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An Angel in the Skies by Chris Chamness

By May 27, 2021June 3rd, 2022No Comments

While stationed with the 82nd Airborne Division at Fort Bragg, North Carolina I decided to pursue a lifelong yearning to learn to fly. The local flying club, conveniently co-located at Simmons Army Airfield, offered ground school plus “inexpensive” plane rentals and flight instruction. A mild winter with many cold but clear flying days helped me quickly earn my private pilot’s license. I was happily content to continue my flying hobby by renting airplanes when needed until by chance a “friend” of an acquaintance was on short notice reassigned overseas and needed to quickly sell his private airplane. Before I knew it, I was the proud owner of a 1958 Cessna 175 “Skylark”, a four-seat single engine high wing tricycle landing gear airplane, with adequate avionics and a sound airframe. The engine was midlife, projected to last a long time before overhaul. No worries here and I continued keeping my “new” plane at a small grass landing strip, appropriately named “I-95” because it literally paralleled Interstate 95, a few miles south of Fayetteville in St. Paul. Thereafter, when off-duty I could fly wherever I wanted, and life was good. 

One weekend I flew north to visit a college fraternity brother and his wife in Woodbridge, Virginia.  That Sunday afternoon, after a pleasant weekend stay in the Washington, DC suburbs, I departed solo in my Cessna 175 from the rural Woodbridge landing strip on a “routine” flight with a destination of my home I-95 airfield in North Carolina. Fortunately, also aboard, was my guardian angel.

The planned course sought to avoid the restricted and congested airspace along the I-95 corridor. So, when airborne, I turned west flying over the extensive swamplands of the meandering Occoquan River. I continued slowly climbing westward, having a very clear view of the uninviting and desolate wasteland below. I silently expressed gratitude that I was not actually in those forsaken and forbidding wetlands. Before reaching an elevation of 2,000 feet, without warning, I was suddenly startled by a loud but short explosive sound…quickly followed by an equally brief puff of white smoke flowing from the cowling. Next came an overwhelming symphony of total silence.

I intuitively knew that I had just transitioned from powered flight to flying a glider. Now my survival required a level head, logical thought, and measured action. First, I adjusted the flight angle to achieve the maximum glide airspeed. Next, I declared an emergency and was soon talking to the air controllers at Dulles International. As I communicated the fact of total engine failure and approximate location, Dulles acquired my exact location on its radar. I was too far away to safely reach Dulles, in fact the nearest airport was the one I had just flown from, Woodbridge. Dulles gave me a return vector and promised to call ahead. 

So now all that I had to do was glide to Woodbridge on the given path and land. A seemingly simple enough task and so I gradually banked into a turn onto course. Meanwhile, my plane slowly sank closer and closer towards the dismal and dangerous swamps below. There were no safe places to land below, only forested ground with clumps of short, gnarly trees or the Occoquan River and its system of creeks, sloughs, and pools. I steadily made headway while steadily losing altitude, soon well under 1,000 feet with a paratrooper’s perspective of the rapidly “rising” ground below. Eventually I sighted the airfield and now had a visible target to aim for. Yet my angle of sight kept flattening, and the contours of the slightly hilly terrain continuously rose towards the rapidly shrinking visible horizon. The scraggy trees were now perilously threatening to become an impenetrable barricade of deadly thorns. Less than 300 feet above ground, I had yet to reach the threshold of the south facing runway 1. To add to the tension, Dulles kept making frequent inquiries about my situation.

Suddenly dead ahead Runway 1 presented itself. As though on autopilot I instinctively prepared to and then made a 90 degree curving landing, touching down on the asphalt as close as possible to the edge, barely clearing a menacing murky bay. Before initiating my landing sequence, I had less than 75 feet to spare. I drifted to the parallel taxiway and stopped where other planes could pass by. I then radioed the airport fixed base operator located at the opposite end of the 2300-foot runway to call for a ride. Although contacted earlier by Dulles, I soon learned that I was not expected to reach the airfield.

Although never manifesting herself, my guardian angel was aboard for the entire trip. A few more pounds of fuel or cargo; a hundred feet less elevation gain; not receiving and maintaining a precise compass vector; and not maintaining a maximum glide airspeed: any one of these factors would have precluded my reaching Woodbridge intact. Exactly what else might have happened is all speculation. Yet that afternoon my angel was always there protecting me. And so, my next flight was a commercial redeye that evening out of Washington National to Fayetteville.

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