By Gene Thompson
It was a dark and stormy night. Actually that’s the way the story ends. It started with the idea to fly to Las Vegas for an Eckankar seminar. I had my pilots license, so when we heard about the upcoming weekend seminar, we decided it would be fun to fly down there. There were a few friends that decided to join us for the trip.
We arrived at the private airport in Spearfish, SD at about 3:00AM on a friday morning. The place was closed, but the owner had given me the keys to get in. We opened the hanger door and pushed the plane out on to the tarmac. It was an old Cherokee Six that I had flown many times before. We loaded our luggage and boarded the plane through the starboard wing door. Salli was going to sit starboard seat so she was the last to get in. I was doing the preflight check as she stepped on the wing to get in. Whoomp! The starboard wing dropped and the plane was sitting with a nasty list to starboard. We all exited the plane and I determined the fault. The wheel strut on the starboard wing wheel had blown out. I was perplexed. This trip didn’t seem to be starting out the way I wanted.
I called the owner (woke him up) to see how soon he could repair it and to see if he had another plane we could take. The Cherokee was the only one with enough room for all of us, and he didn’t think it could be fixed without ordering parts. He said “Why don’t you just take it anyway?” I was surprised. “What do you mean?” I said. “Just hold that wheel off when you land.” he replied. He had been my flight instructor, so he knew my abilities and I trusted him. “OK,” I replied.
I told the others that we would just take the plane anyway. They all looked at me funny, the idea of leaving on a trip in a broken airplane was a new concept for them. But they seemed to think I knew what I was doing, and decided to go along with the idea. Testing spirit is something we all do from time to time, and with God on our side, why worry? We re-boarded the plane and roared off into a dark star-filled sky.
The flight down went smoothly and was very interesting. We stopped for gas on the way and the landing went fine. The countryside was beautiful, and we took a small diversion on the way to drop down inside the grand canyon for a once in a lifetime view.
When we got to Las Vegas I was having trouble finding the airport amidst the neon-lined city streets. I had never had an experience with a downtown airport before. The tower was routing me in, and kept asking me if I had the airport in sight yet. I kept saying that I did not, when they replied “Piper 61niner follow the jet”. To which I replied “What je.....” Shooom. A large cargo jet passed right in front us. I opened the throttle to maximum and fell in behind him. We landed uneventfully, and headed off to the convention hotel.
The seminar was a wonderful experience. The talks, music and workshops had given us much to consider and everyone felt they had learned a lot. After the last session on Sunday, we checked out of our rooms and made our way to the airport. A Lear Jet was parked next to us, and the attendant on duty told us it had been impounded due to some heavy gambling losses. We loaded up the plane with all our stuff and prepared to leave. It was a very hot summer day, and the plane did not have air-conditioning. Waiting in line on the taxiway with the door and windows open gave us a feeling of what it must be like inside of a blast furnace. So we were glad when we received clearance to take off and we could get to the cooler air at higher altitude.
I chose a different route home with a planned stop in Provo, Utah to refuel. Once there I called the FAA to check the weather, and was told that there were reported thunder storms between Casper, WY and Spearfish, SD. The conversation went something like this: “We would recommend that you do not go.” “Are you telling me that I cannot go?” “No, the area is still rated for visual flight status.” “So I can go then?” “We cannot tell you not to go, but we would recommend that you do not.” That was good enough for me. I talked it over with the passengers and expressed my desire to get home, and while not too fond of the idea, they decided I must know what I was doing and reluctantly agreed.
The flight out of Provo and into Wyoming was magnificent. We had to circle for about 45 min. to gain enough altitude to make it through the pass in the Uinta Mountain Range. We passed between two snow capped peaks to come out right on the deck of the high altitude Red Desert in Wyoming. I locked on to the VOR at Casper and we tracked in with no problems. As we passed over the radio tracking signal at Casper I changed my vector to use the same VOR on an outgoing signal for the trip to Spearfish. Small towns like Spearfish didn’t have their own radio beacons. It was getting dark by now and there were some ominous looking clouds in the distance between us and Spearfish.
Before we knew it we had thunderstorms all around us. Flashes of lightning would blind us as I wove a path between them. It was too dark to see anything. This is an isolated part of Wyoming, so there were few lights on the ground. The sky was obscured by clouds. Then it began to rain. As the plane’s windshield would start to ice up, I would use a small flashlight to check the wings for icing. Planes don’t like ice on them. They get heavy, loose their aerodynamics, and tend to fall out of the sky. I would quickly our lower altitude in an attempt to find some warmer air while veering off to one side or the other away from what looked like the nearest storm. This process kept repeating itself: icing, drop and change course; icing, drop and change course. I was getting a little worried about losing so much altitude.
Now would be a good time to talk about trusting in spirit. As a member of Eckankar, I had learned about the inner master’s presence at all times. I was also singing HU, an ancient name for God that helped me stay focused and not give in to fear. I think everybody on board was doing the same.
After what seemed like an interminably long time, we finally left the thunderstorms behind us, and I felt a great sense of relief from the passengers in the back. But now I had another problem. The VOR signal out of Casper was vague now, and after weaving around so much to avoid the storms, I wasn’t quite sure where we were. We were low on fuel and finding the little town of Spearfish would not be easy. It was tucked in between some high bluffs in the northern part of the Black Hills of South Dakota, and we would only be able to see it if we were within a few miles of it. I had done a time/distance calculation so I knew we had traveled far enough, but we could be 20 miles too far to the left or right of the town.
I leaned over to Salli to tell her it was time to start looking for Spearfish and explain our situation to her in a low voice. I saw no reason to alarm the rest of the passengers. Just then we came over a bluff and the town of Spearfish lit up below us. We were dead on course. We cruised over the town and passed over the next bluff to the valley where the airport was located. The airport was closed by now and whole valley was dark. I set the radio frequency for the runway lights and keyed the mike nine times. The runway lit up directly in front of us. It would be impossible for me to explain how I felt when I saw those lights come on. I throttled down and we made a perfect three point landing.
I taxied in and shut off the engine. None of us spoke. After driving for 2 hours to a friends house, I placed a call to the FAA to let them know we had made it and to report the icing. The guy I talked to sounded relieved.
It’s one of those things, an event that teaches you more about life, spirit, trust and responsibility. I think spirit will take care of you to a point. As you grow spiritually you must also accept more responsibility. I received plenty of “waking dreams” or insights/warnings for this trip but I didn’t act on them. I was so single-minded that all I could see was the end goal. Do I regret it? NO! Everything in my past has made me who I am today and this experience was an invaluable lesson. Would I do it again? I hope I would act on the guidance I was receiving and alter my plans accordingly.
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