By Jack Horohoe
The recent news story surrounding the student pilot whose instructor suffered a heart attack and yet was able to successfully land the airplane with the help of an air traffic controller brought back a flood of memories.
In the late 1970s, after extensive training and practice, I received my private pilot’s license. To test my mettle, I completed a cross-country flight. This involved doing a preflight check, plotting my course and flying to three separate airports in a triangular pattern.
I flew the single-engine Cessna 150 from Buffalo to Jamestown, then to Rochester and back to Buffalo Airpark. I felt pretty confident in my flying skills.
I convinced my younger brother, Jim, a pre-med student at Canisius College, to join me and act as my second set of eyes as I flew to visit an old friend in Shelby, Ohio, some 250 miles southwest of Buffalo.
We lifted off smoothly from the Buffalo Airpark, on Clinton Street, and climbed to about 2,000 feet. We flew along the southern shore of Lake Erie and then turned southwest near Erie. It was called flying VFR, or by visual flight rules. The old timers called it “flying by the seat of your pants.” It basically meant that we were not depending on instruments for navigation. We were able to find our way by comparing our map to landmarks on the ground.
The Thruway was our best source. We also used railroad tracks, TV towers and streams to find our way.
We arrived in Shelby about two hours later. The Cessna was only able to fly about 100 mph.
My friend Ned and his wife greeted us at the tiny little airport on the outskirts of town. I took their kids for a quick ride around the airport traffic pattern.
A couple of hours later it was time to go. The scrappy little Cessna lifted off gingerly and started to rise into the blue skies. I noticed some puffy clouds to the east but nothing that looked worrisome. I had checked the weather along my course before we left and everything looked fine.
Little did I know, a cold front that had formed in Canada had moved south unexpectedly. About an hour into our flight we were swallowed up by heavy clouds, wind and rain. That little plane was buffeted by the winds like a small SUV on the Skyway in mid-January. I couldn’t see the ground. I knew I was headed in the right direction but I soon realized I was way over my head.
I picked up the microphone and radioed Cleveland air traffic control and told them of my situation and that I was not certified for instrument flying. The controller’s cool, authoritative voice assured me he was there to help. He instructed me to make a 90-degree turn to the right and then a 90 to the left. “I see you,” he said as my tiny airplane showed up on his radar.
He talked to me and gave me instructions in a calm, relaxed voice. I am sure he knew I was out of my element. All of a sudden, the clouds parted and I could see Lake Erie and the afternoon sun to my left. I thanked him profusely and took a deep breath.
We were going to be OK.
More than 40 years have passed but I can still remember that voice without a face that brought us back home that day.
I often wonder if we were flying with one more passenger that day – an angel on my shoulder.
Jack Horohoe, from Town of Tonawanda, will never forget his flight to Shelby, Ohio.