Filed under: — Doug Contreras @ 4:10 am on

The sky was gray with a high cloud overcast and the visibility was 20 miles. Flight service said the weather conditions were not expected to change for the balance of the day. It was Saturday, December 3, 1977. I met my flight instructor, Bob, at Caldwell Airport at 7:30 A.M.

After carefully reviewing the details of my flight plan and confirming the weather briefing I had received, Bob gave me the OK to proceed on my solo long cross-country flight. The long cross-country is one of the last requirements prior to taking the FAA private pilot’s flight test. The flight is triangular with each of the legs at least 100 miles and the origination being the final destination. My trip would take me from Caldwell to Groton, CT, from Groton to Albany, NY, and from Albany back to Caldwell.

This was my second attempt. The first time I was forced to turn back home after running into high winds and turbulence. Although I had flown this trip a dozen times in my mind since my last attempt, I carefully prepared every detail and triple-checked my flight plan. This time was different, I left nothing to chance.

With my external pre-flight check of the airplane done, I climbed into the cockpit and belted myself in. After checking for proper movement of my control surfaces, I tidied things up by arranging my charts, my flight plan and my flight computer so they would be easily available during the trip. Continuing with my checklist: I set the fuel mixture to RICH, carburetor heat to COLD, master switch ON, prime 2 STROKES, throttle OPEN 1/4 INCH. Opening my door window, I shouted in the direction of the propeller area CLEAR. I turned the ignition switch and the engine started instantly.

I closed my window and performed my pre-flight engine run-up. With a final glance at the gauges, everything looked OK and I was ready to go. As I looked out the window at Bob, he mouthed the words "good luck" and gave me the thumbs-up sign.

Receiving the command from Caldwell tower, I taxied the Cessna onto runway 4 and held for takeoff clearance. When the controller said "088 clear for takeoff" I pushed the throttle forward and the plane began to lumber down the runway. As the plane picked up speed and became airborne, I was overcome with a sense of euphoria.

Clearing the airport area, I set my radios and steered the plane to a heading that would take me to the Tappan Zee Bridge. My plan for the first leg was to cross over Westchester Airport’s control zone and proceed to the coast of Connecticut. I would follow the coastline past Bridgeport and New Haven to Groton.

Passing over Westchester, I checked in with their control tower and announced my aircraft ID, my altitude and direction of flight. In the midst of dialogue with larger and more important aircraft, the controller cleared me for passage through his control zone. I felt pretty good about myself. Everything was going as planned. I had all the poise and proficiency of a 747 pilot.

As I followed the coastline along Long Island Sound, I watched the gulls gently soaring and diving below me. Faint rays of sunlight cracked through the gray overcast and reflected off the water below giving it a hammered metal appearance. Every so often I could see what looked like a fishing boat bobbing like a cork on the water below. At 3,000 feet trash, pollution, litter, peeling paint, potholes and other imperfections cannot be seen. This was the one thing I enjoyed most about flying - seeing the world at its best.

When I arrived in the Groton area, I called their tower announcing my intention to land. Acknowledging me, they gave me the runway, wind speed and direction, and the barometric pressure for my altimeter setting. My entry into Groton’s flight pattern brought my final approach directly over the water.

As I landed the plane, my wheels touched gently on the numbers at the threshold of the runway. I could barely hear the squeak of the tires against the asphalt. Nicely done! As I turned left at the first taxi-way turnoff, I imagined the praise Bob would have given me had he been there.

Ground control guided me to the terminal area. I shut down the engine and had the plane refueled. I went inside to have my logbook signed and to check the weather for the Albany leg of my trip. Flight Service gave me good news. The weather was forecast to remain as is for the balance of the day.

After gulping down a lukewarm cup of coffee, I took off and headed to the northwest toward Albany. About a half hour out of Groton, I passed over Hartford and noted the sky had become grayer. I purposely ignored it since the weather was not predicted to change.

