The Road to Ruin

If we had collided in mid-air, investigators would have been searching for more bodies


It was that time of year when spring was trying to become summer and I had an opportunity to fly a volunteer blood run with my clubs Cessna 172. I set out for the 300-mile round trip with my friend, also a pilot. Both of us are 400-hour VFR pilots.

Conditions at the time of departure were 3,500 feet broken, which was forecast to hold throughout our trip.

Forty miles from our destination airport the holes in the broken layer had closed and the ceiling was beginning to lower. We were to enter a military control area in the next 20 miles and were just barely able to maintain the minimum altitude we needed to transit the area.

Fortunately, the military control tower accommodated us through its control area at 600 feet below minimums after we identified ourselves as a volunteer blood run.

We landed uneventfully at our destination airport around 1:30 p.m., refueled, picked up our blood supply and departed about a half hour later. With the ceiling continuing to lower, the military again cooperated with us.

The ceiling had dropped to 2,500 feet msl (1,500 agl) but he allowed us to fly right over the center of the military airport at 500 feet agl and pass though their airspace without a hitch.

Unfortunately, the ceiling continued to fall. The terrain just outside our left window was hilly on a direct line back to our home airport. We also began to encounter misty rain showers 75 miles out and the direct route looked very unfavorable.

Our home airport was still reporting 3,500 broken, but the weather between us was not cooperating. Rather than proceeding directly ahead, I made the decision to vector off to our right where the terrain was lower.

This also gave us an option to head to an alternate airport in a small town about 50 miles from our home. We would also intersect a major highway that would lead us home. I asked my friend to take the controls while I reviewed the navigation map. By this time we were 1,500 feet msl (900 feet agl) with rain and less than 1 mile visibility.

We intersected the highway and began to fly IFR (I Follow Roads). As I was still looking at the map, I was thrown against my door. Thinking my associate had lost control of our aircraft as we abruptly banked to the left, I was about to grab the yoke when he yelled, No, I have it and soon we were straight and level again.

I asked him what happened and he said we narrowly missed another plane heading in the opposite direction going IFR as well. The other pilot gave no indication he ever saw us, but fortunately my friend saw him in time to take evasive action.

Soon after this near miss, I located the alternate airport only a mile off to our left. We were 500 feet agl by then and visibility had continued to deteriorate. The weather had changed much faster than was forecast, while just a short distance away at our home airport it was still about the same as we had left it.

My friends mother lived near the alternate airport. We landed there and called her and she graciously accepted the last leg of this journey. She drove us along with our blood supply to the blood bank, where we dropped it off and completed the mission.

My decision to fly over the lower terrain and follow the highway turned out to be the right decision. We learned all too well, however, that following the highway might be the very same decision other VFR pilots will make in these conditions.

This experience taught us to never let your guard down and that marginal VFR conditions can become IMC much faster than you might think. It also taught us to always plan for an alternate airport when you fly because a quick weather change can be as hazardous as an engine failure.

Another important piece of equipment, landing lights, which we did not have on, is something I now use in crowded airspace or while circling an area for observation.

It is really important to do anything that helps you to be more easily seen.

Fortunately, my friend was an alert pilot who reacted quickly enough to avoid a mid-air disaster. As it turns out, he also became my safety pilot with the dramatic change in weather we encountered. If we had collided in mid-air, investigators would have been searching for more bodies since we had enough blood on board for five or six extra people.

We are happy that our flight provided us with a valuable learning experience and that it did not end in a bloody catastrophe.


.7 the Hard Way
Ive been a pilot for 12 years and have logged 287 hours of night flying. Recently I offered to take a friend and his 9-year-old son on a night flight around the Northeast the next Saturday night, and they accepted.

We arrived at Caldwell airport in Essex County, N.J., at about 6 p.m. and checked out one of the flying clubs Cessna 172s. I preflighted the aircraft and topped off both of the tanks. Our plan was to go to Danbury, Conn., for dinner, then fly down the Hudson River and back over the Statue of Liberty and the George Washington Bridge on our return to Caldwell. The sky was clear with almost unlimited visibility, nearly perfect conditions.

My friend was like a kid in a candy store and couldnt believe what he was seeing. So was his son, even though he had a slightly more restricted view from the rear seat. Along the way I pointed out the Tappan Zee Bridge and the Westchester County Airport, telling my companions to be sure to look for them lit up on the return.

We landed in Danbury after about 40 minutes of routine flying. We finished dinner about 8 p.m. and departed shortly thereafter. Flying VFR at 2,500 feet to honor the local ATC, I called attention to Westchester Airport off my left wing, the Tappan Zee bridge about five miles ahead, and the George Washington bridge about 20 miles out at 10 oclock.

Suddenly the engine skipped a beat and so did my heart. I checked all the gauges and everything showed normal, but a few seconds later I heard a loud backfire and the engine began to vibrate as though it was running on two cylinders. I decided not to touch the throttle for fear that the engine might quit. I began troubleshooting the problem but nothing I did led to any improvement.

My first thought was to land on the Tappan Zee Bridge because I couldnt be sure how long the engine would continue running. My second thought was doing a 180 and trying for Westchester County Airport. I made the decision to go for the airport.

Turning toward the airport I dialed in their frequency, 119.7, and called Pan Pan Pan. This is Cessna 12345. I have an engine problem. I received an answer in my headset what is your altitude to which I responded 2,300 feet. What is your distance from the airport came the next query. About five miles west I answered. His next response came as a surprise to me. We dont see you, squawk and ident 7700, which I did.

I then remembered something my instructor had told me 12 years prior. If you ever have a problem in a plane, fly the plane first. With that very thought in mind I decided to concentrate flying the plane.

I spotted the beacon at Westchester at the 1 oclock position. The tower was asking the air traffic in his pattern if anyone could see me, to which they all responded to the negative. Now about three miles out and turning final, I blinked my landing lights to get the towers attention and received a green light from the cab.

I knew that there were several small lakes on this approach and decided to maintain as much altitude as possible. Instead of going for the numbers, I aimed for the middle of the long runway to buy myself some insurance. When I knew I had the field made I pulled back on the throttle and applied full flaps.

The actual landing was uneventful and as I cleared the active runway I called the tower. I parked at the base of the tower and shut it down. Then a car with flashing lights pulled up and a gentleman got out and asked if I was in touch with the tower.

I said yes and showed him that on my clipboard I had recorded the tower frequency of 119.7. That was when he informed me that I had been speaking to JFK airport, I looked at my radio and saw that I had dialed in 119.1 instead of 119.7.

Due to the mechanical condition of the plane we rented a car and returned to New Jersey. A few days later I received a call from the FAA at Republic airport in New York asking for my statement so that the file could be closed.

At this point the club says there is no compression in two cylinders, and that either a broken cam, or two blown pistons were responsible for the engine failure.

Incidentally, several weeks later I got my friend and his son up again and they were able to enjoy the Statue of Liberty and the New York skyline as they had been promised.


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