May 18, 1980

Originally posted to Usenet’s rec.aviation July 3, 1993, this was one of my very early Internet articles. Today is the 33rd anniversary of Mt. Saint Helens eruption.

“Walla Walla Flight Watch, Luscombe two-niner-two-five-kilo.”

“Luscombe two-five kilo, this is Walla Walla, go.”

“Walla Walla, two-five-kilo. I’m approximately 40 miles northeast of Spokane and I’m looking at a line of darkness to the west. Are you painting TRW for the area?” TRW means thunder showers.

“Two-five-kilo, be advised that we’re showing considerable dust from western Washington at this time.”

“Two-five-kilo, roger. That looks pretty nasty. It’s just some dust you say?”

“Roger, two-five-kilo. We’re showing no rain, but have reports of heavy dust blowing over.”

My wife, myself, and our new baby boy were in a 1947 Luscombe. My best friend owned it, and we shared it like family.

We’d just gone to see an airshow at Sandpoint, Idaho. We’d come up from Portland for the show, which featured the Canadian Warbirds –the largest collection of WWII fighter aircraft I’d ever seen.  My wife, Suzanne, had the baby in the truss –an in-front sort of backbak that I’d built so we could bring the baby along with us when we flew.  She looked over at me quizzingly, and then looked back out over the horizon. The dark line seemed to be coming at us with great speed. It was 3:05pm on the afternoon of May 18, 1980. The day Mount Saint Helens erupted.

We’d departed Sandpoint with about 40 minutes of fuel –more than enough for the hop from Sandpoint to Spokane. The whole flight takes less than 20 minutes. Up and over the ridge by Mount Spokane, and then an easy descent into Felts Field.  My wife and I had gone many places in the Luscombe. It was a 1947 model 8E. It had come to its current configuration over a long line of owners and STCs. Modifications changed the original 65 horse power plant to an 85, and then to a 90 hp Continental. It had an electrical system –mostly to operate the twin landing lights that were retrofitted into the leading edges of the wings. Back in the late fifties, the single fuel tank in the fuselage was removed in favor of wing tanks, and a little later the landing gear was changed to strut braces and heavier steel tubing from the original flying wire system. It had been bought by a flight school which no doubt made the change in anticipation of a string of students practicing landing after landing in the stout little bird.

The cabin was spartan. Airspeed, compass, T&B, altimeter and an old tachometer were the only instruments –save for the VOR built in to the little radio. We added a G meter when I took up Sportsman Class aerobatics. It did have fuel gauges for the wing tanks, but they were built into the roots of the wings, and were reliable only to show that there was gas in the tanks. If the needles bounced a little in flight, there was fuel.

And so it was that afternoon in May. As we crossed over the mountain ridge, they sky grayed around us, and then turned black. We were left zero-zero in an airplane that wouldn’t have been my first choice for flying at dusk –no less a condition suited to IFR. Sure,  it had landing lights, but the cabin instruments weren’t backlit, and  the landing lights were good for all of ten minutes before the battery would die. At that point, the landing lights would become yellow cat’s  eyes.

Looking up through the skylight, the sun was a dim purple circle in a sea of blackness. In another few moments, it too was gone. I got back on the radio.

“Walla Walla Flight Watch, Luscome two-niner-two-five-kilo.”

There was no response.

I had two options. I could continue on to Spokane and Felts, or, I could turn southeast and head for Coeur d’Alene. CDA was a much larger airport, and was surrounded by few buildings. On the other hand, Felts was much smaller, and was ringed by city on three sides, and a nasty hill on the fourth. Both airports had towers, but the one at CDA only operated sporadically. I tried to contact both of the towers, but all I got in response was static.

Just before the blackness had come, I’d plotted our position on the sectional. That gave me a good estimation of both our direction and position. We had crossed the  mountain ridge, and I knew that the hills declined rapidly into the Spokane valley. Hoping that the altimeter setting at Sandpoint was still close, I began to descend from 6500. My plan was to try to get low enough that I might be able to make out features on the ground. In a VFR aircraft, that’s the only hope for finding your way.

