Getting Back Down

by Martin Kendall

Martin is self-employed in the IT industry.  He spent a number of years as a flying instructor, plays Blues guitar and writes humorous action-adventure short fiction and poetry

“Take the chart from my knee! “

I tried saying it as calmly as I could but this was both a command and a plea.   I had descended the aircraft lower and lower to get below the cloud but we were very low.  I was sure our height was now below some of the many radio masts in the area. 

I had only obtained my pilot’s licence the previous year and looking back I was too inexperienced to be flying in these conditions.   Although I had flown in America before, this was the first time I had taken my wife along with me.  She looked so trusting sitting next to me but this only made it worse because I didn’t want to show her how frightened I felt.

I pointed at the chart showing roughly where we were.

“We are heading for the coast, please find any masts within 5 miles either side of our route and tell me how high they are”.

I glanced over. I could see that she realised we were in trouble.   We had flown together many times before and she was very good at reading the aeronautical charts.   She had been thrilled when I suggested that we spent a couple of weeks renting a plane.

It wasn’t until we arrived in Florida that we discovered a particular small-print in the rental agreement that would influence the events on that day.   All aircraft had to be returned by night-fall. It meant that a careful assessment had to be made of weather conditions that may prevent a day-long trip.

As we skimmed under the lowering cloud it was that subtle consideration of the weather that I had failed to make.  We had flown to look at a vineyard a couple of hundred miles away.   The mistake I made was assuming the weather forecast for our return trip was applicable all the way.    Sitting in the cockpit at 400 feet with only an occasional glimpse of the ground meant that it clearly was not.  My inexperience had made me accept that the “no overnighting” rule was an absolute demand.  We should have landed at the nearest airfield whilst still in clear skies.  Instead I pressed on with the hope that the weather conditions would not deteriorate.

“There are two masts ahead.  Both to the right.  One at 300 feet and one at 800”.  My wife was speaking calmly and the tone of her voice was gut-wrenchingly trusting.   Masts less than 300 feet are not charted.  I could not afford to descend any lower.   I knew that our current heading would soon take us over the beach.  I just hoped to hold a steady course.  The fuel gauges were showing less than a quarter full and my calculations told me we had about an hour’s worth of fuel remaining.  My plan was to get to flat ground before the fuel ran out and it was either going to be the beach or the airfield.   The coast road was lined with hotels and restaurants and once I spotted a distinctly red and green coloured hotel I knew that the airfield was just 5 miles inland directly from that point.  

“Can you see any houses below?”  I needed to know if we had cleared the swamp.

“No, just some fallen trees in the water”.  I immediately saw the tall radio mast sail past just to our right.  I knew that in less than a minute we would be over the beach.

“Yes! We are over the town!” My wife was visibly relieved but my brain was battling with choosing an option.  We shot over the highway, the line of hotels and there was the water.   I felt the cold knot in my stomach as I looked at the fuel gauges.  They were busy disputing my calculations as they danced left and right of the ‘E’ symbol.  I calculated 30 minutes before the engine was starved of all fuel.  It was a 10 minute flight between here and the airfield – I just had to turn at that hotel and hold it steady on zero-nine-zero for 10 minutes.

It was a long flat beach.  I turned to my wife to find her gazing at me already.

“We land on the beach if we can’t land at the airfield”.  She looked down at the chart.  She knew how to operate the radio and started tapping in the airfield frequency.

We could see the hotel ahead and I made the turn inland.  The swamp loomed out of the drizzle and I settled down to holding the course.  My mind flashed back to something my old flying instructor used to say: “If nothing else, keep the aircraft in the air!”

We had been flying almost 10 minutes when I saw the runway flash past us and then lost sight of it in the cloud. 

“Make the call!”  I wanted to focus on turning around and getting the aircraft on the ground in one piece.

“Ormond Beach Radio this is November 54321, Cessna 182 in the overhead”.

This was just standard procedure to warn other aircraft of your presence. 

I made the turn back in the airfield’s direction and slowed the aircraft down to descend.  “Ormond Beach Radio, November 321 final approach two-seven-zero”.

I blurted out “Runway lights maximum please!”  and she started transmitting a series of clicks on the radio for the automated lighting controller.

At 200 feet we were both staring into the wall of drizzle when suddenly the pearls of lights appeared to our left.  I pulled the engine lever to idle and we banked towards the lights.  Our arrival on the tarmac certainly tested the undercarriage but we were on the ground and the wheels were turning.

I turned to my wife: “When we hand over the keys we are going to act like this was a non event.”

The reception area was full of other pilots and all eyes turned on us as we sauntered in.  The owner was standing behind the counter with a quizzical look.

“Everything OK Martin?”

“Yep, it will need refuelling though.”

“Do you want to book it for tomorrow?”

“No I think we’ll be doing some local sightseeing for a day or so instead.”