“No observed traffic west of the airport, have a good night.” Those words from Jefferson City tower faded from the speaker and the cockpit of our Piper Cherokee was once again silent – except for the drone of the powerful engine. As I monitored our progress on the GPS, my wife and copilot Sue was absorbed in the lights scattered across the countryside. It had been a perfect flight so far, but that was about to change.
Ten days earlier we had made another night flight. Twenty minutes after leaving our home airport on a trip to Terre Haute, we had stopped for fuel, beginning a chain of events that would culminate in the drama that was about to unfold. In Terre Haute we picked up our passengers and headed home. Our time in the sky is always a precious opportunity to get away from distractions and contemplate every aspect of our lives, from family, to the God who created this great universe we enjoy and seemingly suspends us in His own hand. On that particular night the emotion welled up in Sue as she remembered that exactly four years before we had taken a flight on the evening of her father’s funeral. He too was a pilot who had inspired her to get her pilot’s license.
On that night, we arrived home late, but I had dutifully filled in my logbook with the entry for the 2.9 hour flight, mentally noting that we had burned 2.6 hours of fuel after refueling. I smugly realized that my next flight would be noteworthy as my total time as pilot in command would surpass three thousand hours.
Little did I know that the events unfolding on this flight would be far more significant than that milestone. As we floated westward, the predicted headwinds began increasing sooner than expected. It became apparent that when we arrived at our destination, our fuel reserve would be thirty minutes instead of the forty-five I had planned on. Still, I was not concerned. On a regular schedule I switched between the fuel tanks in our left and right wings. On such a smooth flight, the tiniest imbalance would cause us to bank ever-so-slightly to the left or right. The GPS was ticking down the miles to our destination as I made the last switch. Soon we would be taxiing up to a self service gas pump on a deserted airport to refuel.
Runway lights at many small airports are turned on by the pilot clicking the transmit button on his radio. Two miles out, I went through the drill, making five clicks on my microphone. Nothing happened. I tried again. Still the world was in darkness. By now we were over the airport. I could see a lighted windsock, but no runway was to be found. I had a choice - circle in the dark and try again to turn on the runway lights possibly without success or go on to the next airport some twelve minutes away. The decision came quickly and we headed west once again. I was not concerned, but that would change shortly.
I switched to the right tank and within moments there was a sputter and the sound from up front wound down, leaving only the wind noise of our powerless ton of metal gliding through the night sky. I quickly switched back to the left tank. After a few long seconds the thirsty lifeless engine got a gulp of needed fuel and was running again. Now I was concerned! That should not have happened.
What I didn’t know at that moment was that as I had planned this flight, my mind had remembered the 2.6 hours we had flown on our last flight, and I had taken off the twenty minutes previous to refueling. Therein was the fallacy. I mistakenly believed that we had used 2.3 hours of fuel since our last refueling, rather than 2.6. The thirty minutes of fuel I believed we had now, was actually ten.
I looked at Sue and the concern was all over her face. She was looking for answers that I didn’t have. I was now convinced that the thirty minutes of fuel that I was depending on did not exist. I had no idea why or how much time we had. We sat in silence, communing with God from the depth of our souls. As always we felt His awesome presence surrounding us. I looked at the blackness below us and the lights of Clinton in the distance. I knew much of this part of Missouri was covered in trees and lakes. There would be no way to know what was in the pitch dark below, until it was illuminated by our landing light moments before our arrival at ground zero. Thirty years of experience and training had taught me to do a lot of things right, but my human frailty had negated it all. We knew that with each minute that went by, we were one minute closer to our unknown destiny. Yet our uneasiness was overshadowed by a peace – a peace that passeth all understanding.
As we drew closer to Clinton, I could see the lights of cars on Highway 7 coming out of the city, but the parade of lights seemed to end a few miles out. I figured that if we flew along the highway, I might just have a possible landing spot – if we made it that far. After further study I noticed all the cars seemed to be traveling eastward, as if the town was being evacuated for the night. Landing westbound would put us on a collision course with the traffic so it would be necessary to turn eastbound to blend in with the traffic – if we made it that far.
Still more than a mile from the highway, the inevitable happened. We once again encountered the sounds of silence – the whoosh of the slipstream as our helpless craft sped towards the unknown. This time I knew our power would not return. I lowered the nose to keep the airspeed at eighty miles per hour. Foot by foot, our altitude was disappearing. For just a moment I thought back to my last practice emergency landing with an instructor some four months ago. The plane had come down much more slowly than I anticipated and I had a hard time not over shooting the chosen field. Tonight I was thankful for the excellent glide characteristics of this Cherokee.
I soon realized that what appeared to be the end of the highway was a curve to the south – with nothing but southbound traffic. Approaching the curve I banked to the south. We were committed to land. There could be no “go around” or “do over”. I didn’t dwell on it, but in the back of my mind I knew we were going into uncharted territory. Narrow, rural highways can be covered with trees, power lines, and bridges or bordered with signs, mailboxes and fences.
From that point on everything became instinctive, as if someone else was flying the plane. I concentrated on the airspeed. A controlled collision is one thing, but getting too slow and plummeting out of the sky is another. Our landing light soon revealed the bright reflection of newly painted stripes on our makeshift runway. The surface ran slightly uphill causing me to over-flare just a bit. The stall warning light flashed out a bright warning in the dark cockpit and I lowered the nose just a bit for a smooth touchdown. As we coasted down the center of Highway 7, watching for signs and mailboxes, I saw a set of power lines pass overhead.
We slowed to a stop and I followed Sue out the door on my shaking legs as a car pulled up behind us. The driver was already talking to the Highway Patrol on his cell phone. He assisted us in pushing the plane into a driveway as he shared that his brother is also a pilot. Our special angels from the Missouri Highway Patrol quickly arrived to assist us in any way they could. We were taken the three miles to the airport to fetch a can of gas. A mile of highway was inspected for obstructions and blocked off for our takeoff. We started up and turned on the landing light that had faithfully shown us our improvised runway. Seconds later it burned out. Let’s see now, wasn’t it about miracle number twenty-five that it had lasted that long?
This story could have had a thousand tragic endings. One more circle at the first airport and we’d have not made it to the highway, only to land in trees or the unseen lake we had just passed over. Opposite direction traffic on the highway could have forced us to land in dark unknown terrain. A power line or bridge could have destroyed our airplane. Yet, against all odds, we walked away with not a scratch on us or the airplane. Some may dare to call it luck. I can not. We serve a personal caring God. We are amazed beyond belief at the number of details He attended to throughout this ordeal - and long before - affecting not only our lives, but the lives of those surrounding us. While we sat working on the landing light, a drunk driver came upon our Highway Patrol roadblock and was taken off the road. If only he knew the intricate chain of the events that may have affected, changed, or saved his life and the lives of others……
There’s no question that God did exceeding abundantly above all that we could have asked or thought. Not only that, I believe He knew about and made provision for this situation at the creation of the universe. He did not need to supernaturally move the highway. It was where it was supposed to be. What was important, is that we were where we belonged, physically, spiritually, and in relationship with Him in order to receive His miracle.
Just a few weeks before our incident, I was amazed to see this picture of a pilot who had survived a crash in Florida. It reminded me that God's grace and mercy, not circumstances, make the final determination on our survival of any event.
Or take a look at this aircraft that collided in flight with a Cessna's landing gear, which passed through the cabin, narrowly missing the pilot. He went on to land safely.
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