As I flew for another 15 or 20 minutes, the sky seemed to be getting darker. About 20 miles ahead of me, I could see puffy black clouds occluding the mountain range which I was supposed to cross. As reality set in, my heart sunk with disappointment. There was no way I could continue. Reluctantly, I made a turn to a southwesterly heading to bring me back to Caldwell. As I banked the plane into a turn to the left, I saw similar weather closing in from the south and west.

With no other place to turn, I decided to continue in a direction that I thought would bring me back to Caldwell. As I found myself in the midst of turbulence and reduced visibility, all of my self-confidence disappeared as I fought to keep the plane under control.

Next the forward visibility became non-existent and I had difficulty maintaining air to ground visibility. I began to turn right and then left and then right again and left once more. I was lost. As a light rain began to fall, my mind went in a hundred directions. I tried to block out of my head all the stories I had read about small aircraft crashes resulting from bad weather. As I fought to keep the airplane flying straight and level, I began to sweat profusely.

Attempting to reset my direction finder and compass, I found I couldn’t read the radio frequencies on my charts because the turbulence made it impossible for my eyes to focus on the print. Everything that was not tied down was bouncing all over the cockpit. The only frequency I could remember was Westchester’s. With considerable apprehension about losing control of the airplane, I tentatively pulled my right hand away from the control wheel and set the radio to 119.7. My mouth was dry and I felt like I was out of breath. My heart was pumping so fast, I could barely talk.

When Westchester responded they instructed me to switch to 121.5 - the emergency frequency. They explained that they, along with a tower at another airport, would try to use my radio signal to triangulate my location. As we began the process, my altitude was too low for the other tower to pick me up. Every time they asked me to climb, I could only go so high before losing sight of the ground. All my classroom training and flight instruction emphasized the importance of maintaining some form of visual contact and to lose it was sure disaster!

The drama continued for another 45 minutes. Up and down. Finally they found my location and gave me a heading. As I followed the controller’s instructions, I placed my total trust in him as if I had known him all my life. Again and again he gave me headings and I followed them blindly. After giving me the last heading, he told me to begin my descent and reduce my air speed. Miraculously, a large runway popped out of nowhere. The nose of my airplane was perfectly aligned on final approach at Waterbury Oxford Airport in Connecticut.

I landed the plane with 30 minutes of fuel left. As I climbed out of the cockpit, my legs were trembling so much I could barely stand. After regaining some of my composure, I tied down the plane and refueled it. As I entered the main terminal to rent a car, a group of people let out a cheer for me. Much to my embarrassment, the frantic dialogue between me and the controller was broadcast over the PA system in the airport. I couldn’t wait to get home.

I often think about this trip and reflect on the reasons I survived. While I am a strong believer in divine intervention, I am also convinced that God helps those who help themselves. Instructors and more senior pilots say that my planning and preparation were done according to the textbook and without it I never would have had a chance.

The need for planning and preparation in the business world is just as important, but frequently ignored. I continue to be amazed how bright and creative entrepreneurs and managers fail to see its importance. Many say they’re too busy putting out fires, but I would suggest that at least half of the fires never would have started given proper planning and direction.

Several years ago, I was discussing the planning process with a friend who is a CPA and consultant working on behalf of lending institutions. As a troubleshooter who investigates loans that are in trouble, he told me about his forty years of experience with smaller firms. While maybe not an exact quote, his words went something like this, "owners tend to be involved in everything and have no time for anything." He told me horror stories how many of these companies, in spite of a great product or service, lived from payroll to payroll and receivable to receivable with their focus on today and never tomorrow.

There are dozens of approaches to planning with a number of possibilities to be found on the Internet. Each business is different so the approach and process will need to be suited to your operation. At very least, consider a yearly plan, a five year strategic plan and a disaster plan.

Losing direction is one thing, but having no direction can be the end of things as you know them. THE FUEL WILL RUN OUT!

By the way, six months later I did make it to Albany, and shortly afterwards I earned my pilot’s license!

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