She’s Down – Helping a Cessna in Distress
Air Facts Journal

After the dust had cleared, I found out her name was Karen. And she made a cloud of dust getting her airplane on the ground. I would say she got it on the ground safely, but I’d be lying.

My First Officer, Brad D., and I had left Paris, Texas with a load of mail and two passengers for McAlester, Oklahoma in our trusty Twin Otter which turned out to be 15 minutes after Karen’s adventure began at Durant, Oklahoma. Durant is home to Southeastern Oklahoma State University (SOSU). SOSU has a flying program in its curriculum – a diploma mill for pilots. One attends the University to take the ground school and complete the flying portion of the program and you have a degree to go along with your licenses.

Brad and I were well south of the University on our way to McAlester and as I often did, I listened in to the Unicom frequency to see if any of the instructors I knew were up and working the pattern with their students. As I listened in to the radio calls, I heard “Cessna November 50788 entering downwind for a full stop on runway 17” and “Twin Cessna November 61237 on final to runway 17”.  I was reflecting on how much more enjoyable it was to be sailing past Durant in our Twin Otter than it was to be down there watching another student learn from his or her mistakes.

It was getting dark on the ground as we went past, and I could tell by the radio calls for a “full stop landing” that most of the instructors and students were going home for the night. It was just after I heard the last airplane clear off the frequency that I first heard Karen, and she was in trouble.

Karen had taken off from Durant’s Eaker Field to do some night solo landings in her Cessna 152, and she lost her bearings immediately after takeoff. When I first heard her, she was slightly uptight, but still in control enough to remember what her instructor had taught her to do when she found herself in a difficulty. In aviation we are taught to do the “Three C’s” – Climb, Communicate and Cooperate, and she had done the first two correctly.

152 landing

Karen had taken off from Durant’s Eaker Fieldand she lost her bearings immediately after takeoff.

Karen’s voice was trembling as she called, “Durant Unicom, Cessna November 704Victor Charlie is lost. Is anyone listening?”

I monitored the frequency and didn’t hear anyone answer her, and her next call was a little more plaintive. “Durant Unicom, this is Cessna November 704Victor Charlie. Does anyone hear me? I am lost and climbing north of Durant, I think.”

When no one answered her second call, I called her and told her I was a former instructor for SOSU passing by on the way to McAlester. I asked her, “Do you know your position?” to which she replied, “No. I took off from Durant 15 minutes ago to make some night landings and I am lost. I am at 4,000 feet and can’t find Durant.”

I asked her how much fuel she had on board, and she said she had taken off with full tanks, which was a welcome thing to hear. I knew from too many hours in Cessna 152s that she had at least three and a half hours of fuel aboard. That would make a positive outcome a little easier to manage than if she had had only 30 minutes worth aboard. By this time I had Brad brief the passengers on the situation and we had slowed down to the minimum speed we could manage in a clean configuration so as to make our meager fuel reserves last longer. We were cruising at about the same speed the Cessna could manage which was 105 knots.

Sometime during this period of getting us slowed down and putting Brad in control of the aircraft so I could concentrate on finding Karen, I heard an instructor from Durant on the frequency. He was calling her from the Unicom radio and he couldn’t hear her replies, though he could hear me. That told me I was closer to him than Karen was as we were at her same altitude of 4,000 feet in an effort to find her and guide her to a safe landing.

I got her on frequency and told her to set course to the north, and to maintain 4,000 feet. I also asked her if she had any lights on, and she replied that she did not have any lights on except the red beacon. She also volunteered that she didn’t have any idea how to get more lights on which told me she was losing her composure. Her tone of voice verified she was getting panicky, and I did my best to calm her down by telling her what we were trying to do with her and by complimenting her abilities in keeping the aircraft under control up to this point.

She settled down some, and I got her to start looking for the lights of McAlester, Oklahoma, which should have been visible ahead of her, as we could see them from our position.

