by Marvin Arnold


My ground speed is probably in excess of 250 mph as I climb on top of the cloud layer headed for New Orleans. Inbound on New Orleans, the overcast sky is now broken, so I decide to descend and proceed into Lakefront Airport VFR rather than having to file IFR with New Orleans Approach Control.

Slowing the Bellanca down, I begin my descent below the overcast and as it turns out I have only about a 1,500-foot ceiling. As I level out and my eyes focus on the horizon and there is nothing except water as far as I could see in any direction. Darn it, I knew I had been clipping along at a good ground speed, but I didn't realize I had already passed New Orleans. Here I am out over the Gulf of Mexico.

Well, land is just to the north, so I execute a one-eighty degree turn. In a couple of minutes I see land on the horizon, here comes the shoreline. You can't see very far cruising at 1,000 feet AGL or in this case, AWL, above water level. Most students who get lost are flying too low and if they would climb and get some altitude they might see a landmark that would orientate them.

As I come closer to land fall, I am looking right down the approach end of a real nice runway. Circling to see the tetrahedron, I enter the standard airport pattern and land. Taxiing up to the gas pump, a young fellow come out to fuel the aircraft. Not wishing to appear lost, I utter the single corniest line I have ever spoken in my life, "Nice airport you got here, what do ya'all call it?"

When the boy replies with the name of the airport, I suddenly realize that I had not been out over the Gulf at all, but only over Lake Pontchartrain. That's one heck of a big lake!

Checking the weather before takeoff, a large front to the north is starting move south. I decide to see how far I can get before dark. Night flying in a single-engine over the Florida swamps is not my favorite thing to do and I am certainly not going to fly into night conditions and bad weather both in this part of the country.

Dropping down over the coastline after I pass Biloxi, I cruise at 1,000 feet AGL, staying off shore just enough to avoid any unexpected radio towers and yet close enough to shore so as not to accidentally violate any restricted areas. I radio my position to the ADAZ controller for that area as just south of Fort Walton Beach and the Air Force controller give me positive radar identification. Looking at the black wall of clouds ahead and above, I decide it is time to land and I ask for radar vectors to the nearest airport of any size. The controller steers me into Destin, Florida.

It is now pitch black because the sun has set behind the oncoming storm. Circling the well-lighted airfield to read the tetrahedron, I enter base and turn final only to find myself looking down the landing lights of a cabin class twin making a straight-in approach for landing from offshore. Verbalizing a few cuss words, I pull up and come in behind the twin. On this uncontrolled field, the locals consider the north approach the calm wind runway. Calm wind to them must mean anything less than 20 knots because the tetrahedron is pointing the other way. Oh well, when in Rome.

The next morning, after spending the night in a beach resort hotel across the street from the airport, I check the weather. The storm had gone soft, the tops are now only 4,000 feet, but it is still 300 mile wide and conditions are zero-zero under the clouds. The edge of the clouds end right at the shoreline and I watch as a Cessna 401 takes off ahead of me, heads out over the coast, climbs and circle back VFR on top. Seems like a good idea to me, so I follow him out and on top.

Climbing out, I set my VOR to Tallahassee and began monitoring approach control. It is a beautiful sunshiny day on top and the soft white clouds stretch far out over the horizon. Monitoring the radio, I listen as a Delta jet try to shoot an approach at Tallahassee and pull up at minimums without ever having the field in sight. The Delta pilot makes one more attempt to shoot the instrument approach and then heads for an alternate airport.

It is at this time that I begin to consider what if I loss the engine, I will have to make a gliding descent through the cloud layer. Of course, I will attempt to shoot an instrument approach if within gliding distance of an IFR airport. The reality is that if I descend through this cloud layer, the next sight I will probably see will be the top of a lot of palm scrubs. This is what most of that part of the Florida Panhandle's vegetation is like. I meticulously monitor my power settings and the fuel gages for the next couple of hours.

Just northwest of Gainesville, the soft solid cloud layer starts to go broken and a few miles later, I am bumping around on sunny day thermals. Relaxing in the seat, I assume the normal mentally caged and locked attitude of most pilots on a long cross-country flight. Approaching the Winter Haven Airport, I enter downwind and the Bellanca's engine quit cold. Faster than the human eye, I go full forward with mixture, switch tanks and turn the electric fuel pump on. The engine hardly misses a beat as it resumes its normal purring. I had run the selected fuel tank dry a few hundred yards from my destination. Sure makes a difference when you pay attention.

This story and many like it are in Marvin Arnold's book "Flying Stories"

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