The Old Aviator
by Howard Eskildsen
Allen was eager to return home after several days away in Colorado Springs. He had left in the early afternoon in his Piper Clipper with plenty of time to fly up the Front Range of the Rockies, nearly to Laramie, and then head west to his destination in Rock Springs, Wyoming. The flight started out clear, but lowering clouds appeared as he approached Greeley and prevented visual flight onward to Laramie. The mountain ridges were cloaked in clouds save for a single canyon rising and narrowing towards a glowing hole in the clouds. Might he be able to squeeze through the gap before the clouds lowered? Weather reports were totally clear on the other side. If only…
He turned towards the canyon, no harm in taking a look. He proceeded into the canyon towards the gap, skirting just below the clouds. The overcast darkened and seemed to be lowering, but a golden glow still beckoned him onward. But wait, what is on the other side of the glow, safe passage, or a death trap of rising terrain that he could not turn away from or out climb? With resignation, he gently banked the plane into a 180-degree turn and headed to Greeley. A night there beat risking an eternity on the rocky slopes of some unknown mountain.
As he navigated to the airport, he thought of the Old Aviator who had taught him “the most important maneuver a pilot needs to learn;” the 180-degree turn. Then he thought of the harrowing tale of how the Old Aviator had learned this for himself.
Spring in the late 1930’s Nebraska filled locals with a spirit sporting adventure; state basketball tournaments were about to begin. The Aviator was determined to fly his Arrow Sport, powered by a 60 horsepower LeBlond radial engine, from Lexington to Lincon to get in on the fun. A friend decided to join him in the tight, side-by-side cockpit.
They started off in the early afternoon, following a front that had passed through hours earlier. Clouds layers slowly descended as they motored through the cold spring sky over land recently released from the grips of winter snow. They descended to avoid clouds as the Platte River meandered to the north of their course.
Fog began to obscure the ground past the river and the clouds quickly lowered. Suddenly the Aviator realized that clouds and fog had lured him into a deadly trap. He had continued too long and lacking any instruments that could help him safely turn around, he had but one option. His flight instructor had once commented that if he ever did get into zero visibility conditions, his best chance was to carefully hold his compass heading, reduce the power to slowly descend at minimum safe airspeed, and then wait.
The contrast of the brighter clouds above and the darker fog below for a short time helped him stay oriented as he got used to focusing on the compass for direction and the airspeed indicator for attitude control. He gently throttled back and slowed the biplane to landing speed. Though his inner balance system told him he was in a steep turn, he disregarded the sensations and touched the controls only as guided by the heading on the compass and the airspeed. He glanced at the altimeter periodically be sure that he was not doing down too fast.
Thoughts of basketball and all other concerns vanished as he concentrated on the task before him. He had only one hope for survival and that was to keep the airplane flying under control without any visual references outside the cockpit. But even if he did it perfectly, it was whatever he encountered on the ground would determine the ultimate outcome. Time moved agonizingly slowly as he awaited his fate.
Suddenly a haystack rushed by just feet from his left wingtip. He pulled back the power and the wheels hit the ground. A couple of quick jabs of rudder kept it rolling straight and the tail skid dug in and slowed the airplane to a stop as a barbed wire fence came into view just beyond the whirling propeller.
He and his companion had escaped disaster by skill and a heaping helping of good luck. He knew he would never again let himself get lured into such a deathtrap, and he would often share the story with other pilots as a lesson to help keep them out of trouble.
The rubber tires of the Clipper squealed delightfully as Allen landed in Greely, well out of the weather that had tempted him minutes earlier. He taxied to a tiedown area, pulled the mixture, and the engine laughed itself to sleep. Tomorrow would be clear, and he would have a clean shot all the way to Rock Springs. After securing the plane and getting his backpack, he looked at the plane and the lowering clouds and thought again of the advice of the Old Aviator that had kept him out of trouble. Then Allen heard himself say aloud, “Thanks Dad.”