingly call ‘automatic rough’…imagined changes in sounds and vibrations. I was just under ten thousand feet over an eight thousand foot mountain range and on my way to a friend’s ranch. Traversing that twenty miles of high terrain would take me almost twenty long minutes with this unexpected thirty knot headwind.
I had stumbled upon a very low time, nineteen sixty five Cessna one-fifty, something almost unheard of in this basic trainer aircraft. Most were high time and all but worn out before being put on the market.
I had chanced across it when I had visited a farm in Kansas on a writing assignment and spotted an old hangar. When I asked the elderly lady about it, she said her late husband had kept his airplane there, and in fact, it was still there. He had died in the nineteen seventies.
That was enough to excite any pilot! When I asked if I could see it, she nodded her head and smiled. “You’re the first person to take any interest in it. It was always just Harold and me. We had no children and no kin to speak of, and my dear lady friends don’t give two hoots in hell about flying.”
We walked out to the hangar, and it took some time to clear the brush so I could open the doors, but they finally slid back on protesting, dry rollers and there she was. The tires were flat and she was covered in dust and bird droppings, but I knew I’d found a gem.
“Have you ever thought of selling it?” I asked.
“Not really, but then, no one has ever asked. I have no idea what it’s worth.”
I checked the Hobbs hour meter and it read one thousand, two hundred and thirteen. I was stunned. I turned to her in astonishment.
“Did he buy this new?”
“Oh land sakes, yes! Harold never bought anything used. He said it was just buying someone else’s problems.”
I asked her to excuse me and made a couple of calls to aircraft brokers. "Give me the actual Blue Book on it please. I’m not about to cheat this lovely woman.”
When I made my offer, I lowered the price enough to cover the cost of getting it back in flying condition, but it was still a nice sum of money.
It was her turn to be stunned. “There must be some mistake. I’m sure he paid no more than seven thousand for it brand new.” My offer was approaching three times that much.
I explained the inflationary pressures, but she still talked me into far less money. She simply wouldn’t hear of taking that much, so I offered to donate some money to her favorite charity and she took me up on it.
After two months with my A&P mechanic and four thousand additional dollars, the little bird was finally back in the air, and the old girl was one sweet handling little machine.
The slight shudder was back, just a mild hiccup, but this time I noticed a thousand rpm drop on the tachometer. I pulled on some carburetor heat just in case the venturi was icing up. In a few seconds, I was gratified to see the rpm’s rising again, so I eased up on the carb heat.
I looked over the nose and there was nothing but tree covered slopes and sheer cliffs for at least ten more miles. Beyond that was the lower valley and in another thirty miles, the dirt strip of the ranch.
I looked out my window and saw one small clearing, probably no more than four hundred feet across. Other than that, it was solid tall pines for miles. The engine shuddered again and just as I was checking the tach, there were two loud bangs and then dead silence. The prop stopped abruptly, and I realized that the engine had just frozen up.
For a moment, I sat stunned. All sorts of emergency procedures crossed my mind, only to be rejected out of hand. The engine was frozen, confirmed by a quick pull on the starter, resulting in loud clicks from the relay, but no movement on the prop. Then I heard the stall warning horn beep once, and my training kicked in. I silently yelled at myself to do first things first and fly the damned airplane! A controlled landing was usually survivable, sometimes even when landing in trees, but a stall-spin resulting from failing to maintain flying airspeed was almost always fatal.
The clearing! I put the nose down and established best glide airspeed. Then I looked anxiously around for my clearing. (The formerly anonymous clearing was now my clearing!) There! Just behind me on the left.
I rolled into a left turn and quickly decided to just use the corner of the clearing as a point to circle and bleed off what little excess altitude I had. From there, I would execute a quick crosswind leg and then turn upwind at what appeared to be the clearing’s widest spot. I flipped off the master switch to prevent fire. No wait! I’ll need flaps! I flipped it back on.
Altitude was traded for airspeed, but with the strong headwind, one turn was all I got. However, that same pesky crosswind might now end up saving my life. If I lined up straight into it on final, it would reduce my ground speed drastically. I put on forty degrees of flaps and flipped off the master switch. Other than the quiet slipstream and my pounding heart, the world fell silent.
I rolled to the right out of my descent circle and flew straight and descending at right angles to the clearing. Just as I was about to sink into the treetops, I rolled right again and pushed the nose down at the narrow clearing, hoping the tail would not make contact with a pine. It didn’t.
Now that I was right on top of it, the clearing wasn’t so clear. I could see knee high rocks, earthen humps, and pine seedlings everywhere. The far side was approaching fast so I lifted the nose to slow her down and went for a full stall landing, hoping to stop before the tree line The airspeed bled off quickly, the main wheels made contact with the ground, and just for a second, I thought we might make it intact.
Then, with a terrific jolt, something took out the main landing gear, and we almost went over on the nose. Then the nose gear folded, and we were sliding on the belly with a large pine appearing dead ahead. I kicked hard left rudder and the nose obediently came around. The right wing slammed into the tree violently, and we started to slew to the right. Then the left wing hit another pine, taking us up on the nose and over, finally coming to an abrupt halt against yet another pine. Then all was still except the ticking of the cooling engine and the sound of fluid dripping somewhere.
