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Crammed into the tiny, 18-inch-wide cockpit of a Cassutt lllM, the roar enveloped me, battering my ears mercilessly. Watching the red tachometer needle dance over the dial in front of me, I saw the propeller vanish into the velocity of its own spin. The craft was alive, trembling under me with only the brakes clamping it in place on the concrete pad. The noise hammered my ears.
Throttle up, brakes released, the G-force pressed me hard into the seat back as she ripped down the runway clawing at the air. Her tortured vibration smoothed as the hangars blurred by. The end of the runway rushed toward me. I eased back on the stick, and my craft lifted from the ground. A mixture of excitement and hard ball focus consumed my senses. There was nothing quite like that moment. Climbing at 150 mph, I headed toward the practice area.
After a tense 10-minute initial ride filled with violent pilot-induced maneuvers due to novice over-control convinced me that I never wanted to fly that plane again. Once on the ground, I tried but was unsuccessful in attempting to sell it back to the seller.
That being the case, I became committed to learning to fly it well. I topped off the fuel, took off and headed east to follow I-70 toward St. Louis when the realization hit me—I was halfway across the USA. Departing Kansas City, destination Keene, New Hampshire, in a tiny race plane in which I had barely 15 minutes’ experience with an unshielded radio that brought in mostly the spark plugs.
At every fuel stop, a crowd gathered as soon as the prop stopped. People wanted to know why two control sticks. The longer/taller stick is to control the plane. The short stick operates the home-made flaperons.
Refueled at Dunkirk. Stayed the night in Utica. Awoke to see 3-4 inches of snow on the ground and still lightly falling. The FSS briefer told me, “This all clears up by the time you get to Schenectady.” To say the briefer gave bad info would be an understatement. Reaching Schenectady, through the thickening and continuing snowfall, then mixed with rain, I looked for Route 7 that would take me to Bennington, Vermont.
Not that I was really tense or anything like that, but how else could I explain that my grip on the stick had become so tight, I thought I might leave finger prints on it? Soon I arrived over a town that I felt compelled to identify before going further. Circling the town for several minutes did not provide the answer. Tried to make it out to be Hoosick Falls, New York, but the layout did not look like the chart layout of Hoosick Falls. This town was in a valley with two eastbound roads leading out of it. The tops of all three small mountains that surrounded the town were obscured by low-hanging clouds.
Not knowing where each road led to was a problem. Choosing poorly could lead to another mountain with obscured tops where there might not be room enough to turn around and escape. Choosing which road to follow to get to Bennington became seemingly impossible.
Soon, a frightening discovery presented itself and captured my full concentration. Suddenly, it was like someone poured glue on my brain. The windshield was covered with ice. I stared unbelieving at the windshield at first, refusing to accept what I saw.
The fist in my gut gripped harder with this discovery. The rain had turned to freezing rain. Freezing rain produces clear ice that collects rapidly. The rain arrives as a super-cooled water droplet and immediately changes to ice when it hits and spreads. As the droplets hit, spread and freeze, it changes the leading edge shape of all airfoils (wings, tail and propellers), resulting in reduced lift, reduced thrust and added weight, a deadly combination for any pilot, especially one of my experience level flying this plane.
Looking out the side windows produced yet another tension-building factor. Both fuel vents AND the non-heated Pitot tube were closing up with collected ice.
Heart in mouth, I realized I was in this tiny cockpit with no parachute and few options. Fraught with having to make a really difficult choice, grudgingly and with real mental pain, I made the decision to purposely crash-land this beautiful plane in some field of the town below, hoping that someone will see or perhaps hear the crash and come rescue this forlorn pilot. This seems like a better choice than crashing on a mountainside somewhere up an unknown valley and possibly not being found for months. Post-crash images started to circulate in my head. When you think you’re gonna die, your brain capacity goes to negative numbers. Not pretty. Stomach in knots. Shoulders ached, mouth was dry. Hands sweaty, even in this cold, winter temperature.
Remembering the sage advice world-famous test pilot Bob Hoover gave at a safety seminar—“Fly the plane as far into the crash as possible”—I tried to steel myself for the forthcoming event.
Now focused on a circling descent, windshield covered with ice, frantically searching out the left side for a place to put the plane down. While descending, reaching a lower altitude, to my surprise the Bennington monument came into view. Halleluiah! I’d been saved. I’d been over Bennington the whole time I was circling, looking for the correct road to follow to get to Bennington. Remembering that the Bennington airport was just west of the monument, I felt relief flood over me as I descended into the landing pattern and put that baby down on the wet, lightly snow-covered runway.
The second I touched down, another surprise. There was black ice under the snow. No braking action available. The rudder was my only directional control, and that was useful only as long as I still had speed enough for it to be effective. Good grief, what else could come my way that day?
The end of the runway came at me with frightening speed. With approximately ¾ of the runway behind me, I had some effective braking. Seemed that the black ice did not go the full length of the runway. I was able to stop before running off the end. I sat there, engine idling, knees knocking for a short pause while I thanked God that I was safely on the ground, then taxied to the FBO.
The “Bambi on ice” syndrome continued, so extracting myself from the cockpit took a little time. Once in the FBO, I rented hangar space for the night, rented a car, and drove the rest of the way home.
Experience is a great teacher, and this flight was exceptionally so. It was full of memorable lessons. I wish I’d taken more care learning about the plane’s idiosyncrasies and differences before launching on a long cross-country flight. A more thorough cockpit tour, maintenance records and a longer familiarization flight would top the list. As it was, I was ill-prepared for the challenges of this flight, and I’m lucky that I got the chance to fly another day. The plane? Once we got to know each other, I had an absolute ball flying this speedy, sporty single-seater for a couple of years and more than a couple of memories.