Probably the closest I have come to dying was the evening I spent in a small private plane lost over central New Mexico.
This story is not terribly flattering to the pilot, so I won't mention his name, but he was a well-known figure at Tech at the time. He gave me permission to tell this story, and it is a good cautionary tale for those who are interested in learning to fly small planes.
One beautiful, clear Friday morning, four of us took off in a Cessna 172 bound for Las Vegas, New Mexico, to attend a conference at Highlands University. The sun cleared the mountains just as we started climbing. I have always been fascinated by flying, so the pilot gave me the chart and I tracked our progress along the route by looking at the ground and comparing it with the chart (a technique called pilotage).
The route from Socorro to Las Vegas just happens to line up with the runway at the Las Vegas airport, so we didn't even need to make an approach. There was an airplane sitting at the near end of the runway, and we had to pull up to clear it, but otherwise the landing went smoothly.
By the time the conference and the post-conference socializing were over, the sun was down. The pilot made some classic mistakes as he took off and headed back to Socorro. He neglected to refuel; there was just enough gas to make it to Socorro, but not much leeway. He didn't notice what time he took off. He set our course for Socorro, but then didn't keep track of his true bearing, or his airspeed.
Good flight instructors will always tell you that it is important for private pilots to use several different techniques for determining position, and constantly check them against each other to see if they agree. We had navigated by pilotage on the trip north, and on a clear day, that worked fine. But we were flying by VFR (visual flight rules) at night, and pilotage is difficult when you can't see the ground.
Dead reckoning is another good method of navigation. If you know what direction you are flying, and how fast, and for how long, you can plot your position on the chart. This requires that you observe the difference between the direction you are pointing and the direction you are flying; crosswinds can make these bearings quite different. Determining the difference requires pilotage, or help from radio navigation aids or flight controllers. But with no idea of our time of takeoff, our true bearing, or our speed, dead reckoning would have been a pretty good trick.
The night was clear, with a nearly full moon to light up the landscape. We chattered away about the conference and things in general and the time passed quickly.
We got about two-thirds of the way back to Socorro before the pilot suddenly realized that he had no idea where we were, and no basis for dead reckoning. We tried pilotage, but at night there are few landmarks other than street lights. The area east of the Manzanos is speckled with small towns and large farms, and they all look just the same: little pools of street lights, randomly strewn over the landscape.
I was starting to get a little bit worried. My friend Jim Flemming, one of the other passengers, had already been getting nervous for some time. We were flying at 9,000 feet, and our course was not too far from Manzano Peak, which is around 10,000.
We kept flying through little chunks of cloud here and there. Jim said later that his knuckles were pretty white, since he fully expected to fly into one of those cloud banks and then slam into a mountainside, without even giving us time to reflect on our deaths.
Our pilot was at a particularly dangerous stage in his training. He had flown for about 100 hours, and flight instructors will tell you that this is long enough to get somewhat lax about flying. The pilot had not done dead reckoning partially because the plane was equipped with electronic navigational aids, and he tended to depend on them.
The pilot was also thinking about the possibility of suddenly flying into Manzano Peak, so instead of continuing on our course, he circled where we were, and switched on our radio navigation equipment. This system, called VOR for Very-high-frequency Omni-Range, is based on a scattered network of small transmitting stations.
A VOR transmitter is an unmanned station, generally located in the middle of nowhere. It has a flat roof with a small round beige dome on top. Each station effectively sends a different signal in each direction, and operates on a specific frequency. If everything is working right, it will tell you approximately what your bearing is, relative to the station; with two bearings, you can triangulate.
We were able to pick up signals from three different VOR transmitters. I was in the back seat with the chart, trying to make sense of the bearings. The first station turned out to be west of us, and it told us that we were east of it. The second station was pretty much due east of us, and it told us we were west of it. But I wasn't used to dealing with compass bearings, so I misinterpreted the second number by 180 degrees, which led me to believe that we were east of both stations.
The third station, as it turns out, was some distance north of our position. Either it was too far away, or it wasn't working right: the bearing was weak and intermittent, and seemed to indicate that we were east of that station, too. I plotted these bearings on the chart, and they intersected at a position somewhere around Dallas.
The pilot started buzzing one of the larger groups of streetlights, which we later found out was the town of Mountainair. He made several low passes over the town, hoping that maybe one of the motels was named after the town and would have a large sign that we could read from the air. No such luck.
Finally, he announced that we were going to have to land on the highway. He picked out a long straight section of highway near the town and circled over it a few times to check it out. We could tell pretty well where the cars were from their headlights. When we lined up for our final approach, there was only one car on the highway, and he obligingly drove it into the bar ditch when he saw us coming.
Our pilot made a great landing. Of the ten or so landings I have experienced in small planes, the landing he made on the highway was by far the smoothest---a virtually perfect three-point landing.
But there are some important differences between landing strips and highways that rapidly became apparent as we rolled down the highway. Landing strips never have slight bends in them. They also don't have speed limit signs close enough to be hit by a wing. You don't notice it from your car, but speed limit signs are actually quite tall. A low-wing plane would have clipped the sign, but fortunately the Cessna 172 is a high-wing model and had several inches clearance over the top of the sign.
Another important feature of landing strips is that they are free of power line crossings (except sometimes near the ends). A few seconds after we had touched down, we went under a power line that had been invisible from the air. If we had landed just a few yards further down, things might have gotten dicey.
Finally the plane rolled to a stop. Just then, it began to snow. We taxied off the highway and into a muddy farm field.
In a Cessna 172, the fuel gauges are not located on the main panel. They are in the wing roots, so you have to look up and to the side to read them. With everything else that had been going on, we had never thought about fuel. There was a bit over a gallon in the left-hand tank, and the right-hand tank was bone dry.
From a nearby phone booth, the pilot called the owner of the plane (the airport manager in Socorro) for instructions. The owner said he would fill up some jerry cans with aviation fuel, throw them in his trunk, and drive up. He would stay in a motel in Mountainair that night, then find a place to take off the next morning.
We decided that the thing for us to do was have the pilot's wife drive up and get us so we could go to the Capitol and have some pizza and get good and drunk to celebrate not dying. Talking about this made us all seriously thirsty. Jim and I were dispatched to town for a six-pack of beer.
Unfortunately, in these days the streets of Mountainair were usually rolled up about eight in the evening, so there was only one place open. We walked into this tacky bar to find two people in the place. The bartender and some old derelict were having a loud argument about whether the capital of Montana was Butte or Helena. Neither Jim nor I could remember for sure, and since we were the only other people abroad that night, they weren't going to sell us our six-pack unless we settled their damned argument.
After a long argument with these two drunks, they finally realized that they weren't going to get any help from us. They agreed to let us have our beer and we walked back west down U.S. 60 out of town and toward the plane. We got to the motel where the plane's owner planned to spend the night and watched as the plane taxied into the parking lot.
Running a motel in Mountainair probably doesn't provide much excitement, but we gave the motel manager some that night. I can't even begin to describe the look on her face as she watched a light plane taxi down the highway and then pull off and roll up to her office.