POUNDING THUNDER and crashing waves shook me awake. Ted sat on the edge of the bed holding a steaming cup. Even his presence and the intoxicating aroma of black coffee couldn’t prevent a frown from creeping across my face. “Is it Saturday already?” I asked disappointed because I already knew the answer.
“’Fraid so.” Ted stroked my arm and handed me the cup. “From the looks of the weather, I’m not sure we’re leavin’.” He pointed to the window and shook his head. “Least not this mornin’.”
I pulled myself up and leaned against the headboard. Unlike the sunny day before, now our lavish ocean-view suite at the pink Don Cesar hotel felt more like an unwelcome rain shelter.
Hourly, throughout the morning, I checked the weather by telephone. The broad storm cell was intense and slow moving from the southwest. We checked out of the hotel before noon and spent a restless afternoon reading in the lobby. I prayed for a break in the weather. With every passing minute, I became more disconcerted.
In a deserted 24-hour cafe near the airport, I picked at my late dinner. The clock on the wall struggled to count the minutes as the hands slowly passed through 9:30 P.M. Ted devoured his hamburger as if it was his last meal.
Ignorance is bliss, I told myself, thinking that Ted’s limited experience kept him from completely understanding our plight. Once with my dad, similarly weathered in for three days at a small country airport, we slept on the floor, ate stale cupcakes, and drank weak coffee from a pair of stingy vending machines.
Across the table, Ted dragged a french fry through a puddle of catsup. A premonition of vertigo washed over me. I tensed and steadied myself on the arm of my chair. Nothing felt right. I had logged more than 7,000 hours in a dozen varieties of single-engine airplanes. There was nothing special about this night, except how I felt. I was awash in an inexplicable sense of impending doom.
In my twenties, I rented a 1940 Stearman military trainer, an open cockpit biplane piloted from the back seat. I wanted to surprise my dad and take him up in a plane he had never flown.
The first take-off of my checkout flight felt good. I was relaxed with an instructor in the front seat. One smooth circle around the grass field at 800 feet, I lined up for final approach. At 200 feet above the ground, I realized I was too low and slow in an approach that would have been perfect for nearly any aircraft, but not the Stearman.
The seasoned pilot never moved. “Flyin’ rock,” he calmly called out over the wind. The intercom crackled with his words. Heeding his warning, I dropped the nose in the last possible instant and greased the antique bird onto the grass in a perfect wheel landing.
Airplanes and flying have never frightened me. However, on this Saturday night in Florida, waiting for the weather to clear, plagued by a sense of disaster, I was afraid.
The minute hand dragged past ten o’clock. The sky grew lighter. I called weather again. The bored voice on the other end of the line told me the storm had pushed off to the east. Minimums were above the required ceiling of 1,000 feet with 3 miles visibility for Visual Flight Rules. Ted smiled; he would get his chance at the controls after all.
His words crisp and clear in my headset, a man somewhere behind the dark glass of the Tampa tower cleared us for departure and directed us out over the edge of the Gulf of Mexico. Ted made a smooth, climbing right turn to the northeast. He tuned both navigation radios and pushed a series of buttons on the long-range navigation device that established our direct track to Birmingham, Alabama. He filled me with pride as he skillfully handled every cockpit task. I folded my hands in my lap and wished my father could see the efficiency of his student.
Everything was perfect, yet the nagging fear stamped its feet in the back of my mind, and demanded I take note. Our route would keep us just west of the coast, a few miles out over the still unsettled water of the Gulf, and direct to our only necessary fuel stop. The engine ran flawlessly. I nervously checked my watch; it was straight-up eleven o’clock eastern time. One hour ’till midnight, I told myself. Thank God, this day is almost over.
Ted eased the nose down, leveled the Cessna at 6,500 feet, and in a professional voice, reported our altitude and heading. The yellow transponder light on the instrument panel blinked reassuringly with a code assigned by Jacksonville Center. I envisioned a man on the other side of the state hovered over a screen in a darkened room watching a dot and number that represented our two souls. Other assigned numbers also moved across the screen at varying speeds, altitudes, and headings. The vigilant controller would help keep us safe.
Through the red half-light of the cockpit, Ted looked over and smiled with pride-brightened eyes. I had seen this look once before, six months earlier on an overcast day in February when he slid from the cockpit of my father’s weary Cessna 152 having just finished his first solo flight. My dad congratulated his student, and told him he would make a great pilot.
