Friday, April 27, 2007

Too Low To Be High ...

In 1956, I was a student pilot taking flying lessons at Jefferson County Airport. The requirements for obtaining a Private license included 25 hours of solo cross-country flight time (flying alone without a flight instructor). This procedure found me flying into airports at Houston, Galveston, Kirbyville, and several towns in Louisiana. It was quite interesting and I met many fine people.

But being a student pilot flying solo meant that there would be some “beginner’s mistakes.” I made my share of those miscues.

One afternoon, I planned to fly over to Hobby Airport in Houston and then return home. I filed a flight plan with my instructor and with air-traffic control. My instructor gave me a few tips before I taxied out for take off. The last thing he said was, “There are a few thunderstorms in the area. Fly over or around them or turn back. Never fly into a cloud.” This was wise advice as sometimes the turbulence in a cloud can be pretty risky for a light aircraft.

On this particular flight, I was flying a single-engine Cessna 172. I took off for Houston and climbed to an altitude of about 3000 feet. Generally this flight in a 172 took about 40 minutes depending on wind velocity and direction. I was flying under Visual Flight Rules which meant that I kept visual contact with the ground at all times.

I was in the air for about 25 minutes when a dark rain cloud raised its ugly head. The cloud was several miles ahead so I decided to fly over it. When my plane reached 7,000 feet in altitude, it was evident that I would not be able to climb over the cloud. So then I decided to go under it.

The rain began. It was difficult to see because of the watery mist. I flew lower and got down to about 700 feet. I could see to neither side nor straight ahead. But I could see the ground. My compass told me that I was headed west but I wasn’t sure where I was. In other words, I was a little bit lost.

My instructor had taught me that if I ever got lost, to draw a circle on my chart (map) encompassing the general area where I was. Then look on the chart for prominent landmarks within that circle. Using this method, I might be able to spot something to enlighten me as to my whereabouts.

I spotted an extremely prominent landmark on my chart. The San Jacinto Monument. That monument is 604 feet tall. By now I was flying at about 550 feet. Clearly I did not want to find the San Jacinto Monument. I climbed back to 700 feet. But again I was having trouble seeing the ground.

Suddenly I broke out into a beautiful sunlit sky. The storm was behind me. I had made it safely through the turmoil. And directly in front of me was the airport. Nice long runways and no turbulence.

I climbed to 800 feet, which was the altitude for light aircraft to enter an airport’s traffic pattern. I planned to circle then land. But what were all those airplanes doing parked on the airport tarmac? Dozens of them all in a row. They looked like jets. Fighter jets.

Oops. I was flying at 800 feet over Ellington Field, which at the time was a “no fly zone” military air base. This airfield was located several miles south of Hobby airport. I made a hasty exit of Ellington Field’s airspace and landed safely at Hobby.

I have always remembered my instructor’s advice, “It is wiser to turn around and leave than to head straight on into a storm.”

Winston Hamby
The Beaumont Enterprise


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