I was feeling pretty good, so I decided to fly my 1946 Luscombe 8A about an hour before dark. I put in five gallons. I had maybe two or three gallons in it already. I figured I would be in the air only about 30 minutes, so I reasoned I was good for about one and a half hours.
After about 20 minutes of flying, I headed back to the little grass strip, thinking the plane will be tied down and I will be home before dark.
When I crossed over the south end of the runway, I looked down and to my surprise there were about 12 black Angus cows on the runway. They belonged to the airport owner, who lived in a farm house next to the strip. I found out later the gate was left open. I tried to scare them by flying low over them with full power but by the time I got back around to land, they would be right back again eating the greener grass. I started buzzing the farm house hoping someone would come out and get the cows off the runway. I buzzed once, twice, then four or five times.
I started to get worried by now because it was getting dark and I was getting low on fuel. It was too late to go to another airport and there was no radio to call for assistance. I have a flashlight in the glove compartment. I got it out, but to my dismay, it didn’t work. The batteries were dead. It had been over a year since I changed them (another lesson learned the hard way).
Because my aircraft is an antique, it is not equipped with an electrical system. I had no instrument lights to tell me how fast I was going or how high up I was and no turn and bank indicator to tell me that the wings were level. There was no landing light. I didn’t even have a good flashlight to see the gauges. I figured I would have to rely on my 25 years of flying this aircraft if I wanted to see my wife and 10 grandkids again.
What to do now? I started to throw out what I had on board at the farm house. First went the two headsets and the flashlight, then the intercom. I missed every time. Last, out went my movie camera. I think I hit the roof and this time the owner, his brother and friends came out to see what was going on and removed the cows. I later discovered the camera hit a car — not the house — setting off the car alarm.
Now it’s dark, real dark. I am up around 1,000 feet circling over the runway. My fuel must be only fumes by now. I tried to look at the fuel gauge, but it was too dark.
I said to myself, “How did I get into this predicament?” Pilots have a saying: It’s better to be down on the ground wishing you were up there flying than to be up there flying and wishing you were on the ground. You can guess which one I wanted — and then I saw what I needed most: Someone had driven their truck three-quarters of the way down the runway with his lights on and stopped there. I had a decision to make: Land at a high speed, thinking that in case the engine ran out of fuel, the momentum would carry me to end of the runway. If I elected to land fast I took the chance of hitting the truck on the runway or I could choose to try and land at a slower speed and take the chance of running out of fuel over the trees and not making it to the runway.
I didn’t have the luxury of time to think about it. I elected to come in fast. As I touched down 200 feet in front of him he went as fast as he could in reverse.
I shut the engine off as soon as I touched down as I didn’t want to hit the truck with a turning prop. The aircraft came to a stop 50 or 60 feet from the truck. I just sat there for a minute, then I got out and thanked the driver. I had someone stand by the tail so I could start the engine by turning the propeller. While taxing back to the tie-down area I heard the engine sputter a couple of times.
I did not try to see, that night, if there was any fuel left. I just tied my plane down — after I kissed the ground — and went home and thanked the wife because she always says a little prayer for me when I leave the house to go flying. I never worry about things because I feel she has an in with God, but I think I will start flying my Luscombe in the mornings now.