I didnt become a pilot until 1987; the man who gave me my check ride then was in the left seat 15 years earlier, in 1972, when the story Im about to tell occurred.
We were in his Cessna 210. His wife and two kids were aboard, and a college friend tagged along on the trip from Gunnison, Colo., to San Jose, Calif. They were off to a wedding, he was to meet a girlfriend and I was going to Eugene by airline.
Gunnison was IFR, so we circled to 16,000 feet to get clear. Off to the west, we hit more overcast and followed railroad tracks to Price, Utah, to wait out the weather.
Once off the ground again, I recall breaking through a partial overcast with a mountain top just outside the window at about 9000 feet. I was pretty fascinated with all of this, but was beginning to wonder if flying was always this exciting.
On the return, we took off two hours late. The departure took us close to Mt. Whitney, and then to the Grand Canyon. We flew the canyon at rim height with a sunset behind us. I dont think this is allowed today, but it was spectacular.
Then, all the colors turned violet as the sun set, somewhere near Bluff or Hovenweep National Monument. The ground was totally dark; we were essentially back in IFR.
The pilot announced that due to the late start we had no chance of flying to Gunniston because it had no runway lights in 1972. That, and because a flight across the 14,000-foot San Juan Mountains was not advisable in the pitch dark.
So we headed toward Farmington, N.M., to spend the night. There still was nothing visible below, just blackness.
Soon, the pilot called the Farmington airport. I can still hear the response: Turn on your landing lights and flash them. Okay, I have you. Fly heading 072, and descend to 6500.
We began to descend; our landing lights remained on. I was staring out the right side of the plane looking for any kind of ranch, road, or city lights that would indicate our presence near the airport. But there was nothing.
Whether it was a hunch, or some other reason, I dont know, but I unbuckled the seat belt and positioned my six-foot body to fit my face against the windshield to gaze out over the cowling. What I saw next was the end of my life … what looked like sagebrush was running back toward us in the glare of our lights.
I yelled, THERES SAGEBRUSH DOWN THERE! The pilot pulled a few Gs in pitch and we climbed out of there with full power. I would guess we were about 50 feet off the deck when I stood up and peered below.
Soon, we found the real airport, with its most-comforting lights all about. The controller in the tower apologized to us, saying he gave the turn-and-descend instructions to us in error, having mistaken another plane for ours.
In hindsight, we must have been 75 miles out from the airport when that exchange took place, because completing the flight to the airport took us another 25 minutes.
Obviously, more than 30 years later, I remember this experience. In fact, much of whatever wisdom I have picked up as a certificated pilot came from re-running this entire flight during my own student training later on.
A major thing I took from this was to be prudent in my flight planning, and I quickly decided that night flying was too risky for me. I do not expect to get that lucky again.