Ted nodded as if he knew what I was thinking and then returned his attention to a thorough scan of the instrument panel. He twisted his head slightly to the left, pulled his headset away from one ear, and listened intently to the throaty hum of the Continental engine.
The unstable air bubbled in the aftermath of the storm. An almost imperceptible, undulating vibration seeped through the airframe surfing bumps hidden in the wind. I had felt something similar, thousands of times before, but this vibration wrapped its icy fingers around my lungs and squeezed until I gasped.
Unaware of what I was experiencing, Ted leaned forward and put his right hand between the seats. With one easy tug on the lever, he moved the cowl doors the last two notches to fully closed. The 20-year old airplane was sealed up and as aerodynamic as its design allowed.
With the final element of drag minimized, it was like letting go of a kite in a strong wind, a momentary burst of un-tethered freedom. Fear loosed its grip on my lungs. I sighed with relief. All in your imagina—
WHAM, as though thunder and lightning simultaneously struck the cockpit, the engine exploded and severed my thought. A ball of fire, 11 quarts of oil, and mangled engine parts ripped through the top of the aluminum cowling. In slow motion, the airplane rolled onto its right side, threw its nose straight down, and plummeted seaward. Blinded by the yellow-blue blast, I blinked. A black shroud of engine oil covered the expansive windshield.
Instinctively, I grabbed the yoke and wrested control from Ted. He jerked his hands away. I was the experienced pilot. We both knew it was up to me to fly the plane.
I pulled the yoke to my chest and with all my strength twisted it to the left. Nothing happened. For a moment, we floated weightlessly through space, and my actions yielded no results. A millisecond dragged by. The controls fought my efforts to correct our attitude. The Cessna seemed to want to die.
Finally, it acquiesced. I was able to begin a reluctant uncoordinated roll to the left and lift the nose. With a sharp mechanical bang and a shockwave that penetrated my soul, the propeller freed itself and began to spin. I thrust the red fuel/air mixture control all the way in, forcing gasoline into the carburetor. I double-checked the ignition and frantically pumped the throttle.
A glimpse of the altimeter showed the needles passing through 5,000 feet. Uncertainty clouded my judgment. We raced toward certain death.
Only able to see out of the unobstructed window on my right, moonlight danced gaily on the surface of our watery grave. Less than 30 seconds had passed since the explosion. We had already lost 1,500 feet. This won’t take long, my mind screamed in a macabre, experienced voice.
A second, smaller fireball belched from the torn cowling and rocketed out of sight. A hoarse combusted cough followed. A small surge of power telegraphed through the throttle and carried a wave of hope. I checked the fuel valve and moved it from right-tank-only to both. The engine restarted.
“Bette, you okay?” Ted’s frightened voice crackled in my ears.
I dared not face him. He would have seen the truth in my face. “Yeah, you?” I tried to sound calm, grateful that the continuous explosions and accompanying fireballs cloaked my fear.
“What can we do?” He shouted. “Will the engine run like this?”
“Odds are, no.” I answered, unable to hide the truth, still avoiding his gaze. “We’re 20 miles from the coast. There’s no oil left in the engine. It’s beatin’ itself to death. We’re feedin’ a gas fire, but without it, we can’t stay in the air.
“Call Jax center,” I commanded, “declare an emergency and ask for help. Tell ’em we need a place to land.” Ted didn’t answer. “Do it now!”
The sole push-to-talk switch was mounted on the pilot’s yoke, opening only the pilot’s microphone, which meant I couldn’t speak directly to the tower. Ted was our voice to the outside world. With that exception, I had total control of the airplane.
“Jax Center, this is Skylane 9er5-4-5-5 declaring an emergency. We need a place to land.”
“Skylane 4-5-5, Jax Center, acknowledge, say your emergency.”
“We have limited power. We’re on fire.”
My headset crackled. He’s probably too shocked to answer, I thought.
“We have you on radar.” The controller said in a strained voice. “Crystal River airport is 2-0 miles; turn right to 3-2-0 degrees.”
I pressed my cheek against the oil-streaked Plexiglas side window and searched for the lights of Crystal River. The coastline was far off, definitely on our right. The town should have been just beyond. We were flying northeast. A heading change to 320 degrees would take us out to sea.
I questioned my reasoning and wondered if vertigo had clouded my judgment. I distrusted my senses. “Believe your instruments,” my father’s voice resounded. Uncertain white letters danced in the liquid bath of the magnetic compass while the directional gyro spun out of control.
“Ted, that heading can’t be right.” I commenced a shallow right turn without waiting to find out if I was correct. “The airport’s gotta be east. Tell ’im—tell ’im now!”
