On a clear October night in 1968, I took off from Westchester County Airport (HPN) at 7 p.m. in a Mooney Statesman with two non-pilot hunting buddies. The destination was Quebec City in Canada.
I passed my private pilot check ride in July 1968, and this was my second long cross-country flight and my first night cross-country. My reason for learning to fly was to save time traveling on weekend trips from New York City to Vermont during the hunting and skiing seasons. Leaving work at 5 p.m. on a Friday, it took six to seven hours of non-stop driving to make the trip from Manhattan to northern Vermont by car. Alternatively, I could drive to HPN and be airborne in the flying club Mooney in 90 minutes, then fly to northern Vermont in another 90 minutes at 150 mph. At least that’s what I believed, until I tested flying at night in unpredictable weather over New England’s mountainous terrain without an instrument rating.
When the opportunity to spend a weekend hunting snow geese on an exclusive private island in Canada presented itself, I figured my flying experience (53 pre-private pilot check ride hours, plus 27 hours logged in my flying club Mooney) would be enough to make the flight. Flying north at 150 mph for three hours at night in VFR conditions, I could land to clear customs in Quebec City at about 10 p.m. with at least one hour of fuel remaining. What a clever way to cut seven hours off the driving alternative! It was the reason I learned to fly.
We would remain overnight in Quebec City and early Saturday morning fly east for about 20 minutes along the St. Lawrence river to a 1,500-foot gravel airstrip situated right on the southern bank of the river in the town of Montmagny. My brother and a friend with connections to the owner of an island in the middle of the St. Lawrence Seaway would meet us at the strip. They had arranged for the airport owner to ferry all five of us, one at a time, from the airstrip to this snow-goose-hunting island paradise in his Super Cub. There was a 600-foot turf strip on the island.
The first hour of the flight was just how I imagined it. After getting a good weather forecast (clear with light winds from the west), we climbed to 7,500 feet and headed north. After about the first hour, a lot of the lights on the ground started to disappear, which I thought was probably a result of flying over the increasingly rural Vermont terrain. Pretty soon, all the lights disappeared and I realized that we had flown over a cloud layer. Since it was not forecast, I assumed it was just something local. We still had the moon, the stars and strong VOR navigation signals (no GPS in 1968), and snow goose fever was urging us on. In 20 minutes, we flew right into solid IFR conditions.
Looking back, of course, I should have made a 180 and descended from 7,500 to 4,500 feet (well above the terrain). Instead, I decided to pull on the carb heat and climb above the clouds. At 12,000 feet, we were still in solid clouds and picking up rime ice as the temp dropped below freezing. My instrument training consisted of what little one gets in order to pass a private pilot check ride, but fortunately each Mooney built back then was delivered with a lifesaving (always-on) positive control feature. This single-axis autopilot keeps the wings level and could only be turned off by pressing and holding down a button on the yoke.
Not wanting to fly above 12,000 at night without oxygen, I called Montpelier flight service and asked for their weather and altimeter setting and the enroute weather to Quebec City. Montpelier airport (MPV) was reporting 6,000 overcast, light winds with rain and solid IFR to the Canadian border between 6,000 and 12,000 feet.
Since I was not IFR qualified, I advised that I was going to terminate my VFR flight plan to Quebec City and land at MPV (elevation 1,166 feet). I never did contact air traffic control to let them know I was an unidentified radar target flying around in the clouds or ask for help.
I was about 40 miles south of the airport at 12,000 tracking TO Montpelier VOR bearing 050 and decided to descend to 5,500 feet (Mt. Mansfield, Vermont’s highest peak, being 4,393 feet). If I did not break out into VFR conditions over the VOR (located 5 nm south of the field), my plan was to declare an emergency and request vectors to Burlington, Vermont, on the east shore of Lake Champlain (elevation 135 feet). I figured Burlington International (BTV) would be clear, and it had an ILS approach.
Luckily for all three of us on board that night, I was able to control our heading with light rudder pressure and airspeed by using small trim and power adjustments to set up a 500-feet-per-minute descent, although for one scary moment I looked at the airspeed and it was accelerating past 180 mph. The Mooney’s positive control kept the wings level, and we broke out of the clouds at 6,000 feet looking at the beautiful lights of Montpelier. The rain had washed away the rime ice on the wings, and when I called the MPV flight service to advise that I had the airport beacon in sight, he turned the runway lights on full-bright and advised “the surrounding ridges are obscured and there might be deer on the runway—no reported traffic.”
Too high for a straight-in approach, I dropped the gear, added a notch of flaps and made a big circle over the city lights, continuing to lose 500 feet per minute and maneuvering into position for a straight-in landing on runway 34. I needed all of its 5,000 feet as I made a cautious, high approach, and the surface was wet. Luckily, we didn't see any runway deer. We taxied to the gas pump, where we refueled and called a cab for the overnight stay.
The next morning was clear, and we filed VFR to Montmagny via a stop in Sherbrooke to clear customs.
On the flight to Sherbrooke, we flew along the green mountain ridges and noticed that above 2,000 feet they were covered in snow, but below the brilliant fall colors were gleaming in the sun.
Clearing customs was quick and easy back in those pre-9/11 days, even with three 12-gauge shotguns and lots of ammo on board. No passports needed—just airplane documents and driver’s license. After topping the tanks, we took off for Montmagny, arriving as originally planned at 10 a.m. Making a long, low approach over the farmland to make sure I was slow enough to stop on the 1,500-foot gravel strip, I was cut off by the owner’s Super Cub returning from the snow goose island where he had just dropped off our cook and guide. He never saw me, and I was slow enough to let him land and taxi off the runway before I touched down. My brother and his friend were already there, and after unloading and tying down the Mooney, we began the one-by-one Super Cub shuttle to the island’s 600-foot turf strip. We spent that evening and the next morning chasing the snow goose, and by Sunday afternoon we were ready for the Super Cub shuttle back to Montmagny.
With just 77 hours of total VFR flight time, I should never have attempted to make a night flight over the mountains of Vermont. It was easy to be mesmerized by the thrilling speed and wonder of flying to an exciting destination in one-third the driving time. Had we been flying an aircraft without a wing leveler, I might not be telling this story.
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