Years before I would hear about the statistical bullseye of a few hundred hours for fledgling pilots becoming reckless, I passed dead center through the target unawares. Like so many things, it did’t feel dangerous beforehand… In fact my first season as a commercial pilot had been more uneventful than educational and I was getting itchy. All morning hardly a thing had happened at the airport, then suddenly I was given a choice: go home early, maybe do some laundry and spend another gorgeous autumn evening watching reruns with roommates, or hop over to New Hampshire and ferry a glider back… Duh!
“But you gotta go NOW,” they said, “Time’s short.”
“Oh come on, it’s barely noon and Franconia’s less than a hundred miles. There and back in airplanes shouldn’t take long. We’ll be towing back straight into the sun though, and I broke my shades this morning. Let me drive the loaner into town for another pair.”
The sunglasses in the office junk drawer were like unmatched kaleidoscopes and my other vehicle in those days was a Schwinn, so I got clearance for a dash to the village, pronto.
Bad angel smirked but said nothing, good angel turned away and sighed. Naturally, I got a flat tire. And the !&@# jack had no handle. This was long before cellphones, by the way. With no other choice I started hitching, and eventually a ski bum buddy happened by to get me moving again.
In my hurry I’d forgotten we were always supposed to squirt some avgas into the loaner before taking it anywhere, then on the way back glanced at the fuel gauge and realized I might not make it without returning first to the nearest gas station. Having spent my lunch money on cheap sunglasses, I only had a couple bucks left, and for neither the first time nor the last, dribbled what amounted to my life savings into a gas tank and hoped for the best.
Back at the airport nearly two hours later I was in everyone’s dog house, but with now even more reason to hurry we clamored aboard the Birddog and got underway.
Airborne at last, we were thrumming eastward over miles of rolling canopy forest that I’d peered across in low performance gliders, but never had the guts to explore. Now that cowardice was vindicated. Thermals there were few and feeble, and not a single clearing to land in anywhere.
A strong tailwind did get us there quick, but the paperwork took longer than it should (a certainty one learns to expect in these situations), and finally even I began to sweat the time. Five thirty precedes three more hours of legal daylight in midsummer, but this was September twenty-something.
Then the glider’s tire needed air — saw that coming, didn’t you? At this pace, having no chuck for the air hose should have been predictable. The hardware store was closed by then, and it seemed I might be in for a long cash-free night in a strange town when the A and P grabbing his keys to drive home found the !&@# chuck in his pocket. ‘Coises,’ grumbled the bad angel, ‘furled again.’
So by sunset we were back in the air, towing straight west and peering hard for eastbound traffic. But remember that tailwind we had earlier? We reversed directions, but it not. And why didn’t I step away and water a bush somewhere while we were killing all that time on the ground?
Ahead stood our local mountain silhouetted on the skyline, perfectly familiar but far smaller than usual, growing oh so slowly for the first half hour as its rosy backdrop faded. Next came that awful stretch of seamless hardwoods and my youthful bravado got swallowed by the night.
Eventually distant towns began to rise from behind hills and I dropped into low tow position to keep the Birddog’s nav lights above the horizon. From headlights on the scatter of roads spreading in all directions I could tell which way was up, but which way was which? It seemed the airport should be in sight by now, but all I could see in that direction was a big inky blank. With no one to talk to about this, I started feeling kinda sick.
Staring numbly into that void where the field ought to be, I was trying hard not to panic, when suddenly the whole layout flashed into blazing glory! The tow pilot had activated those lights remotely of course, by clicking his radio mic, a technological wrinkle new to me at the time and a very welcome surprise. Prior to that, I’d never had reason to loiter at any airport after dark, and thoughtlessly assumed even the small ones stayed lit all night.
Then time came to face the unavoidable, my first night landing. Oh, nothing to it really, just release a mile or so out and follow the tow plane in… hoping those lights stay on long enough. Spooky but easy. Most fun I had all day, to be honest.
So yes, aero towing cross-country at night without a radio is definitely more ‘interesting’ than reruns with roommates, but once was enough for me. You get the next trip, okay?