“Tango, two niner niner, you’re cleared for take off.” That buoyant, gut feeling always comes, the moment the tires lift free from the shimmering concrete runway; as those outreaching appendages of ascension bite deeply into the relative wind – pulling me, my three passengers, 250 lbs. of fuel and assorted equipment, into familiar skies over the San Antonio International Airport. Within minutes we’re plunging through brilliant blue sky, dotted intermittently by majestic billowing white clouds.
As we lazily ascend to our cruising altitude of 3,000 ft. in the underpowered Cessna, Cardinal 177, I monitor radio frequency for pertinent info on local air traffic, scan the instruments, and gaze down at the Alamo city passing under the wings of my aircraft. The two young men in the rear seat invade, with noisy chatter, the subconscious of my usual solitary routine, for I was ordinarily the lone occupant on my frequent flights of fancy.
Attention returning fully to the instruments, I note the hundreds foot altimeter needle swinging inexorably toward the target. Pushing the yoke gently forward, I reach down to the trim wheel and apply a little nose down pitch for level flight. The radium painted arm moves sluggishly to find rest right at 3,000 ft. Now pulling out a little power, then more trim, and she’s flying level, without touching the yoke. The Directional Gyro, indicates: one eight zero degrees; we’ll pass over Pleasanton, south of the city.
“Tango, two niner niner, radar service is terminated, squawk VFR – good day,” comes abruptly from Departure Control, in the single speaker plug ensconced in my ear. “Two, niner niner – roger,” replying; then I turn down the Comm. volume. The aircraft trimmed for cruising flight, I relax, I am alone, even though there are three other souls in the cabin. Comfortable in my own world, there is no need for trite discussion or company to bolster my ego. I glance over at the man in the right seat, he is gazing down through the starboard window, lost in his own thoughts. I leave him alone. Returning to the instruments I note all is normal: she’s still flying level, hands off. Then thinking: “wonder if I’m impressing these guys ….?
Pleasanton, now, is barely visible through the misty humid air – a constant in the mid-summer, south Texas atmosphere. It often hangs above the landscape, wraithlike, veiling checkpoints with a stubborn persistence that almost makes distant verification of ground objects, a fruitless pursuit. Now, beyond SAT radio contact, only faint static crackles from the plug in my ear, the other ear unencumbered absorbs laboring engine noise.
“What city is that?” a loud voice, penetrating the throbbing noise, exclaims from behind me. Broken from my reverie, I cock my head slightly rearward in reaction and my eyes meet the side of Roger’s head hovering over my shoulder (one of the young men in the rear seat; Tony sits next to him). Roger, is gazing out the pilot’s side window at the cluster of buildings on the ground. “Pleasanton,” I reply tersely, then re-cock my head and gaze back at the instrument panel, hoping he would get the point.
Somewhere up ahead of the nose are the prominent, isolated twin sentinel power plant chimneys I was aiming for. The SAT,Sectional (an aviation ground map) indicated that their majestic height made them a definite low flying aircraft hazard. “When you reach them,” Jerry, sitting next to me, had said earlier, “I’ll show you where the road is.” I was still uneasy about the whole idea of landing on a public highway, even if it is only a lonely stretch of road, through flat country ranch land. In fact, I was uncomfortable with the whole subject: smuggling -grass, no less, it really wasn’t me I thought; a conservative family man, Architect, shunning things of an evil and corrupting nature: drugs, smoking, drinking….. I had been lured, through my own greed, by these men who were here in my office. They would help me, if I would help them (how naive can you be).
“It’s easy,” one of them had said, “with the money made from one flight to Vera Cruz, we can give you the purse money for your: National Air Races (an all consuming mania of mine at the time, that I hoped would fulfill a life long ambition), but that is another story. Ah, but the termination of the flight, was not going to be that 7,000 foot by 40 foot wide, simmering ribbon of concrete at SAT International; but a lengthy, meandering strip of sun cracked asphalt, barely 16 feet wide, now, only a few miles from where the Cardinal plunges through hot, Lone Star skies. As if the perilous trip to and from Mexico wasn’t bad enough, this business of landing on an open road at night, with only a pair of headlights at a quasi-threshold and another pair at a distance, to indicate what would be the end of a pseudo-runway, left me mentally agitated, and what if…..
