Growing up on a dairy farm planted firmly in Vermont’s Champlain Valley, I spent many an hour outside watching the local crop duster seeding and fertilizing the fields. Visions of the feeling, the smell and the thought of flying mere feet above the rolling fields danced in my head as I procrastinated completing my childhood chores. My dad had become friends with the crop duster, a short and opinionated but naturally charismatic French Canadian named Alphonse, who also happened to run the FBO at the local airport, Middlebury State.
Like most places in Vermont at the time, Middlebury State was a family affair. Al had started out his crop-dusting business with a Stearman, but had moved up to a few Piper Pawnees by this point. His wife did the books for the business, and his two sons had become good pilots under the gut-instinct teachings of their dad. With one providing the mechanical services needed for the FBO and the Pawnees, and the other splitting time between crop dusting and instructing the future pilots of the area, the airport had an allure that drew in the locals to leave the fields beneath them.
My father was one of them, and once he had his license in hand, he bought into a four-person partnership of a 172, and a few years later, moved on to purchase his own Aero Commander Lark. As a young boy, my memories of flying in the Commander weren’t always pleasant, as my stomach just wouldn’t get adjusted to flying in the back seat, so a couple of Dramamine were always in order before my sister, parents and I left for our annual trip to the grandparents’ camp in New Hampshire. And, although the Commander was sold before I was old enough to fly myself, the smell of draining the sumps for pre-flight would always bring back that tightness in my stomach before climbing in.
Nonetheless, the desire to fly overcame those early days, and once I could drive I started hanging out at the airport after school and on weekends. I attribute at least part of this to Alphonse himself, who by this time had walked away from more crashes as a crop duster than anyone wanted to remember, and his penchant for stories was known far and wide. I probably had 500 hours of storied flight time from sitting around the flight room table listening to Alphonse before I ever started flight lessons, and if the wear on the chair legs was a good indication, I heard but one small part of a long legacy of fabulous tales and stories from an original stick-and-rudder man. The tales were long and the stories were good.
As my father had sold the Commander a few years before, I still questioned why he would have me spend hours mowing the grass strip behind the barn if we didn't have an airplane. The answer was always the same; the local boys knew it was there, and if they ever got in trouble and could safely land here, then we’d better have the grass cut for them. While someone would land every now and then, it was always more of a visit than a need, and that was okay with me. But it must have been on my father’s mind as well, for as luck would have it, he heard about an airplane sitting in a garage in a town an hour south of us.
Turned out it was a nice 1969 Beech Musketeer disassembled with one damaged wing, but it didn’t take long to find a good one in Virginia, so he purchased the truckload of parts and hauled it all back to Middlebury to get it flying. I had turned 16, and with a plane tied down out behind the barn all summer, I couldn’t wait to create my own stories. Dad was kind enough to leave it at the airport so I could take lessons, and in less than six hours I was ecstatically flying around the patch solo. After a few more hours under my belt, Dad wanted to get the plane back to the farm, so he thought he’d give me a little fatherly approach instruction to our grass strip.
This was wrong for two reasons. One, it was hard for a kid not to be scared of screwing up his dad’s airplane with his father sitting next to him telling him what to do. Second, the strip was truly a farm strip—about 1,500 feet of sloped grass, sandwiched between a barn and a tree-lined swamp—so it was one way in and the opposite way out. Starting your takeoff run at the barn, the strip ran level for maybe 300 feet before starting a slight downhill slope. About 800 feet into the run, you were definitively pointing downhill (and dropping fast), so without a tailwind and a notch or two of flaps you could be off at about the 1,000-foot mark. This is where you would hold her level out over the swamp until your airspeed reached best climb and then pull up over the tree line at the far edge of the swamp. The more passengers you had, or if you had a tailwind, the closer to the swamp you ran before liftoff, and the closer to the trees you got before pulling up.
The approach to landing was just the opposite. Set up a nice decent rate as if you were going to flare over the tree line, but instead of flaring, you nose it over and drop down over the swamp while adding some power to drag yourself across to the “threshold” of the runway. (As with any good farmer’s field, the threshold would be the ditch separating the grass strip and the swamp.) This was a very good (and proven) approach method; it provided an easy way to transition into the uphill climb before flaring for touchdown. With a little practice, the touchdown was made simply by bleeding off the speed in the climb instead of reducing the power setting, and you would add power to finish the rollout up onto the barn end of the runway. (I say the barn end due to that being where it was, but the most prominent structures on the south end of the runway were two 65-foot Harvestore silos and four cement stave silos averaging about 50 feet.) As mentioned before, there was only one way in and one way out.
Native Vermonters don’t talk much, and native Vermont farmers probably say even less to their native Vermont sons. I was having problems getting used to dropping in over the trees and dragging it across the swamp, and on the second attempt to bring the Musketeer in and prove I could do this, I’m sure the words and actions from both of us were on the slow end of the scale. Cockpit communication wasn’t part of the preflight discussion yet. The speed bled off too fast, I thought we had enough lift to park the mains on the end of the runway, and in a moment it was too late. The right main tire caught and the right wing dropped down and appeared to touch the ground as the Musketeer proceeded into the freshly cut cornfield in a slow graceful arc to the right. Panicking at this point, I expect, I immediately switched off the ignition switch, and then watched as my Dad, in smooth methodical awareness, reached over and turned them back on to properly shut down the engine with the mixture first.
