The Dumbest Flight I Ever Made

My mother was diagnosed with ovarian cancer when she was in her early forties. Back then, the treatment was a hysterectomy and removal of the tumor followed by radiation. Chemotherapy as we know it today, didn’t exist.

From that date on, every year, after my father retired from the Air Force, she went to Walter Reed for a check-up. From Northport, Long Island, NY where they were living, it was 4 – 6-hour drive, depending on the traffic.

My wife and I were living in Lock Haven, PA where I was working for Piper Aircraft Corporation. Getting to DC from Lock Haven, PA was a trek. For those who don’t know, Lock Haven is in the mountains of North Central Pennsylvania. D.C. is four-hour drive away. My wife Betty was pregnant and while she could have flown with me, we didn’t think it was appropriate to bring our three-year-old daughter.

I checked out a Piper Turbo Arrow to fly down to Bethesda and took off early on Saturday morning. My day would meet me at College Park Airport and later in the day, I’d fly the hour and a half back to Lock Haven.

My dad was grim when I met him and learned on the way to Walter Reed that that my mother’s uterine cancer had returned. In the 1970s, if it returned after five years, it was a death sentence for my then 51-year-old mother. The only question was how long did she have?

I don’t remember much about that day other than the bad news but I do remember thinking that I, Naval Aviator extraordinaire, could make the flight back to Lock Haven. Looking back I realize now that I was an emotional mess when I climbed into the Turbo Arrow. If it had been VFR, it wouldn’t have been so bad, but it was IFR. Williamsport, the nearest airport with an ILS was down to 1000 feet overcast with a mile visibility.

Lock Haven, where Piper’s headquarters was located, didn’t have an instrument approach. To get there, we would fly the ILS at Williamsport. Then, if one was below the clouds, one could scud run the 20 miles or so down Susquehanna River valley to Lock Haven. Never mind there were 2,500-foot mountains on either side of the valley and once you started down, turning around in the narrow valley was very, very dangerous. The sides of the mountains were littered with wrecks of planes whose pilots thought they could reverse course.

This is/was a classic case of “get home its.” My father, an Air Force Command Pilot, and I should have known better. But, neither of us were in a good emotional state. And, like most Naval Aviators, I thought I was the ace of the base and there wasn’t anything I couldn’t handle.

The climb out of College Park Airport was a piece of cake. I broke out of the clouds at about 5,000 feet and was cruising at 9,000 on the way to Williamsport. Passing Harrisburg, I was back in the clouds and flying on instruments. Because of the mountains in north central Pennsylvania, there is no radar coverage below about 5,000 feet.

After being cleared to descend at pilot’s discretion to intercept the localizer for the ILS at Williamsport, my mind was elsewhere. I couldn’t concentrate on what I was doing. What made it worse was that one of the navigation radios and the DME (distance measuring equipment) crapped out on the descent at around 6,000 and I was lost.

The airplane had two VOR receivers and by receiving two different stations, one could accurately fix one’s position. With one, it is harder because you must switch back and forth.

I leveled off at 4,000 feet and tried to get a fix on my position. What made matters worse, the primary flight instruments – the attitude and directional gyros were acting erratically. The vacuum pressure gauge was fluctuating wildly which told me that either the pump was dying or the filter was partially plugged. Either way, I was now partial panel.

Common sense would have said, climb, declare and emergency and go someplace else where it is flat and they can give you vectors to land.  Oh, no, I had to get back to Lock Haven.

In most cases, if I had been mentally in the right place, I probably would have made better decisions and wouldn’t have gotten flustered in the cockpit, but that day, I wasn’t.

After stooging around for a few minutes, I called the approach controller to tell him that I was partial panel, i.e. didn’t have all my flight instruments and asked for vectors to intercept the ILS localizer. In other words, without saying so, I was declaring an emergency.

The controller asked me to climb to 5,000 feet so he could pick me up on radar before he gave vectors to the extended localizer. Once I was tracking the localizer, I lowered the gear and flaps descended as per the localizer instrument approach “plate” and popped out of the clouds at roughly nine hundred feet.

While others at Piper thought nothing of flying down the valley with the cloud bottoms at three or four hundred feet, my minimum ceiling was a thousand. Yet, again, another back decision, rationalizing that 900 was close to 1,000 feet. So, I told the tower that rather than landing at Williamsport, I was going to land at Lock Haven.

With gear and flaps up, I kept the power back so I was only flying at 100 knots and headed down the valley at a hundred knots. Experience driving back and forth to Williamsport and flying in and out of the valley, I knew where power lines were strung across the river and where the towers that held them were. Both were below 200 feet.

Heading down the valley, the rain increased and further reduced visibility to less than half a mile. It is only 27 miles but the ceiling kept getting lower and lower. I U.S. Route 220 which ran along the river, staying just below the cloud base until I spotted the road that led up to our house. It was about two miles from the end of the eastern end of Runway 9/27 at William T. Piper Airport in Lock Haven.

A gentle left turn and there was the runway. Power back to idle, gear and flaps down, and on short final, I made the mandatory radio call for uncontrolled airports that I was making a full stop landing on Runway 27.

On the ground, I sat in the Arrow for probably a minute or two letting the engine idle and collecting my thoughts before getting out. I was very lucky and I knew it. My wife Betty was surprised when I walked in because our house, which was about 500 feet above the valley floor was in the clouds all day.

Supposedly, there was a dispatcher on duty from 0600 to 2100. When I parked the Arrow, the door was locked. The next day, when I turned the keys back in, the person on duty left at about two thinking no one in his right mind would be coming in because for most of the day, the valley was fogged in and the visibility was almost zero.

As I look back on this flight, it is gives me pause for several reasons. I should have never taken off from Bethesda. However, I’m not sure how soon I would have gotten over the news. My father and mother went back to Northport on Monday.

That day was the beginning of the nightmare that was the final 18-months of my mother’s life. Chemo and radiation merely postponed the inevitable. Every weekend, I would either drive the six hours or fly to Long Island where my parents lived. Along with my father and brother, I watched her health deteriorate.

There are two footnotes to this story. The summer before my mother died, the first Star Wars movie was released and we promised to take our daughter, now four, to see it. The day before my mother passed away, we watched Star Wars at drive in theater.

That same day, my brother was packing to go back to St. Lawrence University in upstate New York. He knew the end was near and postponed leaving knowing that he would have to come back soon for a funeral. Yet, my mother insisted he go to school, register, and check into his dorm. Once my father told her that he was safely in his dorm at St. Lawrence, she closed her eyes for the last time.


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