“FLYING” WITHOUT AN ENGINE

It was 1976 and I was a new pilot with 80 hours of flight time. I convinced my brother we should fly from Salt Lake City over the scenic canyons between the Utah-Arizona border near Lake Powell. We would use our dad’s shared condo in St. George, Utah as base camp. I had purchased a 1966 Cessna 150 because buying was less expensive than renting when learning to fly. I’d sell it later. Now, 38 years later, it’s finally for sale.

Our flight to St. George was only half the time as driving (Cessna 150’s cruise at 100 MPH) and the cost of fuel was about the same. The first leg was uneventful. The next morning we headed to Wahweap Marina at Lake Powell. The landing at the dirt runway required an air sock. In such uncontrolled airspace it is common practice to make a pass over the runway ensuring it’s free of obstacles, assess the runway condition, and wind direction. I was happy to see that the wind direction favored a landing toward the lake. My brother would experience the same thrill I had once before.

Lake Powell Sunset from Plane

I said nothing. I made the typical box approach, set up for a soft field landing (sand), and touched down where we saw the wheel marks of another aircraft. Then the fun began. My brother became a shade or two paler when his gaze moved from the side window to the windshield. Disguising my smile, I let out an “ought oh.” All we could see in front of us was water. You see, the runway had a dogleg, ramping up a short distance before it crested and then one could see the rest of the runway. The first time I landed there, I thought, “Where in the hell did the runway go?” I pulled on the yoke and stomped on the brakes only to have to power over the hill and down the runway to the tie up area.

The thrill only lasts a moment, but I saw no good reason to deprive my brother.

He recovered over a sandwich at the marina shack across from the runway. We looked at all 12 of the boats moored there and then started a scenic flight over the Paria Canyon to Kanab, then back to St. George. Now immune to my antics, my brother seemed apathetic when the engine become rough and everything started shaking. Over the engine’s loud roar, he yelled, “Not very funny!”

It wasn’t until I throttled back and he witnessed me key the microphone announcing my “Mayday” call that he believed our predicament was real. Now, his shade was snow white, but he was a trooper as I went through the emergency landing procedure. His job was to look for power lines and fences. Many years would pass before the advent of GPS and modern day navigation aids, so when I radioed the Kanab airfield the Flight Base Operator suggested I could make it to the airport, which was just over the bluff. All we could see was bluffs. I elected a straight dirt road well within my glide range.

What Cessna 150’s lack in speed they make up for in glide distance (basically a glider with an engine). With the throttle off, I set up to make a “normal” landing, with three exceptions:

  1. Power lines at one end of my road (headwind, tailwind, crosswind no longer a choice)
  2. A pile of lumber scrap in the middle of my runway, which was not visible until after touchdown
  3. The pickup truck that entered “my runway” with a head-to-head approach

Luckily, the wind was not a factor. The pickup driver (who inexplicably had his head out the driver’s window looking down at the road as he inched along) never saw us. I thought my landing wheels would crease his cab; and we had just enough speed to jump over the lumber scrap immediately after touchdown.

As we rolled to a smooth, undamaged stop, my brother got out of the aircraft. He slowly lowered himself to the dirt. The color returned to his face as he kissed the ground beneath him.

Turns out we landed at the Kaibab Lumber Mill, the largest employer in both Kanab, Utah and Fredonia, Arizona. Their trucks were lined full of timber. The giant logging forklifts would pick up an entire load in one hippo-sized bite and stack it for processing. The bored workers streamed out of buildings to check out the new runway. They were followed by the local security guard. His lights were flashing as he skid to a stop demanding, “Why did you land on private property?” I’d had enough drama for one day (my brother for a lifetime) and explained, “Well sir, we lost an engine and as you can probably deduce, it’s the only one we have.”

I don’t know if it was the crowd who railed on the unpopular security officer, or the lights and siren of the approaching sheriff and Kanab airport car, but he got back in his car and drove away.

My brother hitched a ride to St. George. I remained in Kanab for a couple of days waiting for a replacement cylinder by Greyhound. Since there was no aircraft mechanic in the area, I borrowed some tools, installed a new cylinder, picked up my brother and flew back home. My brother still talks to me. In fact, he’s my best friend; but he has not flown with me in what he calls “the rubber band plane” since.

We made the news!

The original shot in the local newspaper looked a bit like this. Good times.

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