I was down…and I was alive.
I was also hanging upside down in a wrecked airplane and there was a strong smell of aviation fuel. I put one hand below me, hooked my knees around the control yoke, and yanked on the seat belt clasp. It wouldn’t release with my suspended weight, so I dug in my pocket for my knife and cut it, dropping myself on what was once the roof of my airplane.
There was no problem getting out because the passenger door was gone. I crawled through it, gained my feet, and turned around. For a long time, I just stood there in disbelief. Both wings were gone as was the tail. The belly was badly ripped up from both losing the landing gear and sliding over rocks. The right wing was standing almost on end and as I watched, the last of the fuel poured through a large opening torn through the wing root. The left wing was almost buried under some bushes and fuel was also slowly ebbing from it.
I began to check myself over. Other than a minor cut on my forehead, I could find no obvious injuries. I knew I’d be stiff and sore later, but I was worried about immediate problems and finding nothing of concern, I bent down and reached back into the cabin, groping for my emergency pack. I found it almost immediately and pulled it out.
My father was a high steel ironworker, and they stayed alive by planning ahead and paying attention to detail, which he carried over into the rest of his life and passed on to me. He and my mother were rock hounds who loved to poke around the Arizona desert, but they never, ever left home without their emergency pack of water, maps, compass, and shelter.
My own pack contained a small tent, a sub-zero sleeping bag, three gallons of water, matches, a compass, and food to last a week. It also contained a .22 survival rifle and ammunition among various other essential items. All were intact.
I also had an ELT (emergency locator transmitter) in the baggage area, and it should have been activated by the impact, but I had little faith in it. Call me dubious, but I had heard the expensive little FAA requirements failed more than they worked, especially if the batteries were dead, and mine were long overdue for replacement.
The problem was, all this had happened so fast that I didn’t have time to make a radio call, so no one knew I was in trouble. Since it was such a short hop, I hadn’t bothered filing a flight plan. My friend at the ranch knew I was coming, but not exactly when, and I wasn’t expected back at work for another week. My cell phone showed no bars-no service. I had to depend on my ELT and its overdue batteries. Somewhere, my father was shaking his head in disgust.
I crawled back into the cockpit and hit the master switch. Silence. No gyros winding up. Nothing. The radio was also dead. But it was worth a try. The battery was probably destroyed.
I set up my tent in the middle of the clearing. It was blaze orange with the letters SOS on the top in white. At least I had thought that far ahead.
I broke out my tiny backpack stove and cleared a cooking area in the tall, dry grass. I might build a signal fire later, but that would be a last resort. The area was dry in the ongoing drought, and a stray spark or ember could spell disaster. I was extremely lucky that the crash itself had not started a blaze.
The current wisdom and that of my father was to stay put. Searchers often found the location of a disaster within days, but far too often, the victims were gone, trying to walk out. And far too often, they didn’t make it.
Twice in the next three days, aircraft flew over, but they were too high and fast to be searching. My food and water were adequate, but I knew that if I was forced to walk out, I would have to make the attempt in one or two more days. I decided that in the morning, I would attempt to drag as much of my shattered aircraft into the clearing as I could manage. As it was, it was very effectively hidden by the canopy of pine branches. That night, I said a little prayer, and zipped myself into my sleeping bag. The night air at eight thousand feet is chilly, even in late spring.
For a moment, I wasn’t sure whether I’d heard a voice or was still asleep.
My tent was small, but the little girl standing in the opening was even smaller. She was staring at me with large brown eyes, and I guess I was staring right back.
“Missy! Come away from there!”
The voice was male and I was now wide awake. I unzipped my bag and crawled out of the tent, scrambling to my feet, just as he swept the little girl into his arms. As he did so, I spotted a gun under his jacket.
We stared at each other. Finally, he spoke.
“Who are you, and how did you get here?”
“My plane crashed.” He looked at me suspiciously. I must have been a sight with three days growth of beard and badly wrinkled clothes worn the same length of time. And I was glad he was upwind. I badly needed a bath
“Then where is it?”
“The Plane? Right over your left shoulder.”
Warily, not wanting to take his eyes off me, he glanced quickly behind him. He got a funny look on his face, and turned to take a longer look. For a moment he seemed to forget my presence as he stared at the wreckage. Finally, he looked back at me.
“No, just a little sore.”
“How long you been here?”
“I’m Pete Lawson. I’m a deputy sheriff. Off duty. How come this wasn’t reported?”
Embarrassed, I explained all my mistakes, and he ruefully shook his head at my stupidity. Behind him, I could see a woman and what looked like a teenage girl approaching. He turned and waited for them, explaining the situation and they too turned to stare at the wreckage.
“So you’ve been right here for the last three days?”
“That’s right. It’s best not to wander away from the wreckage if you want to be spotted.”
He exchanged a quick glance with the woman who I presumed to be his wife, and then they both turned to stared at me.
“What are you folks doing up here?” I asked.
“Oh, we just came up for the weekend. You never looked around at all?”
“No, I stayed put. Why?”
“Because our cabin is right over that knoll, maybe fifty yards away. Would you like to go take a shower?”
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