Keeping an eye on the altimeter, airspeed, and compass, I tried to estimate where I was, where I’d be in moments, and what I should be looking for. My mind wandered back to my days of flight instruction at Evergreen in Vancouver –my home airport. Evergreen was the home of the Northwest Antique Aircraft Association, and the field had more than it’s share of experienced pilots –and from the days when aircraft like the Luscome weren’t the exception, but the rule. I’d learned to fly in an Aeronca Champ –along with scattered hours in Taylorcrafts, Stinsons, and even a couple of Stearman’s and a Waco. It wasn’t until I HAD to, that I flew in Cessnas, Beechs, and Pipers from the tricycle class. I needed time in those aircraft co earn my commercial pilots license. While I like the old ragwing airplanes, I must admit that I enjoyed the high speed and comfort of the Piper Comanche.

I thought back to the war stories of the semi-heros I looked up to at Evergreen, and thought hard about the stick and rudder advice I got from Wally Olsen and Evelyn Waldren. Both had one hell of a history, and I tried as hard as I could to keep in mind each detail they’d ever passed. There was no question that my wife, son and self were in a serious fix.

After about ten minutes, I plotted myself as being in the valley, with the ground about 200 feet below me. If all was going right, we should be crossing the I-90 freeway and I told my wife to look for it. After a few minutes, we still hadn’t see it, and I began to get concerned about the mountains on the other side of the wide valley. Summoning courage (!) I decided to do a two minute timed turn, and to lose some more altitude. I held a penlight in my mouth, and stared at the gauges trying to keep them all where they should be. I hoped that my estimation of ground level was accurate.

As it turned out, it wasn’t.

The blackness had begun to give way to a near-dark gray. Inside the aircraft I could make out the instruments without the little flashlight. This was good, because the battery in it was dying. As I was completing the turn, my wife asked if I saw something ahead of us. I did. It was one of the large red and white checked water towers that pop up out of the valley, tapping into the vast aquifer that provides water to people in the Spokane area. I twisted the plane into a hard left bank, and watched the tower pass under the cowl. It scared me, and my legs began to shake as I righted the Luscombe.

“You’re doing great, Bob.” said Suzanne. “That was good.” I was angry with myself that I’d forgotten about the towers, and began to reevaluate what my altitude was. But right then, we saw a line of glowing light below us, and I knew I was passing over the freeway. It was time to choose. Did I go for Felts, or should I make for Coeur d’Alene? I  thought of all the obstructions next to Felts, and remembered that CDA sat right next to Hiway 95 –a major route that intersects I-90 at Coeur d’Alene. I decided on CDA.

Flight time so far was about 25 minutes, and I began to wonder about fuel. The penlight showed that the right tank gauge was still as a rock, but the left was still jiggling. I figured we had another 20 minutes and I’d be dead stick. Deciding not to waste time, I arced hard to the east and stayed above the lights on the freeway. Not wanting to miss the highway intersection, I let down even more, and got low enough that I could distinguish headlights on the cars and trucks, rather than see them as pools of misty gray. I guess that my altitude was about a hundred feet off the ground.

We found the intersection without any problem, and using the chart, I guessed that time to the airport was about three minutes at the 85 to 90 mph we were travelling. I decided to try the radio again, and had my wife look up the tower and unicom frequency in the Flight Guide. A call to the tower brought no answer, but a try on Unicom had a different result.

“Couer d’Alene Unicom, Luscombe two-niner-two-five-kilo. Can anybody hear me?” Seconds ticked by like hours.

“Luscome? Don’t tell me you’re flying in this.”

“I wish I wasn’t. We didn’t get much choice. I’m about a mile south and closing. Does the airport have a beacon? Is it on?”

“Roger, two-five-kilo. We do, it’s burning, and it’s green and white.”

“Where is it in relation to the field?”

“It sits mid-field on the east side of the airport. I’ve got them turning on the runway and taxi lights, and running them up to full intensity.”

The voice gave me a current altimeter setting and wind. I saw the beacon as an on-off glow off the left wing, and turned towards it. We passed it about 20 feet above it and fifty feet off the wing. As soon as we did, I could make out the runway lights ahead. They were aligned 90 degrees to my direction. We crossed over and were back in the gray murk. I began to count (one-mississippi, two-mississippi) and began a teardrop timed turn to get aligned.

