Dream Catcher

DREAM-CATCHER

“Oh, I have slipped the surly bonds of earth
And danced the skies on laughter-silvered wings…”
—-John Magee

I now own a Piper Cherokee PA28-150, a four-seat single engine airplane, built in 1967, which I acquired in 1998, after a rather interesting flying incident occurred , the details of which I shall account at a later time. For now, let me try to convey my feeling for flying to you.

When I was young boy, my father would sometimes take me to Bethany airport to watch the airplanes take-off and land on the grass field. I think the old white hangar still survives at the top of the hill on the New Haven road. The field is long gone, replaced by suburbia. In the 1930's the thought of becoming a pilot made up the dreams of many a lad. But, nobody my father knew was connected to flying, so I watched from afar. And time passed.

As a student at Naval Air Station, Millington, Tennessee, in Aviation Electronic School in 1953, one of our assignments was to fly in the back of a ten-passenger Beech Aircraft looking through a radar scope and taking turns telling the pilot to fly one mile off the east bank of the Mississippi River. When not looking at the scope, I was looking out the window admiring the scenery as we navigated up the river to Hannibal, Missouri, of Mark Twain fame, and then keeping the airplane one mile off the west bank on the way back. I enjoyed it so much that I would often bum rides when not in school just to experience the joy of flight! I was hooked but my time was not yet.

Too many events and things had to transpire before I was able to fly an airplane by myself. There was school to finish, a marriage, a child and a divorce before I was able to fulfill my dream. Finally, at age fifty-four, I soloed an airplane-a Cessna 152- at Joe Tringali’s flight school in Oxford, Connecticut on December 14th, 1986. My instructor and I had completed a couple of touch and goes( a maneuver where you land the airplane and immediately take off again, remaining in the pattern). After the second one, he told me to taxi the plane to the ramp. Amazingly, he got out of the plane and said,” Give me three good touch and goes.” This was it! I was pilot in command and alone in the cockpit. Taxiing carefully out to the runway, I went through all the procedures we had been practicing, did the run-up, checked the sky for traffic and proceeded to the runway, adrenalin charging through my veins. Taking a deep breath, I pushed the throttle in, heard the engine roar, checked the instruments again and within a thousand feet the airplane left the ground and I had ‘slipped the surly bonds of earth’. Take-offs are easy. Landings, a bit more exciting. Each landing is different from any other because conditions are never exactly the same because of wind and other factors, but I followed the rules and ‘greased’ the landing. I had flown an airplane by myself! The next two maneuvers were just as good and I was on my way to becoming a pilot. About six months later, after much more practice, I became a licensed pilot and started looking for my first plane.

I began looking through trade publications and asking at the flight school but then, I came across an advertisement with a telephone number one digit different from mine. I called and after remarking about the coincidence of phone numbers, shortly thereafter, Vinnie found me an airplane-a PA28-160, Piper Cherokee. He also became a friend who flew with me for many years. I put about 160 hours on that plane the first year flying from Oxford to Florida, to Pennsylvania, Vermont and breakfasts all over the New York, Rhode Island and Massachusetts area. Vinnie became a full-time aircraft dealer and we went to small and large airports looking at different airplanes to buy. I was in heaven.

Of course, as with most boys, their toys have got to be bigger and faster, so I sold the 160 and bought a 180-a bigger ,faster, more expensive Cherokee. My daughter was living in Vermont, so I could cut the travel time to one and half hours from five by car to visit her. I also was using the airplane to get my Instrument certification-i.e flying through any kind of weather.(However, I never did complete that training; probably waking up to the fact that flying was supposed to be for pleasure. The training served me well in other times when conditions changed quickly and I was forced to use the instruments to get me out of trouble).

I remember one time leaving Johnnycake Airport in Harwinton and describing the flight thusly in my journal:

“The sky was crystal blue. Fair weather clouds to the west and high cirrus above blocked out the sun fleetingly. Sun shadows on the ground delineated the hills and valleys. The autumn colors shone brilliantly in the late afternoon sun. The perspective from the sky sharpened the trees outlining the ridges. The horizon stretched at least fifty miles.
Flying back toward the west I watched the sun sink to the horizon among a myriad of oranges and reds. When I turned south, there on my left was a full moon rising over the eastern hills. Where else can you see such sights except from the cockpit of an airplane? “
RJG Journal 1990

The next aircraft, a Mooney, cruised at about 160 MPH, much faster than the Cherokees which flew about 115 and 130 MPH. I was able to go to my brother’s house in York, Pennsylvania, in about an hour and fifteen minutes instead of the six hours by car. Florida was about two hours closer also. The Mooney was a complex airplane, which meant that the gear retracted and the propellor could be changed in flight, much as changing gears in a car. Even though that airplane went fast, cancer caught up with me and so I thought it prudent to sell the Mooney, not needing any more excitement at that time.