Climbing out to find out why full left rudder didn’t hold it straight, we found the right main gear had snapped off the casting just below the wing, leaving a stub sticking out and the main gear laying back at the end of the runway. The wing had dropped down onto the flap, which carried it nicely across the grass with hardly a ripple. My head now hung in shame, we walked up to the house and called Alphonse. The one point my dad and I couldn’t ever agree on was if the wheel hit a woodchuck hole or the threshold to cause it to snap, or if perhaps it was cracked in the accident before he purchased it, but we never found out. Either way, the end result was that by having the casting snap below the wing, the repair was fast and easy.
So, in short order, the Musketeer was certified airworthy once again, and with Al’s son John in the right seat, I learned to grease my way in and out of the farm strip with ease. Somehow, once I had wings back it seemed easy to forget about furthering the lesson plan. I spent hours flying around the Champlain Valley, and the boys at the airport stopped calling me “Crash.” As the next summer rolled in, high school graduation came and went and college loomed closer. I decided I’d better go ahead and put a card in my wallet to make it official. In true Vermont style, my check ride was with a wise old pilot who knew the places I flew in and out of, and his one comment was “at normal airports you don’t really need to drag it in so much.” Words to live by.
Fast-forward two years, and I was working for an Aircraft Repair Station at Middlebury during the summer break from attending college for Aeronautical Engineering and Aircraft Maintenance. This was my second summer there, and I was having a blast. I was young, hanging around pilots, mechanics, planes and cars. Now, at the same time, if you collected enough speeding tickets, the state of Vermont would revoke your driver’s license for 10 days (and after that a longer period). I wasn’t immune to ground speed, and sure enough, my driver’s license got pulled. No problem, I thought, I’m living the dream. I work at the airport, live on the farm, and my dad has an airplane!
So, I start flying back and forth to work. Of course, this curtailed any after-work events, but I was still working and still flying, and that was important. It was on one of these mornings that I got ready for my morning commute. This was about 28 years ago now, and I remember every detail vividly.
I had just had breakfast, and no one else was up and about. I walked out to the airplane, which entails walking through a wide-open yard that’s about 200 feet square, around the cement silos and Harvestore silos, down a short dirt path and onto the grass tie-down area. I did this as I had been doing for a few days, and today was no different from my perspective.
I noticed the farm foreman was working near the silos as I walked by, and all the normal farm sounds were in the air. I untied the Musketeer with the walk-around, did my preflight as I waited for a little oil temp to show, and had no other thoughts about the day. The problem was, I should have.
I had reached nearly that 100-flight hour that everyone talks about, and yet those near it seem to be oblivious about it—the overconfidence, the daily routine, the missed clues, the not stopping to think. Rolling the power on as I started down the strip, everything was right. I rolled down the hill and eased back on the yoke, and the little Beech lifted off over the swamp, just like it did every time. With the tree line approaching, I saw I had the airspeed moving up and waited another second just for fighter effect before I hauled back and my fighter and I screamed up into…solid overcast.
With vivid clarity I instantly realized that not once that entire morning had I ever looked up or even at the horizon. There was no horizon. There was no up. There was now just me and white fluffiness. I instinctively leveled out and scanned to see what visual cues I had. I could see straight down over the front of the wing—nothing to the right, nothing to the left, nothing out the front. My brain went into overdrive. No IFR training. No idea what weather was up here. What were my options?
There was no terrain to the north, so I could climb until I broke out on top or to a comfortable altitude, call BTV approach and ask for vectors or help finding an airport with VFR airspace. Call the Unicom at Middlebury? Probably no one was even there to answer, let alone what could they do? I had fuel, but I felt the urgency to make a decision now. The overcast wasn’t on the ground at the farm. I make a decision. Back to the farm now.
I glanced at the DG as I started my left turn, holding altitude over the trees by looking straight down at them while watching the altimeter. I knew I hadn’t set the DG before takeoff, but it didn’t concern me; all I needed was 180 degrees in the opposite direction. Rolling out on a heading I calculated to be correct, I waited for a clearing. Any clearing. Something besides white.
Seconds felt like minutes, to the point where I started to worry that I had miscalculated the 180-degree turn and was now flying away from the farm in solid overcast a mere 50 feet over the forest. The one control I don’t recall ever adjusting during this time was the throttle. While I believe I pulled it back from a takeoff power setting of WOT, I honestly don’t know, so it could be I was screaming along looking for the first big tree to impact at 120 mph.
Then the trees disappeared and I was over the swamp and there, just to the left about 10 degrees, was my uphill grass strip and wide-open visibility. Perfect, let’s get down. Crap, I’m over 100. Kick it left to get lined up, no, kick left again. I pull the throttle back and start pulling in clicks of flap as fast as I dare without ripping them off the wings. I’m over the end of the runway, and still not down level with the top of the hill. Gotta get down. Try to slip it, good, that’s better, almost there. I’m running out of room fast. I’m ready to fly it onto the grass to create some drag, and I’m up on top with less than half the runway left and a click short of full flaps. No way, this isn’t going to work. Change plans now. Mash the throttle to the firewall and drop a click of flaps, pull hard back and start climbing a 65-foot Harvestore silo. Break left just enough to fly more over the barn than the silo, without losing lift.