“Jax Center, 4-5-5, 3-2-0 degrees can’t be right.” Ted spit the words into his headset’s boom mic. “Check heading, over?”
I held my breath. The static in my headset was deafening. I maintained the turn, waiting.
The nervous voice came back, “4-5-5, sorry—uhh—my error.” White noise blasted my inner ear. “Turn to 0-8-0 degrees. Airport is 1-9er miles. G-luck, stayin’ with you.”
The engine, a sledge pounding a steel plate, relentlessly thrashed the airframe. I pumped the throttle nonstop. Every few seconds, it rewarded me with a fresh fireball rocketing past the oily funeral shroud on our windscreen.
“Can we make the airport?” Ted asked. His ghostly face glowed in the dim red light.
I checked the counterclockwise swing of the altimeter’s white hands. “We’re losin’ altitude, but should be ’nough,” I answered with a quick calculation. “Need to keep the engine runnin’ and hope fire doesn’t get wor—”
“Four-five-five, Jax Center,” the familiar voice cut me off, “you’re one-four miles from airport. It’s closed. TWA captain has—uhh—activated runway lights. Emergency equipment’s standin’ by, over.”
Nearly 2,000 feet below, rocks protruded from the moonlit surface of the Gulf of Mexico. Options raced through my mind. Turnin’ the fuel off will put out the fire, I reasoned, but we’ll lose all power. Dad says there’s always more than one alternative. Can’t survive a landing in the rocks. With the engine, we might make the airport. I’ve gotta keep this thing in the air; I've gotta keep the engine runnin’. I visually swept the surface for another place to put her down.
FIREBALLS, in short, irregular Roman candle bursts, continually lit the night sky. I ignored them. They were outside my control.
A soulless metal-on-metal screech resonated through the cockpit. Fear’s icy fingers plucked my heart from my chest. The propeller slammed to a stop—no fire, no banging, and no hope.
“TED, WE CAN’T MAKE IT!” I screamed. “TELL ’IM, TELL ’IM NOW!”
“Jax, 4-5-5, engine’s gone,” Ted shouted. “I repeat, we’re dead stick. Gonna try for the beach, over.”
I threw my headset over my shoulder. Ted did the same. “Sorry, hon,” I said. Calm came over me. The only sound was the rush of the wind as the needles of the altimeter spiraled down. “I’ll do my best.”
I lowered the nose, steadied our glide, and applied a slight backpressure to slow our descent. Following a mental checklist, I closed the fuel valve and set the flaps to 10 degrees for lift.
The radio popped. Something like a sinister laugh came from the cockpit’s external speakers, “ha-ha-ha,” a soul-shattering chill bore through me. “Ha-ha-bitch, ha—”
“…lane 4-5-5, Jax ’enter.” The controller’s voice severed the laugh. The broken voice was panicked. “Wind’s from 3…0 at 1… Goo’ luck, God spee... ”
I didn’t understand the wind speed or direction, but it no longer mattered. I only had one choice. I snapped off the master switch and steeled my nerve.
“Fly the airplane.” My dad’s voice steadied my hand on the yoke. I banked slightly to the right. A mile ahead, bathed in eerie moonlight, the rocky beach waited. Just a runway, I told myself, trying unemotionally to envision an approach. A slight forward pressure on the sluggish yoke dropped the elevators and increased our glide speed to a solid 80 miles per hour. Standard approach, keep the landing gear out of the sand as long as possible.
Ted sat stiffly with his palms buried beneath his thighs like a man on death row.
“Sorry, hon.” I felt compelled to apologize again.
He turned and smiled.
“Tighten your shoulder harness,” I ordered in a terse voice. “Beach’s our only hope—looks rough.”
Blindly, I gauged my final turn, took a shallow breath, and guessed at our height above the ground. I counted 90 degrees on the erratic magnetic compass and rolled out on final.
The invisible ground cushion cradled the airplane for an instant. I pulled back on the yoke and discovered too late that ground effect had fooled me; we were too high. We lost our lift, stalled, and fell nearly straight down. Frantically, I dropped the nose and salvaged too little lift, too late. In the span of a single heartbeat, our landing gear collided with the sand at 50 miles per hour.
The screech of ripping aluminum filled the air. We plowed through sand and rocks. Our momentum and the crush of our weight flipped us tail-over-nose. Nearly full fuel tanks spewed high-octane gasoline across the beach. Toxic fumes choked my final prayer. “God, save u—” My world went black.