After recuperating from the operation, I went searching for another plane. Vin found one in Rhode Island. An older gentleman had a Cessna 172 for sale. The price was right and a quick inspection sealed the deal. But so many negative incidents with the old man came up between the sale and my picking up the airplane that I was not feeling too great about the purchase and almost backed out of the deal. But the purchase was finally completed. However, the Cessna is a high-wing airplane and I had always had low-wing craft. I knew almost immediately that this airplane was not for me. When the old man called me a couple of months later and asked if I wanted to sell the airplane back to him, I reluctantly agreed to do so-in about two seconds!

I had retired from teaching by this time and Vin and I had become semi- partners and we found another 180 in Phoenix. We had a friend look the airplane over and the price being right, we bought the airplane. The owner would bring the airplane to St. Louis and I would go out and bring it back to Oxford. Another adventure-flying half way across the country in an airplane I had no experience with. I jumped at the chance. I flew TWA to St. Louis and took a cab from there to Spirit of St. Louis Airport where my airplane was located. The weather did not cooperate for the next two days and I stayed at a motel a few miles from the airport. Finally, I called weather and they said if I could get about thirty miles to the east, I would have clear skies to Connecticut. I got into the airplane and took off. The ceiling was supposed to be 1500 feet. As I was climbing through 1000 feet, I looked down to check the chart. When I looked up again, I was in the clouds at 1100 feet. Then it started to rain. Since the outside temperature that December day was about thirty degrees, I did 180 degree turn and flew back to Spirit of St. Louis Airport, tied the airplane down, went back to TWA and flew home on one of their airplanes. We hired some airline pilots who do this for fun and profit to pick the airplane up and bring it back to Oxford a couple of days later. Our profit margin on the deal was getting slimmer. But since the airplane liked to fly, I thought it best to fly it as often as possible while trying to sell it. So the plane got a chance to see Florida and South Carolina and Maine until some fellow in Montana finally bought it. I flew it out to Cleveland where our pilot friends flew it the rest of the way. I think we broke even on that deal. But I had great fun and many new experiences.

At Oxford, we had a great bunch of fliers. Usually, on a weekend, we would have ten or twelve airplanes flying someplace for breakfast or lunch. We also had a group who would fly to Sun’n’Fun in Lakeland, Florida, for the airshow every spring. It was at one of these shows that I became interested in my next airplane- a home-built Varieze. One of the group had one and wanted to sell it. It looked just like a Star-ship that you might have seen in the movie, Starwars. I decided to buy it from him. And I got a chance to learn a great deal more about airplanes, especially this one, in the next few months. Most of the time was learning to start it but when we finally figured it out with some help, I flew it around the area mostly learning how to control it. It was easy but it was fast and had some idiosyncrasies that needed to be dealt with. Finally, after some time the incident I mentioned before took place.

“ ACCIDENT AT OXFORD-APRIL 29,1998

I had just returned from Sun'n'Fun in Lakeland where I had seen all kinds of gadgets to enhance my recently purchased Varieze. Shortly before the trip. I had installed a new carburetor and new mags and harness. This April morning beamed as one of those days meant for flying and since I had not flown the airplane in two weeks. I was anxious to try it out. At this time I had about 30 hours in the plane. The preflight was routine except for one difference. During the fuel check, I added TCP to alleviate lead fouling in the plugs. In the Varieze, the sight gages for the fuel are in the bulkhead in the rear passenger seat and are very difficult to see in flight especially when wearing a headset and glasses as I do. Therefore I always checked the gages and also the tanks very carefully before flight. The gas caps are secured with Dzus Fasteners which must be opened by a dime or screw driver which I used. Today I had approximately 16 gallons in the mains and about 4 gallons in the header tank-more than enough for the hour or so I had intended to fly. Since I could not see the gages, I relied on the big timer I had fastened to the panel.

The Varieze must be hand-propped to start. (One item I had purchased at Sun'n'Fun was a lightweight starter.) The engine kicked over on the third blade and I hopped in the cockpit and started down the taxiway. The run-up was strong and all systems seemed go. I taxied to the 36 runway (north-facing) at Oxford. Ct. and took off in less than 2000 feet and the airplane climbed beautifully. Since l had not flown in two weeks. I decided to make a landing so I stayed in the pattern. All the controls responded well and the landing was a greaser. I used the runout to test the brakes and they allowed a turn-off at the first taxiway. I went back to the runway and took off again in a general northeast direction. One of my friends told me later that when I passed over his house, he recognized the distinctive shape of the aircraft and mentioned to his wife how strong the engine sounded.