I see them appear gradually out of the haze; the two chimneys, as though standing guard for some momentous purpose, over desiccated sagebrush and stud oak landscape – that deserved less. “There it is,” Jerry, in the right seat exclaims triumphantly, pointing forward toward them. Tony and Roger are perched on the edge of the rear seat straining forward, searching also, however, they have been upstaged; Jerry was first to report (big deal, I thought). He turns to me for a prideful reward. I give a slight affirmative nod, eyes remaining forward, dutifully glancing over the instruments, then reduce power to descend from altitude. “The roads over there,” Jerry exclaims, poking repeatedly a forefinger in the air, toward a generally southeasterly direction. In response I twist the yoke, press left pedal, and the aircraft rolled into a gentle banking turn toward the direction of Jerry’s poking finger. Within minutes we level off at approximately 300 ft. above ground (AGL, for you fans of abbreviation) and at full power again, we race over sparse groves, pastures and tilled fields, following the highway that Jerry claims: “is the one.” “That’s it -around the bend,” certainty in his voice.
The plane (with us) follows the road’s curvature, which eventually straightens out for a considerable distance. Reducing power, the Cardinal smoothly rolls out, parallel to it, performing exactly as she always has, from responsive control surfaces at my command. Cruising along the continuous object of my attention, off the left wing, I firmly urge the bouncing Cardinal lower. I want to scrutinize everything that might be of any interest, if this was to be my future landing site. As we approach another bend in the road, I push the throttle forward for power, caress the yoke reward and the plane climbs for altitude. “What so ya think? Looks pretty good, huh,” Jerry blurts out. I muse over the fact that he just answered his own question. “It appears okay, but I think I’ll go around again” was my reply.
Shortly, we return to the curve (where we started), the Cardinal rolls out on final, and I place the uninterrupted length of asphalt in the center of the windshield. I had decided to make a simulated approach and landing above the doubtful surface. “You’re not going to land are you?” came a shout from the rear. I glance back to see a worried look on Rogers face. “No,” was my monosyllable answer. The syllabic answer softens his expression. At 50 ft., AGL, the craft glides serenely above the road. I observe that the length was more than satisfactory; width was fine, and I observe no obstructions. There doesn’t appear to be any problem, (Jerry, always used the expression, “no problem,” many problems arose later), but what about at night? My stomach has that queasy feeling again.
Advance throttle, and we climb back to 3,000 feet. “Well, what do you think? Perfect isn’t it,” came Jerry’s voice (answering his own question again), penetrating through the envelope of raucous mechanical noise. I look at him, trying to appear positive. “Yeah, it seems alright.” He wanted more. “Whats the matter?” he questions. “All you have to do is fly to the power plant…..(it, [the power plant] at night, was a myriad of glaring lights, an isolated city of energy, placed prominently on an uninhabited plain – like some lone galaxy in endless black space), then follow the road. When you pass over us, we’ll blink our lights, then you’ll know its safe. ‘The other Captain (Jerry’s term for pilot) did it in our, Beach Baron, with – no problem.” There’s that phrase again, I thought. I glare at him in effected contemplation, then reply: “Okay, but you’re talking about a high time pilot that has a lot of experience. I told you I don’t have those kind of hours.” Then to manipulate my ego, he comes back with, “Listen from what you’ve shown us so far, you can do it easy.” Hmmm, maybe I have impressed these guys.
