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Most of us are familiar with that bromide about life in the cockpit: “Hours of sheer boredom, punctuated by moments of sheer horror.” Like many declamations about flying, that’s quite an exaggeration. Most pilots I know, myself included, find even a routine flight to be not at all boring but a very pleasurable experience. The few moments of horror are usually brought on by the sudden appearance in one’s windshield of a close airplane rapidly becoming closer.
I’d like to tell you about some moments of that type that took place shortly after I got my pilot certificate. This was back in the 1950s (yes, I am that ancient). I was living in New Jersey with my wife and baby daughter. While still a student pilot, I had purchased a Cessna 140 from an elderly gentleman whose life I am convinced I saved by taking his plane away from him—but that’s another story.
By the time I got my pilot certificate, I was eager to take a really long trip. My in-laws spent their winters in St. Petersburg, Florida, and it became my wife’s pleasure and my grim duty to join them every too often. This time, I was actually looking forward to the next visit, because now I could fly my own plane there. However, I did not feel sufficiently comfortable with my budding piloting skills to put my wife and baby at risk on this lengthy journey, so I decided to send them by airline and get an experienced pilot to fly with me.
I placed a “Co-Pilot Wanted” classified ad in The New York Times. The very respectable ad-taker insisted that my ad specify that I was a male pilot seeking a male co-pilot. No funny business in the skies, if the good gray Times was going to be involved. This, of course, assumed (correctly, as it happened) that I would not try any funny business with another person of the same gender, which was the general presumption in those innocent days.
Soon I got a response from a young man named Werner—I have forgotten his last name. He had come to the U.S. from Germany and wanted to accumulate flight time in preparation for a career as an airline pilot. Thus far, he had logged 120 hours—not very much, but compared to me, he was a veritable Lindbergh. As my little two-place plane cruised at about 115 miles an hour (we didn’t use knots in those days) and had to stop for gas every four hours, we planned to make our overnight stop in Charleston, South Carolina.
So Werner and I took off early one morning, planning to arrive in Charleston while it was still daylight. Neither one of us had ever flown at night. At least, not until this trip. It has been my experience in life that everything takes longer than it’s supposed to—and incidentally, the older I get, the longer it takes. This can be especially frustrating when—never mind, that’s yet another story.
By the time we were approaching Charleston, it had become quite dark. Actually, black mixed with gray, since there was a low, foggy overcast that blotted out the moon and stars and reduced our forward visibility as well. Werner and I had absolutely no business being up there in those conditions with no previous night-flying experience, but there we were.
The radio in my little plane, a Narco Superhomer, was considered state-of-the-art in the 1950s, but it had a significant drawback. You could use it to communicate or to navigate, but not both at the same time. So when I thought I was close to the Charleston airport, I switched from navigation to communication and called the tower for landing instructions. Tower asked me exactly how far I was from the airport. I told him I’d have to do some computations with my radio to figure that out and would get back to him. “No, stand by on this frequency,” instructed the tower, “I’m going to scramble some Air Force jets to do a Search and Rescue Operation.” Charleston was a combined civil and military field. I hastily told him we didn’t need to be searched for and rescued, but to no avail. I think the Air Force base was itching to do a training mission and they would not be denied this opportunity.
It did not take long before we had not one but many moments of sheer horror. From out of the foggy night came the roars of engines. Usually, if you can hear another airplane over the sound of your own airplane’s engine, you are about to die. We heard many such sounds over the next eternity, enhanced by the lights of the aircraft as they flashed by us from all directions. After a while, I couldn’t bear to continue looking straight ahead, so I looked down—and there, directly below us, were the runway lights of Charleston Airport. I quickly told the tower I had the airport in sight, and with some reluctance he called off the operation. The search and rescue people never saw us—although we sure saw them.
We landed, taxied to the ramp, tied the plane down and went into the operations office. The person on duty said, “Tower’s on the phone. Wants to talk to you.” Werner stiffened and turned white. Remember, he was raised in Germany and, I regret to say, had been a member of the Hitler Youth. I’m sure he expected that we would be summoned before the authorities, slapped across the face, and have our pilot certificates torn to shreds. I took the phone receiver. “Hi,” I said with what heartiness I could muster. “Thanks a lot for your help. Sorry to have been so much trouble.”
“No sweat,” replied the tower. “Glad you got down okay. G’night.” And that was that.
Werner and I went to an adjoining restaurant for some dinner and were seated at the counter next to a man who was right out of a World War I flying aces movie. He wore the obligatory leather jacket, and beside him on the counter rested a leather helmet and goggles. He was drinking coffee and looked very despondent. We asked him how he was doing and he launched into his tale of woe.
“I was caught out after dark,” he said. That sounded familiar. “I fly an old open-cockpit plane that has no lights and no radio,” he continued. “And my landing strip doesn’t have runway lights, so I needed to land here at Charleston. Since I couldn’t get landing clearance by radio, I buzzed the tower, hoping they’d see the blue flame from my exhaust and give me a green light to land. I buzzed and buzzed, right up close, but they never saw me. So I went ahead and landed. I was almost creamed by one of those Air Force jets.” That also sounded familiar. “So I went up to the tower and apologized for landing without a clearance. That was my big mistake. ‘You did WHAT?’ they said, and now I’ve been grounded. I’ll probably get a license suspension and a fine.”
“If you were flying that close to the tower,” I ventured, “I wonder why the controllers didn’t notice you.” “Agh,” he replied in disgust, “they were too busy looking for a couple of idiots who had gotten lost over the airport.”
Werner looked as if he was about to say something. I shook my head in warning. We’d already had enough trouble for one day.