My dad grew up in Rhode Island and Brooklyn, and moved to Pittsburgh in the late 50s to work as a research chemist for Westinghouse, a job he held for 35 years. When a kid talks about his father, he starts with this kind of broad brush story. But the really defining things are more often found a little deeper down, in what the old man did in his spare time—the interests, hobbies, fascinations. From kooky fixations to more high minded pursuits, and everything in between. These are the things that remain larger than life in the minds of the kids.
So it was with my dad. In his history, there’s hiking, skiing, canoeing, home wine making, and being an extra in local opera productions. And then there is also flying. For much of our childhood, this was his signature hobby. As early as I can remember, the man was fascinated with flight. I couldn’t have been more than four or five, and he would take me out to the Allegheny County Airport to watch the small planes take off and land. We’d be out on the edge of the tarmac, behind a low iron fence, watching...over and over again. His interest actually began much earlier, as a boy growing up in Brooklyn. He would build gas-powered model airplanes and fly them in the neighborhood.
Flight has been a human fascination down through the ages—to soar in the heavens and reach new freedoms. It’s been called “the most beautiful dream that has haunted the heart of man since Icarus.” The literature and mythology around aviation is rich with explorers, pioneers, swashbuckling characters, and improbable rogues: the Wright Brothers, the early barnstormers, Lindbergh, Earhart, St Exupery, and all the way to Chuck Yeager and the Apollo astronauts. And today, throw in those crazy guys in wing suits and jet packs who show up regularly on the internet. Although safety has increased greatly over the years, fliers themselves are the first to acknowledge the fatalistic bargain they strike—rarefied heights in exchange for risking life and limb.
Lindbergh spoke directly to this bargain: "Science, freedom, beauty, adventure: what more could you ask of life? Aviation combined all the elements I loved….I began to feel that I lived on a higher plane than the skeptics of the ground; one that was richer because of its very association with the element of danger they dreaded, because it was freer of the earth to which they were bound... I decided that if I could fly for ten years before I was killed in a crash, it would be a worthwhile trade for an ordinary life time."
In the 1970s, the aspiration to flight was articulated in the bestselling self help text, Jonathan Livingston Seagull, a fable where the idea of flying becomes a proxy for all sorts of deeper ideals and insights. I recall that little paperback on Dad’s night stand for a time.
Fliers themselves are the first to acknowledge the fatalistic bargain they strike—rarefied heights in exchange for risking life and limb.
When I was in junior high, he graduated from being a looky-loo out at the airport to getting his pilot’s licence, and then getting weather-rated, and finally rated for instruments (able to fly when there is no visibility). He became a weekend pilot like so many other successful professionals with a little disposable income, and the need for adventure beyond the conventional office career. Like other weekend warriors, this was dad’s outlet. Now that I find myself with a family, kids and a career of my own, I understand this need from the other side of the equation.
Dad joined a flying club, where the costs of owning and maintaining two small planes were shared among maybe fifteen or so people. His main flying buddy was a guy named Dave Tanner, a fellow club member. Another pilot friend was a guy named Harry Rhule, who knew dad from a hiking group they were in back in the sixties. He was a commercial pilot whose work entailed ferrying smaller planes all over the world. The way dad described it, his gig was real seat-of-the-pants, long haul stuff. He was fished out of the ocean once, and then ended up going down somewhere over the Atlantic, lost at sea.
Our parents were divorced, and we would see dad on the weekends. That’s when we would go flying. The club was at a tiny airfield out on the edge of farm country, an hour east of Pittsburgh. He would go through this precise, deliberate preflight procedure, step by step, a dead serious vibe, clicking switches on the control panel. This culminated with him yelling “clear” and then starting the engine and propeller.
The Cessna 172 that he flew was a small four passenger rig. For decades, and maybe still, this model has been the most popular small plane in production--efficient, affordable and with enough range to be practical. The thing that sticks with me is how fledgling it was, a little toy getting rocked around in the wind, a tin can with a whining motor. It felt a little fragile going into a stall, and drifting into a landing over the adjacent barns. I was always amazed that this meager contraption actually worked.
The thing that sticks with me is how fledgling it was, a little toy getting rocked around in the wind, a tin can with a whining motor.
We toured around with him on the weekends, landing at little strips, and dirt fields in far flung places. Sometimes there would be an old duffer manning the facility out of a trailer or shack...and just as often, nobody at all. Part for the allure for the ametur pilot was to be able to a get to certain spots that would otherwise take a lot longer by car. So, much of this travel was “just because.” We’d eat a lunch and then fly back to our little home airport.