Three thousand feet again, with hands off (what a sweet baby she is). The three guys are talking loudly, from front seat to back, trying to compensate for cockpit noise. I ignore them, busy with my routine. An aloof, macho Captain – that has a good air to it, I conceitedly contemplate. Over Pleasanton once more, an idea strikes me. I reach over and jab Jerry on the shoulder, who has returned to staring out his window in thought. He jerks around sharply, as if caught in contemplation of some perfidious plot. “You guys have any objections to a few touch and go’s, at Lakeside?” I ask. “It’s up to you, you’re the Captain.” he answers, assuming authority over the other two. I thought again, pride blown up, “Captain,” that does have a good ring to it. Almost like obtaining a new type of rating.
There is a concealed reason for my question. Lakeside, is a small grass strip airfield, south of San Antonio, where I have planned to practice soft field and short field touchdowns, so I would be prepared to land on the beach in Mexico, to pick up the drugs (since I had never landed on a beach before). It (the grass), would approximate the sandy conditions I would have to experience, in the near future. Since we are going to pass right over the field anyway, on the return to International, I might as well practice now to save the gas. However, I didn’t want my co-conspirators to know I was practicing. This fact was the residual of typical pilot ego; anyway what they don’t know won’t hurt them. I was wrong!
Passing over Lakeside, I note wind sock direction, then let down to pattern altitude for landing. I guide the Cardinal into the Downwind leg, parallel to the runway (but opposite of landing direction). The airfield is bounded on the approach end by a six foot high barbed wire fence (ranch type, cedar posts with three strands), a hundred feet in front of the runway threshold, and on departure by a stand of tall oaks. Some years earlier, while flying a rented Cessna 150, with my son, Jeff, we had almost been a victim of those grasping branches, during a take-off from the same strip. The Cessna, had seen unmerciful student training abuse, and possessed a questionable engine, in which the horsepower had almost been throttled out of it. Only by pulling power at the last second, when the fatigued engine refused to lift the tired plane off the ground, and burning the brake lining pitifully to effect a careening halt, was I able to save us from an arboreal death. For some reason, Jeff never flew with me again.
The threshold end of the runway slips behind the starboard wing, and I reduce power. I tap in a little flap, trim nose up, set up a 70 MPH glide slope, then bank into a short base and final approach. A little more flaps, but not to much. My Cardinal (like the planes name) Rule, is -“never to much flaps, and never power off on final approach to land; for earlier I had learned better. An Article, that I had read some time after buying the Cessna 177, entitled: “68 Cardinal Error,” had graphically informed me of a design defect, that caused tail stalls during landing, with full flaps and engine idle. The article had gone on to describe the modifications to the stabilizer, that was suppose to rectify this fault. However, prior to reading the article, I had been victim of these same type (what I thought were) poor landings. I had adjusted my flying technique to prevent the phenomenon from taking place – at least so far!
On final now. Over the fence we go. Flare to land (she seems a little mushy). Hold her off – hold her off; then the gentle kiss of Earth. Rumbling, menacingly rises through the floor to the cabin, transmitted from tires rolling harshly over parched summer grass and bumpy fissures. Carb heat closed; full throttle; up flaps; air speed, rotation, then liftoff, and the wings, sluggishly, haul flesh, blood, bone and gas, back into the air. “There they are!” I shout over the din, pointing casually at the many antique aircraft tucked cozily under the corrugated metal roof of the long open shed shelter, off to the side of the runway. “Can we stop and look at-um,” comes Rogers loud hopeful voice, from over my shoulder again. I shout back: “Okay, don’t see why not,” fulfills his hopes. “We’ll even stop for coffee at the office,” I add. Pegging a 65MPH climb speed, over the spreading oaks we sail at the end of the runway. The same ones that earlier I had the good sense to stop before being a casualty to their grasping branches.