While that was going on, I had Brad get on the second radio and query McAlester Flight Service Station as to what frequencies they could utilize to provide a “DF steer” to Karen. They replied they could use 123.0 MHz only, so I began to try to get Karen to put her second radio on that frequency. Karen was hesitant at first to give up her lifeline, but I talked her through the use of the audio selector panel to get 123.0 where she could hear it before she changed the transmitter she was using to talk on. I talked to her on 123.0 and finally she understood she could hear us on both frequencies and was willing to change transmitters.

When she first transmitted on 123.0, McAlester Radio was able to look at their oscilloscope and read a direction from their receiver off the device. That enabled them to tell her she was southwest of the airport, but they could not tell her how far she was from the field because their equipment had no way to ascertain that data.

Since we were coming in from the southeast, slightly off her right, I took over the communications again and told her to change to a heading that should have taken her to the airport. I was guessing at the wind correction angle to apply, but I was only a few degrees off her inbound course, so I had a fair idea of the course she should fly. Karen turned to the new heading and was settling down somewhat, getting over her earlier panic. As she headed north, we finally got her aircraft in sight. She was just south of the airport, still at 4,000 feet.

I had Brad maneuver to fall in behind Karen, and got her to finally recognize the airport under her, off her left. She was on a left upwind leg to the airport, and would have to make crosswind, downwind, base and final legs to get set up to land. The wind was out of the north at about 10 knots, so landing to the south was not an option. All those turns would be to her left, and would keep the airport in her sight throughout the maneuvers. We were behind her and lower than she was, and I was talking her through the approach and getting her to descend to a more normal pattern altitude.

As she made her crosswind leg and descended toward the downwind leg, I lost sight of her behind our left engine as Brad maneuvered to stay behind her. When we rolled-out on downwind ourselves, I could not see her at all. A gentleman in a Beechcraft Bonanza was sitting on the taxiway on the airport, listening to us trying to talk Karen down, and he chimed in when I made an announcement that I had lost sight of her. “She is lower than normal on downwind, Metro. She is well below you”, he said.

I looked way down over the nose and could see Karen’s Cessna on a very low downwind, turning to a base leg well south of the airport. She was obviously keying on a pair of red lights that sat on top of 30-foot power poles just south of the runway. The poles were lit because they were right on top of a small hill about a quarter mile south, and in line with the runway.

Karen would not answer the radio and she was determined to land right on those two lights, even though they were not the runway. I was talking pretty loud and fast on the frequency trying to get her to pull up and fly just a little farther when I saw a bright arc flash!

“She’s down!” I cried on frequency. Without un-keying the microphone, I told McAlester Radio to get the Fire Department on their way. Before I could even get through making that transmission, my eyes adjusted enough to still see her beacon moving over the ground! Still without un-keying the microphone, I told the gentleman in the Bonanza he had a better view than we did and to take over and try to talk her through a landing.

He took over and kept talking to her, telling her “to add power, hold it off just a little longer, you are over the runway, ease the power off, hold the nose up, hold the nose up, hold the nose up, She’s down!”, he announced.

From my vantage point, I could see her beacon rolling down the runway, then off the runway, through the grass, across the taxiway, across the grass, up on the ramp and to a stop, finally. Since I could see the runway was clear, we went ahead and landed. As we taxied in, I could see Karen lying on the ground, literally hugging it. The man from the Bonanza was over there, as was our station agent, and she was obviously all right as the airplane was not bent or broken, and the beacon was still turning.

After we deplaned the passengers, the instructor from Durant landed in their Beechcraft Debonair. He was about as happy to see Karen down safely and the airplanes unbroken as she was happy to be down, herself. We left and went to the hotel for the night, and the 152 was gone in the morning.

We never saw Karen again, though I did hear from her instructor that she wouldn’t even ride back to Durant in an airplane and she gave up flying.

mike early

Mike Early in front of a Twin Otter.

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