As I said yesterday experience is a great teacher. Well, I didn’t actually say that, but I should have. Back when I was a young lad with dreams of being an airline pilot there was one thing that I needed more than anything else to obtain my goal. Multi engine time. Multi engine time is the holy grail of flight time because most airliners have multiple engines. (Multiple means 2 for you non-pilot types) The problem with getting multi engine time is that it’s very expensive. I mean like VERY expensive. Like $125 dollars an hour expensive, And those are 1987 dollars mind you. And in order to get an kind of job you need at least 200 hours of multi time, minimum. So that works out to about $25,000, minimum. So two friends and I had a brilliant idea. We’d buy a light twin engine airplane, fly the crap out of it, then sell it. Simple.
So that’s how I ended being the proud one third owner of a Piper Twin Comanche. 2270 pounds of twisted steel and sex appeal.
She was a sweet little bird. Small, fast, good fuel burn, and two! engines! I was in love. All I needed was a multi engine license and I’d be all set.
So I found an instructor and began learning the ways of the twin. After just a few hours of training my instructor had this great idea. As long as we needed to spend some time training in the plane, why don’t we fly down to Ft. Rucker Alabama and visit my partner who was in Army flight school. My instructor said that he’d even chip in for gas. We’d both get to log not only multi engine but cross country time as well because, like us, he was shooting for that job where you get to wear a bus driver hat, and every hour in your log book is literally worth it’s weight in gold.
We’d been in the air for 3 hours or so when it was time to stop for fuel. Seeing the weather was beautiful along the entire route we hadn’t pre planned an airport to stop at. The instructor said we’d fly until we either needed gas or a restroom break then pick an airport on the map and make a pit stop. We looked at the map, picked a small airport that was along our route and punched its identifier into the Loran navigation system we’d just had installed in the plan.
The Loran system was the precursor to the GPS and was considered state of the art in those days. It was based on a number of transmitters on the ground which triangulated your position with relative accuracy. It also had a database in it so once we put in the XZY airport it told us that it was just 15 miles ahead. Magic! I started our descent and after just a few minutes the instructor pointed out an airport just ahead. But something was wrong. According to the loran we were still 5 miles away from the XYZ airport. I pointed this out to the instructor who looked at the old fashioned paper map and told me that it had to be the right airport because there was only one in the area.
I wasn’t convinced. The runway was long but rough looking. It was next to what looked like a concrete plant and I couldn’t see any kind of fbo building, fuel tanks or ramp. I expressed my doubts as to our exact location to the instructor who told me not to worry. Why it’s the only one for miles and miles. How could we be wrong? I wasn’t convinced so to shut me up he called the airport on the unicom frequency and asked if they’re open and had fuel. “Sure are hon, come on in.” came the reply in a syrupy sweet southern accent. The smug look on the instructors face said it all. “Never question your betters boy.”
Having been put in my place I continued the approach but the closer I got to the runway the less sure I was that we were in the right place. It didn’t look like any airport I’d ever seen. Nothing was mowed, I still couldn’t see any buildings apart from the concrete factory, and the runway was the worst looking piece of crap I’d ever seen. It was a mosaic of cracks and appeared to be mostly weeds.
“Are you sure this is the right airport?” I asked again. “Positive, keep going.”
As I brought the plane down on short final I could see that the weeds on the runway were really thick and high.
ME: “YOU’RE SURE?”
FAILPROOF INSTRUCTOR: “YES”
As I flaired to land I completely lost sight of the runway the weeds were so thick and when we touched down I was shocked to see that the weeds were higher than the wings and that we were actually mowing a path down the runway. At this point I should’ve went to full power and gotten the hell out of there but all I did was blindly follow my instructors instructions as he craned his head up trying to see over the weeds to find the fuel pumps.
We finally found some sort of ramp (still thick with weeds) and shut down. Then the instructor got on the radio again and asked where the fuel pumps were. This time the southern bell sounded confused. “Why it’s right next to the main building darlin. It’s right off the runway you can’t miss it.” The two of us looked around but didn’t see anything that looked like, well, anything.
About that time a man in a beat up old pickup truck drove across the runway from the concrete plant and pulled up to us. “You boys need some help?” (insert another thick southern accent here) “No sir, we’re just here to get some fuel.” It was at this point that we were informed that A: The runway that we’d landed on was a closed WWII training strip. 2. No one had landed on it in ove40 years. And C. The airport that we were looking for was indeed still 5 miles away.
To say that I was pissed would be an understatement. Not only at the instructor for bringing us down on that closed runway that could have easily damaged the plane, but at myself for not sticking to my guns when I knew I was right. I was also super pissed because mowing the path through weeds had sandblasted the paint off my new propellers and we were going to have to do it again just to take off.
We did manage to get airborne again and just 5 miles farther down the road there was the nicest little airport that a pilot could ask for. Beautifully mowed green grass surrounding a nice long runway in perfect condition.
I let the instructor tell the woman behind the counter just where we’d been for the last half hour.