Verdant fields beyond, pass by. Climbing – then bank hard into Crosswind leg (no traffic I can see), then rollout on Downwind leg, at 800 feet. Ease out power, trim for cruise and proceed flying parallel to the runway a half mile off starboard. “Lakeside traffic- November, triple six, on final for runway, One Eight,” comes an interrupting report from another plane, over my ear plug (I was now monitoring the Lakeside field unicom frequency). “Damn,” I thought, searching the windshield for the aircraft somewhere in the distance in front of the blurring arc of the propeller. That dot, when I found it, would have the right-of-way to land and the Cardinal, consequently, would become number two behind it. “Where in the hell is it,” I silently quiz myself. “I’m already passed the boundary -crap.
Reduce power; carb heat. Bring the nose up. Some flaps, then trim for glide. 70 MPH coming up. But busy with procedure I accidentally move the flap lever, which was out of easy site on my right, to far down, to – full flaps. “There it is!” spotting the Super Cub, at the end of its final approach. “I thought he would be further away from the runway. ‘There wasn’t any need for such a long downwind at all,” chiding myself. Bank into Base leg; I press the Comm button, velcroed to the yoke. “Tango, two niner niner, on base for: One Eight, Lakeside,” I broadcast to intended traffic in the vicinity. Bank into Final. Looking over the nose at the distant runway, my inner thoughts find concept -“Jeez, this is a long Final. “Its obvious to me, but fortunately, not to my passengers, that my Final Approach is to long for my present speed, to deliver them, me and the airplane to the threshold, unless I want to be under it. So, I add more power. Not enough, I’m sinking to low, almost there though.
The Cardinal is approaching the boundary, but the speed is bleeding off. I’ve forgotten another Cardinal Rule: “Gross weight raises stall speed.” I was accustomed to flying alone, where my stall speed was about 55 MPH, but now I had three more people and almost a full fuel load. I was about 700 lbs. heavier, therefore my stall speed was much higher and at this moment I was racing toward it with total abandon. My eyes are riveted to the top strand of the boundary fence. As we approach it I was sure that the undercarriage would hit that barbed wire,and immediately acquire appendageant drag, not at all helping the rapidly approaching stall speed. In automatic reaction, my anus withdraws deeply in panicky anticipation, waiting for the impact. Nothing.
The Cardinal glides over the fence, and plunges toward the runway. “I made it,” but there was no time for congratulations, for my mind is racing furiously, outdistancing awareness, a jumble of anxiety and relief of: temporary success over ineptitude. I guide the plane toward what I believe will be a graceful flare. Then…. the yoke turns with total abandon in my sweaty grip – unresponsive, impotent in my hands -as the brain is left, when nerves are severed from tendons. Instants flash by my mind in spinning incomprehension, as the craft staggers in drunken oscillation, tail dropping low. The Port wing dips earthward from loss of lift, nose to high – no lift, no flight – the Earth inevitable, since gravity is its friend. It is: “The Classic Stall.”
Main wheels meet the ground with jarring impact, sprung steel gear bowing under dynamic pressures. Then reaction for action and the craft, refusing gravities demands, elastically vaults into the air. The impact throws me violently at the windshield, my belt restrains the motion, but my arms (both hands still clutching the yoke) fixed in reflex to disaster, thrusts the column forward in response to the momentum, adding insult to injury. The nose pitches down. All perception is withdrawn in whirling confusion, time suspends, space compresses, events vanish, only vague memories – if any. Then another jarring impact recorded in the id (this earthly collision parts the nose gear from its mount). The power of momentum drives the Cardinal forward along the ground, its nose plowing a continuous trough, like some farmers gigantic plow, tail high in the air.
A curtain parts on the senses of my mind, and clarity takes the stage. I’m staring down at brownish green grass that pervades the scope of the shiny plexiglass windshield in front of me. My secret id is active, furiously
painting a picture, of a moment in time. A field, that shows a wounded craft, balancing precariously upon its nose, tail hovering despairingly in the air from where it shouldn’t be – as though mocking its sister parts below. From somewhere deep within my brain an asture statement finds vent, from throat, to mouth, through parched lips, to express a ludicrous realization. “Oh shit, we’re going over!”
