In February 1983 I bought an aerobatic 1975 Decathlon in perfect condition. It was in Las Vegas, Nevada and I flew the airplane back to my home in Atlanta, Georgia. The first two days of ferrying the airplane home was fun but not noteworthy. On the third day, the plan was to fly from St. Landry Parish, Louisiana to Jackson, Mississippi for a fuel stop, then on to Marietta, Georgia for the night. However, it was not to be as the weather soon became THE issue of the day.
The weather was forecast to be no lower than 1,600′ overcast and four miles of visibility. This forecast covered the flight from Saint Landry Parish to Jackson, Mississippi which was our next fuel stop. After Jackson, the weather was forecast to be much better. We takeoff in the Decathlon and climb up to the base of the clouds which turned out to be about 1,200′ AGL. The visibility was at least three miles so we pressed on, counting on the forecast to be correct.
Approximately 30 minutes later, we are flying at 1,000 AGL with visibility a little less than three miles. I said to my passenger, “I’m sure this is just a momentary deviation in the weather and soon it will be back up to 1,600 feet and four miles visibility.” A few minutes later we were at 800′ to avoid the base of the clouds and then down to 600′. I decided that we should turn around and land as obviously, the weatherman was wrong again.
By the time I turned around we were down to 300′ AGL and no direction appeared to be a good path.
Remember, I am a very experienced Instrument pilot, but this airplane only has a large G-meter, engine instruments, but no other instrumentation for flying in IMC. GPS did not exist. I had a paper map and a whiskey compass! I begged for a way out, but weather was deteriorating in all directions. I needed an airport fast!
All of a sudden, a giant water tower appeared in front of me. I am now at 200′ AGL and quickly turn around the water tower to find my position. Woodville, Mississippi was written on the side of the water tower. Yes, at least now I knew where I was. A plan developed in my head. I just needed to find an airport, draw a course line from the Woodville, Mississippi water tower to that airport, and I will be saved from potential catastrophe. I am flying circles, literally, around the water tower. I get out my VFR paper map and hunt for Woodville on that map, but I cannot find it.
I have now made at least six circles around the water tower. I pass the map back to my passenger and ask her if she can find Woodville. Another six circles around the water tower and she throws the map at me and says she cannot find it either. I fold the map up to focus on where we are, and there it is, Woodville, Mississippi staring at me. I draw a very careful line (while flying at 100′ AGL) from Woodville to the Natchez Airport which was the closest airport I can find. On the next circle, I rollout on the heading of 360°. I figure I am 15 nautical miles from Natchez.
I am now at 200′ AGL or less. I look for indications on the map for anything that will confirm that I am headed in the right direction. I see what we call an antenna farm – a collection of antennas. I figure if I am on the right course, I should see all of them out to my left side. My eyes are aching as I keep searching for the antennas off my left side. All of a sudden I see an antenna off my right side, then two more on the left. Fear rises in my throat as I realize I am in the middle of the antenna farm.
The good outcome this momentary fear, is that I know my exact location. I corrected my course 2° to the left and looked at my clock for the time that was left for me to see the Natchez, Mississippi Airport. I am still less than 200′ above the ground with visibility less than a mile. I called final approach on the common frequency and asked for weather information. A voice replied stating that there is a “very low ceiling and estimated visibility of 1/4 to 1/2 mile. I had slowed to approach speed and kept hoping for a view of any landing spot at all.
Suddenly, there it was, the numbers 36 on a piece of pavement right in front of me! A few seconds later, I was stopping on that beautiful runway.
Thank you Lord! I promise, I will never again put all my trust in a weather forecast with no backup plan.
I shut down in front of the small FBO that appeared out of the fog. The attendant came out and said, “Welcome to Natchez.” We were the only airplane to land that day. The scheduled commuter airline canceled all three of its flights due to the low ceiling and visibility.
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