Thanksgiving Travel Plan
In the fall of 1986 my two brothers and I were all in college: Andy in Rhode Island, Mike in Connecticut, and me in the middle of Pennsylvania. As Thanksgiving approached, Dad hatched a plan to fly a circuit between these three points, pick us all up, and fly back to Pittsburgh (in Western Pennsylvania) for the holiday with Laura, his second wife, and her parents. It seemed like the perfect plan: an expedient way to get us all three home together, that featured dad’s passion.
On the day before Thanksgiving, I got a ride out to the airport outside State College, home of Penn State University, an idyllic small town tucked in the middle of Amish farm country. On that day, I was not thinking about the geography and the logistics of the flight plan, the map, the wind speed/altitude relationship, flight time, the daylight available, or the mileage involved in this multi-state circuit. All I knew was it was a nice sunny November day, and I was looking forward to the holiday and partying with my friends back in the 'Burgh.
I walked across the tarmac, threw my bag into the cockpit and climbed in. He radioed the control tower, and went into the familiar preflight procedure. He had me check a few things, sort of our routine—maybe just to involve me, and maybe I was really helping. We climbed smoothly up and away, clearing town and leveling off. On we flew eastward!
The trip east was uneventful. We covered the 400 and some miles to Providence and picked up Andy. We took off again for the short hop over to Connecticut, and came in for a landing in Middletown in the darkness. This was the first night landing for me. On the approach we had a little trouble picking out the airport among what seemed like a baffling mess of ground lights, and then we followed the lines of red and blue lights in along the runway. By the time we got Mike and refueled, the cloud ceiling had dropped down below the 100 foot minimum for take offs. Dad spent some time in discussions with the people in the airport office, the result of which was that we were grounded for the night. We got some dinner and walked over to a little motel just down the road and got a room.
Trapped in the Clouds
Early the next morning we made our way back over to the airport where there was a lot of waiting around until the people in the control office determined we were OK to take off. Apparently the ceiling was right around the limit and finally lifted enough to clear us. Airspeed for the Cessna 172 topped out at just over 130 mph. Adjusting for westerly headwinds, we were hoping to cover the 450 miles to Pittsburgh in maybe five or six hours. If all went well, we would just make it in time for Thanksgiving dinner.
We took off into the overcast morning sky and headed west. Andy and Mike quickly fell asleep in the back seat, and it was me and dad in the front. The windshields were whited out and we bounced along at 6,000 feet--just the whine of the engine and periodically us resetting new vector coordinates as we flew into a sector with a new beacon. At some point, maybe a couple of hours into the flight, the monotony of the trip broke, when all of the electronic instruments suddenly died, including the radio. Dad went through efforts to get the radio to work and started flipping switches across the whole control panel. After a short time, I noticed his efforts started to take on a more urgent pace, and he got a little erratic, fumbling for a thick flight manual. He had me look something up, and then another. Within a few minutes it became clear that we could do nothing mechanically to remedy our situation. We were out of options. Our electricity was dead: no radio, no vector controls. We later learned that the alternator had blown, and this plane did not have a backup.
As I watched him fumble with map and manual, the infallible sense of my father evaporated before my eyes. Every father goes from hero to mortal in the minds of his kids--it’s an inevitable part of growing up. Now, this process was happening right there in the span of a few moments. He had gotten us into a bad spot and was struggling to figure a way out. All we could do was to follow the magnetic compass due west and keep the altitude at 6,000 feet. The altimeter was a pressure controlled device, the only other non-electric instrument. We couldn’t just descend. It was too risky that we might fly into something. The Allegheny Mountains, part of the Appalachian range, run through Pennsylvania.
As I watched him fumble with map and manual, the infallible sense of my father evaporated before my eyes. Every father goes from hero to mortal in the minds of his kids—it’s an inevitable part of growing up. Now, this process was happening right there in the span of a few moments. He had gotten us into a bad spot and was struggling to figure a way out.
As we rode along, the steady drone of the engine seemed to get louder, and I started to feel trapped inside the white windows. The cramped sense of the tin box cockpit became more intense and claustrophobic. And the two of us, not saying much, looked quietly and desperately for an opening. He didn’t have to say it to me--I knew we were in big trouble. This went on for about a half hour. As I think back on it, that half hour was more terrifying than the eventual impact. A slow moving sense of dread, too much time to explore any number of ugly scenarios from every angle. We were on our own, and nobody could help us.