Then, as if in obligatory response to my divining forecast, I am aware of the Cardinals inverting drop. My thoughts run in a slow motion panorama, knowing what is now the top will soon be the bottom, as gravity finally takes its toll. Terminal impact comes violently, as the tail crashes to the ground, with the id the only observer. Then conclusive repose; the mechanical beast is dead, laying upon a grassy bier, its electrical life extinguished.
Drops of blood hit the windshield. I stare at them, as they reluctantly loose hold from the tip of my nose, then descend haplessly, to strike the cracked plexiglass, in a bloody smear. I’m again aware within, “Shit, I didn’t cut the switches, the tanks are full. I find presence of mind to release my belt buckle, not realizing that my position is precariously reversed from the normal (upside down reactions are funny). From my hanging position,now unrestrained by my safety belt, I make and unexpectedly rapid descent to the top of the cabin (now the bottom), with such force, that the windshield fractures on contact. Reaching up I push the toggles, then turn the key to sever all power from the battery to forestall a spark to the fuel, which would ruin my whole day – that was already looking bad enough.
That done I became conscious of my three passengers, and look up. What meets my eyes is truly a bizarre sight, for all three are hanging from their seat belts, in resemblance to a puppet workshop, with the lifeless images suspended by their animating strings, waiting to be used. Since he is in my immediate proximity, I ask Jerry, “Are you alright?” He comes back with a groggy reply. “Ya, I’m okay – I think.” In the surreal reversed surroundings I reach up among his listless limbs and release the buckle of his belt, but with restraint removed, he too fell. I partially block his rag like fall, to keep him from repeating my consequences of a minute earlier. I leave him in a collapsed huddle, where he landed, and turn my attention to Roger and Tony, in the rear. They had already released themselves, and were crumpled on the cabin ceiling (what used to be). Tony was issuing forth muttering exclamations of pain. Through the space between the seats I call: “is anyone hurt?” Rogers voice floats through the slit between the seats. “I’m alright,” but Tony’s voice follows with: “I think my hip is broken.” Don’t move I’ll get you out in a minute,” i reply. Then turning to Jerry, “stay put, I’ll be back shortly.” With that I open the pilot’s door, exit on top of the wing (bottom now) and help Roger out.
That’s when I notice, for the first time the blood all over my hand, and on feeling my nose, realize it is bleeding profusely. I had nothing to staunch the flow. Disregarding my condition, I get up shakily and hurry around the Cardinal. Crawling over the wing, then through the open co-pilots opening, I pull the upside down seat back forward to reveal Tony sitting, but with a look of pain on his face. “Take it easy – do you think you can move?” I ask. He replies grimacing, “I think so.” “Good, I’ll help you, just go slow.” With a grimace, he slowly extricates himself from the rear cabin, onto the wing, and then to the ground with my help, accompanied by periodic groans. There I lay him out and begin to feel for broken bones, but there are none. “I think the seat belt must have bruised me bad,” was his presumptuous self-diagnosis. I concur with: “I’m glad it was only that – looks like my bloody nose is the only injury.” It had already coagulated.
With that I exclaim: “Let’s get the hell out of here in case the plane catches fire.” This statement is incentive enough for a hasty withdrawal, and so I shepherd the three tottering, hobbling men, away, toward the airfield office. A few people were running our way. At some distance, I turn around to look at the result of my poor pilotage, and was greeted with a pathetic sight. The Cessna (Cardinal) 177, was resting on the top surface of its wing.The tip of the tail touching the ground like a period at the end of a poorly structured sentence. There is only a stump where the nose gear use to be, and the props are bent rearward at a rakish angle.
A voice from behind me disturbs my mournful gaze. “We’ll have to rent a plane now, but with the money from one load we can buy another plane – no problem. I turn around and brush passed Jerry, thinking, “is this insanity or is this insanity,” and continue walking toward the office. My baby is dead. After coffee, and some phone calls and an hour wait, a car came and took us away.