Plane & Pilot
Friday, October 1, 2004

Serendipitous Encounters

Sometimes, being in the right place at the right time is a spiritual experience

We were in the pattern and just in the process of turning downwind from crosswind when the tower said, “Eight-papa-bravo, you’re number two to a Liberator that will be crossing over the airport to join downwind in front of you. He’ll be doing a low pass.”

I started to say, “Roger,” then I replayed the transmission in my mind: Liberator? What?! I keyed the PTT.

“Tower, did you say Liberator? As in a B-24 Liberator?”

“That’s affirmative.”

I looked across the airport and, sure enough, there it was. I was looking at the long wings, crazy sideways engine nacelles and the blunt-turreted nose of the most-produced U.S. airplane of WWII. As it got closer and turned in front of me, I couldn’t shake the well-known image of a B-24 down between the smoke stacks of the oil refineries at Ploesti, Romania, from my mind. A hellish landscape of fire, smoke and death formed a backdrop for a bunch of kids a long way from home who were just doing their job.

The entire experience of watching the Liberator gracefully arc down to the runway in front of me took less than 90 seconds. Then it was up and away. As I watched it disappear in the distance, I couldn’t help but marvel that I had been suspended in that particular corner of the universe at that exact instant in time and was allowed to share in that tiny bit of history. How many lines of chance had to cross to put me right there at that moment? The odds are incalculable, and the emotion and pleasure were beyond measure.

I found it curious that I had such a profound reaction to such a seemingly mundane, random encounter. It’s not as if I never get the chance to rub up against historic airplanes. For example, in one of my other lives, where I play photographer, I routinely fly in tight formation with history-making aircraft while shooting covers. In fact, I’ve done extensive photo layouts on both of the two surviving Liberators still flying, one of which was just disappearing from sight. So why the big deal?

Although I’ve had the great fortune to actually be paid to stare through a viewfinder at hundreds of unique aircraft ranging from a Boeing P-26 Peashooter to many Mustangs, antiques and classics, every one of those encounters was tightly scripted. There was no serendipity involved. We got the pictures because we controlled the situation and made it happen. Nothing is left to chance, and you’re so busy getting the picture, you often miss the moment.

Stumbling across the Liberator in the pattern was a classic case of being in the right place at the right time and there’s something special about that kind of encounter. It was as if the gods had arranged it especially for me. I’ve had random chance create enough of these kinds of situations that I sometimes feel as if I sleep under a lucky star.

There was, for instance, the time I was blasting down Interstate 80, westbound to Oshkosh, Wis. We were somewhere in Indiana (I think) when my highway hypnotism was broken by a familiar shape on my left. As if by magic, a T-6 had popped up out of the trees not 75 yards from the highway and going the same direction as I was. As I ran a loose formation with the Texan in my trusty, rusty Dodge van, another T-6 popped up out of the trees. Then another. And another.

It’s hard not to grin like an idiot when airplanes like that suddenly cross your path, but in this instance, the term “incredulous” is an understatement. I couldn’t believe it, not only because it happened, but also because all of the pilots who, at that moment, decided to enter my world were friends of mine. It was an aerobatic team from home, and they couldn’t have timed their takeoffs better—I was doing 80 mph, bound for airplane heaven when, at the exact instant I came abeam an unseen runway, the first one lifted into view.

What are the odds of this happening? How about astronomical!

And then, there was the time I was standing on top of the biggest Indian mound in the Cahokia mound complex east of St. Louis. I was just killing time before I drove across town to meet Betty Stewart, who was, at that time, the female aerobatic champ, and her Pitts at a distant airport. I had just climbed to the top when I heard a familiar sound—there’s something about straight pipes on a 180-hp Lycoming and the Doppler effect in the way they move through the sky that says “Pitts Special.” There I was, standing on a religious spot that pre-dates history, and here comes Stewart in her little Pitts. She was buzzing along at mound height plus 500 feet and flew directly over me as if she knew I was there, which, of course, was impossible. Again, we’re talking about odds that are too big to calculate.

I don’t try to explain those kinds of events because they can’t be explained. Some things in life just happen. Maybe they have a reason, maybe they don’t. In either case, the best we can do is put on a dopey grin and savor the moment. God knows those kinds of heart-lifting experiences are few and far between, and we should hold them close and enjoy them while we can.

Budd Davisson is an accomplished aviation writer and photographer, CFII & A, aircraft owner and builder. He has authored two books and lectured at the Smithsonian and NASA’s Langley Research Center. Check out his Website at


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