Sometime in this excruciating span, we spotted a little hole in the clouds through which could barely make out the darker color of the ground way below. This was our chance to save ourselves, and dad took it. He corkscrewed down through the opening and we broke out of the clouds maybe a few hundred feet off of the ground, above a bunch of small dairy farms. We were somewhere in the middle of Pennsylvania. In the turbulence of the descent, my brothers woke up. We began to circle maybe a hundred feet up looking for a good place to land. We were studying the squares of dead corn fields and roads that separated them, and clusters of leafless trees here and there. Everything was gray and wet and had a desolate feel.
What I didn’t know at the time is that without power, we couldn’t use the wing flaps to slow down for a landing. So it was going to be a high speed landing in a muddy cornfield. The roads all looked too narrow and with too many obstacles. Not an ideal situation. I don’t think there was much conversation, maybe just dad here and there thinking through the situation out loud in his intensely concentrated state.
We made fairly tight, banked circles as dad tried to figure out the best spot. At some point we could see a farmer down below waving his hands. He had figured out we were in trouble and was motioning us toward a particular field. Dad ordered me to squeeze into the back seat. I later learned this was against FAA protocol, but he know anyone in the front seat would have much higher odds of injury or worse.
We made several landing attempts, but each time we were coming in way too fast and dad pulled up from a few feet off the ground back into a circling pattern. This went on for what seemed like a long time, with all of us getting a little sick from being tossed around the cockpit. On one such aborted attempt, one of the wings clipped a power line on the way back up. We lost airspeed and dad had no choice but to pivot the plane quickly into the next field and put her down. It happened so fast, the only thing I remember is going into a tuck as we hit. We didn’t hit square, but rolled and came to rest upside down. And then everything came to an abrupt stop, with one of the side doors swinging open.
We made several landing attempts, but each time we were coming in way too fast and dad pulled up from a few feet off the ground back into a circling pattern. This went on for what seemed like a long time, with all of us getting a little sick from being tossed around the cockpit.
My brothers and I wedged ourselves out as quick as possible. We unbelted dad, who was slumped over, and pulled him out, dazed and bloody. He had taken a pretty good shot to the nose. The four of us ran from the plane, not knowing if there would be a fire or explosion. Dad had the presence of mind to shut off the fuel before impact, which is standard procedure.
The farmer pulled up and collected us. He took us to his homestead where his wife cleaned dad up. Dad reported the accident to the FAA. On our way to the hospital we stopped back at the plane, which was now surrounded by a fleet of fire engines and police cars, with all their lights flashing. The whole scene was taped off. This was probably the biggest event this farm community had seen in a long time. They let us get in and grab our bags.
When we walked into the hospital, there were two TV news crews, and everyone sort of looked at us in awe, the family that walked away from a plane wreck. They stitched up dad and then he did a few interviews with the news people. We got a ride out to the Greyhound station and caught the next bus bound for Pittsburgh. The bus ride was long and brutally monotonous after our ordeal. I had a bottle of scotch in my bag as a gift for Thanksgiving dinner. Dad and I took pulls off it as we rolled down the PA Turnpike.
We didn’t get home until mid evening, greeted by Laura and her elderly parents, with looks of deep concern and relief in their eyes. We were all over the local news. It was the perfect Thanksgiving lead, a nice family survival story. We started getting calls from friends and family.
My brothers and I called mom. She yelled at us and hung up. The anger seemed like a counter intuitive reaction, but the more I thought about it the more I understood. Her whole family was nearly killed. She tolerated flying but was never really supportive. She didn’t cool down for several more days.
By this point nobody had much energy for a festive Thanksgiving dinner. We ate quickly, without much fanfare. Afterward, a college buddy came over and the two of us had more of that scotch. He couldn’t stop kidding that he was going to start calling dad “crash.” He left late. As I was ready to call it a night, dad came downstairs in his underwear, just the two of us awkwardly passing in the dining room. He locked me up with a really sincere stare and asked point blank, “will you fly with me again?” You could see how shaken he was by the whole thing. I answered yes, but was thinking no. And I did end up flying with him again, a bunch of times, including a pretty tricky landing into Newark, a really busy major airport for a small craft. As much as my dad struggled afterward with the thought of having put his kids in peril, I continue to see a guy who did all the right things in an extremely stressful situation where he had only one shot to get it right.
He locked me up with a really sincere stare and asked point blank, “will you fly with me again?”
When we were pulling luggage out of the wrecked plane, I grabbed the vectors map that was crumpled in the cockpit. It had dad’s blood smeared all over it. This morbid souvenir of our debacle hung in my apartment for a while. From that point through these next 30 years, the mythology of the airplane wreck has grown. Like all mythology, the unpleasant elements fade away, and the story lives on in memory as a great misadventure that we survived, and lived to tell the tale.
© Copyright Justin Panson. All rights reserved.