Okay, made it. Got airspeed. Still flying.
Alphonse, sitting around the table at Middlebury Airport, told a story many times about how he was caught in a mountainside downdraft flying a loaded Piper Pawnee enroute to a field, and with his airspeed at zero and his airplane falling, had the stick pushed so far forward trying to find airspeed that his hand was banging the panel. He flew that Pawnee into the trees going down a mountainside still trying to find airspeed, and after the trees ripped everything off the plane and he stopped sliding, he dropped out of his upside-down cockpit, picked up a brand-new chain binder he found laying in the woods and walked down a logging trail to meet an ambulance coming up to rescue him. Yet, somehow, I’m sure he was calmer flying into those trees looking for airspeed than I was trying to simply land my airplane that day.
I see some room to the east, and I enter a sweeping left turn to bring me out to the edge of the swamp near the tree line, and then, in an ever-tightening arc to the runway, I can bring it in and set it down. While this sounds good in my head, this isn’t an approach I’ve ever shot, and I’m no crop duster. I’m a kid with an ego and an airplane.
Like the first approach, I was very resistant to slow the airplane down during the approach. I’m in a turn, the airplane is flying, and the last thing you want to do is slow it down before you have to, in case you need to go around. Ironically, if you don’t slow it down, you’ll always have to go around. And that’s what I did. Came in hot, floated up over the hill again and couldn’t bleed it off. Add power and climb the silos again, but I’m starting to calm down a bit as I’m still alive.
I notice the farm foreman watching me as I pass by the second time, and I feel embarrassed. What have I gotten myself into? I continue south, this time a few seconds longer after the missed approach, and it was a mistake. Flew right into the overcast again.
I attempt to bring it around. I check the compass, but like the first time, it’s swinging so much I can’t get a reading. Use the DG and calculate, quick. Okay, on course back north toward the farm, looking over the front of the left wing again straight down at trees and fields, waiting for the opening to break through again.
On the Musketeer there’s a little pilot’s window the size of your hand that you can open, and I keep wanting to open that for a better view, but a better view of what? The same trees I can see over the front of the wing, straight down? I resist the temptation and keep flying, glancing at the DG and wondering if this is the same heading I started on.
Suddenly, I see a road, a house and a pool. A pool? Who has a pool? It hits me like a bucket of ice water to the face. A farmhouse a few miles northeast has a pool next to it. And a quarter-mile behind that house is a ridge-line that’s 500 feet above the valley floor. I roll the Musketeer’s yoke to the left stop and haul back on the elevator. We’re turning around now. I might stall it into the trees mid-turn, but I’m not flying blind into the side of a mountain.
I roll back out level again, 50 feet over the trees, headed southwest, as I estimate from the DG again. Shortly thereafter, I break out over the east fields, and I can see again. Okay, it’s time to do this right.
I look around at all the boundaries for the first time. The overcast is held higher in a near-circle around the farm perimeter, and then the vertical white wall waits. I know there’s a better chance for a circle approach from the west, as the farm fields extend further west than east, and there’s a larger open swamp area for a bigger radius circle to the grass strip. I pull up slightly to fly over the farm buildings and continue west. Toward the white wall as far as I dare, break right and descend, no, you can’t get much lower here, buddy, you’re chasing heifers as it is. Let’s keep it off the ground for a moment. I’m now pointing north and I begin the arc east, which, again, will be an ever-tightening radius into the strip headed south.
Even in the worst of times, the old adage holds true. The best approach will give you the best landing. I dialed back the power a little more, so I was able to drop full flaps before I tightened up the last radius of the arc, and although I still had too much speed, I was able to get it down just over halfway up the runway (up, because remember we’re climbing the hill here) and with full brakes I got it stopped just in time to turn it around without pushing it back by hand.
With adrenaline pumping and hands suddenly getting shaky, I manage to tie the hearty little Musketeer down and thank it for hanging in there with me. As I walk back to the house, the foreman looks at me and says, “That was close.” I pretend it wasn’t, and continue walking. Egos recover fast when you’re young, but I wasn’t sure I could speak without shaking.
Inside the house, I find my dad shaving. “Hey,” I said, “Can you give me a ride to work? It’s all overcast out there, and I couldn’t get lined up to land.”
All I remember him saying was, “Oh, I thought you were just giving someone a ride.”
Well, I guess so. And it was one hell of a ride. Lesson learned.
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Have you had a close call or a cool aviation experience that left a lasting impression? We’d love to share your story in the magazine! We’re looking for stories that are between 1,100 and 1,500 words long that tell a great story. If you’re interested, you can always write us a note outlining your experience and we’ll get back to you right away. The pay is small potatoes, $101, but if your story is chosen, you’ll get to work with our great illustrator Gabriel Campanario and have him bring your memory to life.
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