Published Stories

Unpublished Stories

Other Resources

Contact Us

1350 words
Rob F. Sanderson
134 W. 70th St.
N.W. 23 N.Y.

I Learned About Flying From That!
Rob F. Sanderson

           It is a prevalent belief that only amateur flyers make serious errors after which they become true believers and live (if they do) happily and fly conservatively ever after. My own closest escape came after flying across forty countries and five continents for two international airlines and the Air transport Command.

           One beautiful summer day toward the end of World War II, Bud, a pilot of experience at least equal to my own and I were returning from a trip to the beach, which had ended prematurely as the sun disappeared behind increasing haze. Both of us were in the mood to do something active the rest of the day, and when we passed a small airport along the road both of us felt the strong urge to fly a light plane again. Fifteen minutes later we were in the air. Since we planned only a short local joyride in the vicinity of the airport, we had no maps with us.

           After a few minutes of banks and turns, these became monotonous and Bud suggested a short cross-country to a neighboring airport. Leveling off, we pointed the nose towards the horizon, which wasn’t too far distant since the sticky, humid air had been steadily growing more hazy since morning.

           A short distance after take-off we encountered scattered showers. Less than an hour out, with the haze thickening and the showers becoming more frequent, we made a one-eighty and headed back. The second hour passed, crossing the monotonous landscape of brush and trees with an occasional farm, and no identifiable check points had appeared, and barely a hint as to the whereabouts of our take-off airport.

           The terrain seemed to be rising under us, and flying down to check it with the altimeter we discovered that, instead of 600 feet, it was 1600 feet above sea level. As no terrain this high was known by us to be in the area we thought ourselves to be in, for the first time in years we had to admit we were lost. Making a turn toward lower terrain I flew for half an hour, with one eye on the falling gas gauge, selected a small grain field near a farmer’s house and landed. The field was small but big enough to get in and out O.K. if you said “Oops!” as you crossed the fence.

           The farmer explained our position by drawing a crude map in the sand with a stick. Apparently we were about a hundred miles from where we thought we were, and more than that from our starting point. Refueling with car gas, we took off again with visibility which seemed improved but which, once in the air, was as bad as ever.

           About this time I began to suspect serious compass error. We took off in the opposite direction from landing, and I had noted the compass course was not a 180-degree reciprocal. Although the compass in the air seemed to hold a reading steadily, by making a 360 degree turn and heading toward the same landmark again we discovered the reading might vary as much as 90 degrees. It was insidious, hidden, floating error, never the same twice. Possibly it had become demagnetized. We covered the compass with a handkerchief and flew “ranges” from then on, bumbling along until the gas gauge read half empty. Rather than get further lost, and since our previous landing had worked out so well, we decided to land again and inquire.

           The fields in the area were small and hilly, and only after dragging three or four fields were we able to select one, which although having questionable approaches, looked long enough to make up for it and was unquestionably level. Pulling up the nose for a power stall, I set the ship in short. A boy from a nearby house came running across the field barefooted, and, once he had recovered from the shock of having an honest-to-goodness airplane land on his father’s farm, told us the name and direction of the closest town. About as far from home as ever, we were near where we thought we were when we landed the first time. Also, we had the good fortune to acquire grease stained roadmap from behind the seat of the farm pickup truck.

           Now late afternoon, hardly a breath of breeze stirred the air. The field looked smaller than from the air, the approache worse. As a further complication, the field was covered with long grass, which might seriously hinder take-off. A flip of a coin nominated me to make the getaway.

           In a far corner of the field I opened the throttle and ruddered the nose toward the lowest saplings (some of which were over fifteen feet tall) of the overgrown fence row on the far side of the field. The heavy car gas just wasn’t giving the little motor normal horsepower and the tall grass held the wheels back. Halfway down the field I could see we weren’t going to get off in time. Cutting the throttle, I applied the loose brakes, stopped just short of the fence, and taxied back another try.

           Waiting over five minutes for a slight gust of breeze for my second run, I poured on the coal and held my breath. This time the ship felt lighter, the controls firmer. Halfway down the field things looked good enough to keep rolling. But almost up to take-off speed we couldn’t get above it. The poor gas and the long grass wrapping over the tires held us back.

           It was too late to stop now. The realization came over me with a cold flash and my stomach turned to a heavy stone. The poor brakes would never stop us. There was a chance we could get off. The only thing to do now was to take that chance

           At the very last second before hitting the fencerow I snapped the wheel the rest of the way back. I later learned that Bud had done the same thing at the same instant, but I never knew until he told me

           The ship lurched into the air but instead of clearing the trees it mused squarely through the tops. The propeller churned through the branches throwing clipped foliage around like confetti. Sixty feet into the air we catapulted before the secondary sickening mush began. As the stick was practically all the way back now and we were sinking, the only recourse was to slowly ease it forward with the hope we could gain enough speed to stay up before we stalled into the cornfield below us. I am firmly convinced that what held the little ship in the air was the pressure of my hand on the throttle. Lower and lower we stalled until the wheels were almost clipping the tops of the low corn.

           “Will she fly?” Bud shouted. “If not, dump her here - there’s a woods ahead and we’ll hit the trees!”

           “I think she’ll make it!” I yelled back. By now I had decided that the ship and the prop, about which I was most worried, had not been severely damaged and that we could stay up. The engine was not rough, the RPM was almost normal and I felt that the prop had somehow come through all those branches and vines miraculously unscathed.

           Stay up we did, with full throttle all the way home and an indicated airspeed that never got above sixty --- so many vines, and severed branches, and loose foliage clung to the little ship that the added drag constantly threatened to slow us below flying speed. After one experiment to reduce the throttle I left it full in. With all that camouflage we must have looked like a flying duck blind. Arriving at the airport at dusk Bud landed with a sigh of relief and we checked the ship. Somewhat biffed up but airworthy, with juicy green stains along the front of all the struts and the leading edge of the wings, the little ship had somehow ploughed through. We were two lucky Dilberts and we knew it.

           From that day on no one has ever been able to get Bud or myself into a ship without a detailed airman’s map of the area and a compass we have personally checked. And we refuse to be lulled by even the best local weather!

© 2003 Chronicles of Bob