I was pretty sure I was lined up with the runway dead-ahead, and began to let down some more. The engine began to run rough, the intake beginning to clog with the ash and dust in the air. I think I said “Oh, shit.”  I had to decide whether to go with carb heat and let the engine breathe –which would no doubt clog the carb and do god-only-knows what else to the engine. I decided that I didn’t care about the engine as much as I wanted it to run a while longer, and clogging –well, if I had luck on my side, I had a very few minutes of fuel left anyway.

I cracked the carb heat a little, and the engine RPMs surged upwards. Airspeed was at 85, and so I backed off the power and began what was going to be my final. I figured that my best bet was a power on approach –I had a lot of runway in front of me, lots of room to spare. But I couldn’t be sure I was lined up exactly, and wanted power and speed available to correct with. The RPMs were at 1200, and I pegged airspeed at 62. In the Luscombe, this would be just enough to keep me ahead of the power curve if I needed to correct. Hiking up the nose, I added power to keep airspeed and let the ship slowly down, little by little.

“What’s that noise?” asked Suzanne. I heard it too. It was a familiar noise, I’d heard it before but couldn’t place it for a second. Then, I realized that it was the sound of the landing gear –the tires,  striking the top of tall grass.  I fed power and hopped up a few feet.

“What?” asked Suzanne. She was looking out the front and side to side.

“There may be a fence.” I found out later that there was indeed a fence. But at that moment the runway lights appeared on both sides of the aircraft. I was dead center on the runway. I reached up and shut off the mag switch, and the engine clacked into silence. When it did, we could hear the sound of the gently blown ash hitting the windscreen and the wings, not so different from the sound of blowing sand. Touchdown was one of the lightest I ever made in the airplane. We rolled straight and true, and I hastened the stop with the heel brakes.

We sat in total silence for a few seconds.

“Christ. I hope nobody else is up there.” I said. Then it dawned on me that there might be indeed, and I climbed out of the plane. I certainly didn’t want to be sitting in the middle of the runway when some other poor, blinded pilot was trying to land. I told my wife to stay put, and moved to the back of the airplane. Telling her to stay strapped in –there might be a ditch– I muscled the plane around and pushed it past the lights and off the runway. When I felt I’d gone far enough, maybe 30 feet, I let the airplane sit and walked up to the cabin door. My wife got out of the plane with the baby, and I took off the sweater I was wearing and put it over his face to keep the ash out. My teeth were already grinding from the grit my mouth had collected, and I didn’t want him to have the same experience.

We stood directly in front of the prop facing east. We figured that if we walked a straight line, we’d eventually either run into a building or something that would give us our bearings. After about 30 paces, I stopped and looked back towards the little white and black plane. It was invisible in the gray. A couple of minutes later, we stumbled into the Piper Flight Center and in the door. Inside, about ten people applauded. A man whose voice matched the one on the radio came up and shook my hand.

“We wondered if you’d make it. We kept waiting to hear the crash. When we didn’t we wondered if you flew on past. That was some pretty good flyin’ mister.” I didn’t argue, but I didn’t think so. Perhaps my piloting skills were decent in an airplane was was totally familiar with, the flight instruction I got from the old salts of the air most definitely contributed the most to my safe landing. But I never should have taken off with so little gas. You never know what’s going to happen and preempting obvious risks is the best practice.

The day following the flight, I went out to the airport to recover the plane and have it serviced. The grit had opaqued the windshield so badly that it took three bottles of McGuire’s and a buffer to polish it back to transparency. All of the paint had been blasted from the leading edges of the wings, struts, and tail group. For some reason, the gear didn’t get stripped, but the usual layer of bug remains were gone.  We had the ship cleaned, and the engine completely flushed and checked. I thought it remarkable that the engine came through with no discernible damage. All we had to do was replace the air filter.

We did leave one thing alone.

As of this writing, you can still see the ash inside the plexiglass landing light covers where it was forced in there by flight wind pressures.