SI Vault
Percy Knauth
July 31, 1961
The minute-by-minute story of a pilot-father's hour of crisis in the sky. With his son and a friend as passengers, he finds himself trapped by weather and realizes he must come down—somewhere
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July 31, 1961

Rendezvous With An Unknown Field

The minute-by-minute story of a pilot-father's hour of crisis in the sky. With his son and a friend as passengers, he finds himself trapped by weather and realizes he must come down—somewhere

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The field was a very ordinary-looking one ragged, tufted with bushes and thin sapling trees; unwanted, untended, obviously abandoned. I probably had seen it many times before, on earlier flights in my student-pilot days when I was doing short cross-country runs from Teterboro airport in New Jersey past the Kensico Reservoir to Bridgeport and Danbury in Connecticut or to the Westchester County airport near White Plains, N.Y. On such trips I played a useful little game: flying along, I would study the ground below, trying to pick out places where, in the unlikely event of an engine failure or other emergency, I might safely land. It helped to pass the time, and it kept me on my toes and always well aware of where I was.

This field, however, even had I consciously seen it, would scarcely have attracted further study. It had no character; it hardly stood out from the surrounding landscape of woods, meadows and low hills. Roughly rectangular in shape, it was bordered along its eastern edge by a line of spreading maples and a low stone wall, which separated it from a small road. The western edge trailed off into thick scrub and brush. From the north, a wooded hillside sloped down toward it; to the south, it faded into nothingness—a tumble-down barn lay there, some bits of rusty junk, a clump of sumac growing wildly in a hollow. And on the field itself the grass looked scrofulous from the air, with spreading brown patches eating away at its sparse green.

I never would have picked it, I am sure.

It is 8 o'clock of a beautiful, early-summer day. We are at the airport in Allentown, Pa.—my son Peter, whom I picked up from his Ohio college yesterday, his friend Jay, who is going home to Long Island, and I, three travelers in Tri-Pacer N-3212-Z for Zebra, a trim red-and-white ship that is waiting for us on the apron outside. The sun, already well up, promises a day of warmth and some humidity, but right now it is clear and fresh and cool, with only a thin gauze of high cirrus clouds 10,000 feet or more above. I have already checked the weather ahead. New York seems O.K.—Idlewild reports scattered clouds at 10,000 feet and visibility of 10 miles; La Guardia 5,000 scattered, visibility five miles with haze and smoke; and Teterboro, down on its industrial plain, 5,000 scattered and three miles with haze and smoke. We decide to make for Flushing, a neat, small field in the loom of mighty La Guardia and handy to the subway and home.

By 9 o'clock we are ready. We climb in and settle down, I start the engine, turn to face the control tower, turn on the radio and call ground control, which regulates the traffic on the taxiways, on the standard frequency of 121.9.

No answer.

Funny, I think—I've had no trouble on that frequency before. But ground control is tricky; often there are dead spots in the short distance between plane and tower, sometimes just depending on which way the plane is turned. I taxi a bit farther out and try again: "Allen-town ground control, this is Tri-Pacer 3212-Zebra, visitors' ramp, ready to taxi. Over."

A four-engined DC-6 Mainliner rumbles past, its engines belching loudly in the quiet morning air. My radio, tune it as I may, is silent. But now I see a green light flashing at me from the tower window. Ah! They have heard me; I am cleared to taxi to the runway. We swing around behind the huge four-engined job and follow it along, feeling very much like a dinghy obediently trailing the Queen Mary. At the head of the runway we both turn into the wind to run our engines up for a final check of instruments and magnetos.

Right behind us is another airliner, a Martin 202. The roar of his two big engines drowns us out completely as he revs them. Peter and Jay stare out in awe. The DC-6 ahead of us is ready; under full throttle now, he rolls, lifts, climbs and disappears. It is our turn; I switch to tower frequency and call: "One-two-Zebra, ready for take-off."

No sound comes from my radio; no reply.

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