I proceeded to do some air work toward the northeast. Another friend was following me in his Glassair and we remarked how well each other looked. Then he took off to the east and I continued wending my way northeast doing climbing turns and using different settings on my tachometer to get a better feeling for the aircraft. My first hint of any problem was a slight cough in a descent. I was not concerned but I decided to get some altitude, just in case.

I climbed to about 8500 feet. The engine sounded good so I figured I would return to Oxford to see if there might be a problem that I could solve when I got back. I had been flying for about four minutes since that slight cough with no indication of trouble when I suddenly heard the sound every piston pilot dreads-the sound of silence! A sweep of the instruments and the clock gave no clue as to what was wrong, but now I was flying a glider. With no starter, the restart procedure is to dive to 150 MPH and I switched tanks and did so but quickly realized that altitude was my best ally, so I leveled out some seven or eight hundred feet lower and started looking for a suitable landing spot. I knew I was near Mountain Meadow, a small airport northeast of Oxford. but it must have been just behind me and I could not see it. Ahead, however, was Oxford almost beckoning me to come home. At this point, I trimmed the plane to 60 knots and started concentrating on Oxford rationalizing that I could always land on the interstate if I had to do so.

The airplane handled beautifully. Oxford was right on my nose about eight to ten miles ahead. The descent was about 500 feet a minute. The canard configuration allowed me to keep the plane steady without fear of stalling. Everything looked great. About three miles out, I made the announcement over Unicom radio that I was an experimental airplane with an engine out trying for 18 at Oxford. Another pilot answered and said he would monitor my frequency. He then informed me that 36 was the active. I acknowledged but said I was going for 18.

Less than a mile from the runway I realized that I was not going to make it without the possibility of hitting some houses that would be in my path. I opted for the trees northwest of the runway thinking they would be softer. I remember thinking that if I had not dived, l would probably have had enough altitude to make the runway. My last transmission was that I could not make the field and that I was diverting to the trees, I aimed for what I thought was the smallest bush(later I found out that it was the top of a forty-foot tree). The nose gear caught the branch at an indicated airspeed of 40 knots. The rest of the descent to the ground is not too clear but it looks like I hit another tree which flipped the plane and it slowly ended upside down against a small stand of black birches which probably cushioned the impact. During the fall I tried to open the canopy and managed to do so partially but I was hanging from the harness with my head pinned down on the canopy when I stopped about six inches off the ground, I was able to reach the master electrical switch as I heard the last transmission from the monitoring pilot asking if I was still able to hear him. Not knowing the status of the fuel, I turned off the master switch without answering and spent the next twenty three hours trapped in the plane.

I definitely did not expect that it would take that much time to find me. What I did not realize at the time was that no one was looking for me! It was not until the next morning that my friends started to organize a search and the first person to take off looking for me found me and I was rescued shortly thereafter. Luckily, I was not injured because, during the crash, the harness kept me in the seat preventing any movement. The fiberglass cockpit held together well but I became dehydrated and had to spend some time in the hospital on fluids.

The probable cause of the accident may have been the right gas cap not being tightened which allowed four hours of fuel to siphon out in forty-two minutes. (One of the first rules you are taught as a student is to be especially alert if you vary the pre-flight routine, I had added the TCP.)

Had I told someone where I was going, or, at the least, when I expected to be back; had I carried my hand-held radio or even a cell phone, it would have gotten me out in minutes rather than hours.

Lastly, I will carry a working ELT(Emergency Locator Transmitter). I was lucky. But you can bet that I will not rely on that the next time I fly. Preparation and attention to details are much more reliable and I intend to make sure that my pre-flights are uninterrupted and unchanged from now on.

So much for the fun of flying lt.”
(June 6.1998)RJG Journal

Just a Quarter Mile Short
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My present airplane will be my last. I purchased it after some considerable discussions with the Federal Aviation Agency concerning paper work and other consternation. I have had this plane since September, 1998. My friend, Frank Rinaldi, who is now 90, and I and John Pendergast, flew across the country from Oxford to Florida to Corona, California, and back to Oxford in 1999. John was in his Cessna 152, and Frank and I in my airplane. That was a trip which I shall save for another time. Suffice it to say - that was a Great adventure.

I shall close this episode with an observation Frank and I made on one of those clear you-can-see-forever days. We were commenting on the fact of how lucky we were; to be able to fly like an eagle wherever and whenever we wanted in America. We wondered what our parents would think if they could see us now. And then we realized how fortunate we really were. How many people in the history of the world had ever flown an airplane? How many had ever caught their boyhood dreams?

Bob Grady
Waterbury, CT © 2013

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