[ Miracles ]

On a Wing and a Prayer

I’ve been a pilot for 39 years and also enjoy building or restoring the planes I fly. Several years ago, I discovered a 20-year-old aerobatic aircraft up in “the wilds” of Canada that had become a “hangar queen”, meaning it just sat there in its faded glory and never saw the light of day. It also happened to be the next plane I was considering building. As such, it made sense to fly the plane to Georgia and rebuild it rather than start a new airplane from scratch.

The deal was made and I was on my way to Canada by plane, bus and taxi to a far-off airport whose name I couldn’t even pronounce, much less remember. When I arrived, the seller gave me some “check-out” time in the aircraft, signed the papers and away I went to the U.S. of A.

My first stop was Niagara Falls Airport to clear customs and pick-up my good friend Billy, who had never experienced a long cross-country flight in a two-seat aircraft. Since he was building his own plane, we thought this would be a great experience for him. Little did we know just what kind of experience it would be.

After customs, we loaded the plane with gas and gear and off we went. Our first goal was to do a scenic tour of Niagara Falls from the air, which was as breathtaking as you’d imagine. We then headed to the heartland of America with a planned overnight stop in northern Tennessee before the final push into Georgia.

As we flew south and reached the Kentucky mountains, we were above broken, but increasingly dense, clouds. Although clouds can appear from “somewhere else” and just float along to where you are, they can also form spontaneously around, under or over you under the right atmospheric conditions. This is what happened to us.

Because we had adequate fuel, we tried to proceed around the weather system. But it grew faster than we were flying. In short order, the mountains below us became almost completely shrouded in the thickening cloud layer with only an occasional hint of green peaks visible. These conditions began to make for tense moments. I was well aware that pilots have been known to fly into “cloud rocks” (i.e., mountains that are hidden by or in the clouds), much to their permanent demise.

The white-knuckle factor was compounded when we discovered that the database in the GPS (a navigation instrument which directs you to an airport) was obsolete, meaning we had no way of knowing our position relative to the airport. Unfortunately, we’d earlier realized we didn’t have the navigational instruments to fall back on. Some of them were too old to be accurate and, worse, some had rolled over and died as the trip progressed.

We would have to land this plane using only our wits – and providence.

As we flew on, I could spot ridges and valleys far below us through an occasional hole in the clouds, holes which were quickly becoming few and far between. Through one of these, I briefly saw a short gravel road on the top of a ridge that I thought might be long enough to put the plane down on, at least in a condition we could walk away from.

But we had no way of knowing how close to the ground the cloud bottoms were in this area – vital information that would affect our approach to a landing. Without functioning instruments, a pilot has no reference point of what is straight and level. Trying to fly by the “seat of the pants” without a visual horizon is the classic pilot killer. (See cloud rocks above!)

At this point, I recalled having seen a WalMart somewhere in the valley, but I had no idea where it was. As my mind raced, I thought that I could even put the plane down in the parking lot – if I could only find it. At least help would get to us quickly if necessary.

The weather rapidly deteriorated and I lost all concerns about saving the plane. All that mattered now was getting us on the ground in one piece – regardless of what I had to do to accomplish that. By this time, Billy was beginning to look somewhat concerned, a look that only intensified when I told him of my landing intentions. He was probably considering that this trip may not have been such a good idea. But to his credit, he remained calm and helpful as I focused on finding a solution to our predicament.

As we flew on, the clouds massed together and the ground simply disappeared. All of a sudden, that 1/8 inch thick Plexiglas canopy didn’t seem like much between us and the gray gloom outside. We were no longer in a position to safely fly.

The only option left was to try to climb into clearer air above the thickening cloud layer. As we were doing this, I rechecked the aviation map and confirmed that there was a river somewhere nearby with an airport alongside it. But where was the river?

I began to sweat more than I like… and I began to pray. I had to control the slowly rising knot of panic forming in my gut. I asked God to help keep me calm and to show me the way out of this worsening dilemma while keeping the plane in controllable flight. Silently, I could also sense Billy praying alongside me.

I decided to make a 360-degree climbing turn, hoping to locate the gravel ridge road. As I was almost completing the turn, I looked straight out of the windscreen and saw a small hole in the clouds. But this was no ordinary hole. To my utter amazement, what I saw was like a scene from a Cecil B. DeMille epic movie about the Bible. Reflecting like a silver homing beacon off the river, many miles away, I could plainly see the sun.

I could not believe our “luck.” Knowing that we were safe from colliding into a mountain top if I just flew a straight line, I headed downward for that hole at full throttle. We broke out of the clouds over the river where it had begun to rain. From here, it was a process of flying the shoreline until we found the airport.

I thanked God for what I believed was His perfectly timed guidance in showing us the way and keeping us out of the woods…literally. But the story had not yet ended.

As we approached the airport, I set the engine and flight controls and flew the standard pattern to the runway with no hint of any additional problems. Upon turning onto our final approach, I lowered the flaps and did a final gauge check, all of which were fine. However, no sooner did the two main tires touch the ground during the landing “flare,” than there was... silence. Right before our eyes, the propeller came to an abrupt and complete stop as the engine quit cold in the span of a heartbeat.

Stunned, Billy and I just looked at each other wordlessly, not knowing whether to laugh or cry. Laugh because we were safely on the ground…or cry, because it could have happened just moments earlier with a very different outcome. Needless to say, it was with a lot of gratitude and humble hearts that we silently rolled down the runway for our unplanned overnight stop.

That was the first of two times we kissed the ground on that trip! As for the other time, that’s another story.

Gary P.

Lilburn, GA