Thursday, October 13, 2016

Fog vs the Bossman

Back around 1963 or so, I was flying for American Dusting Company of Chickasha, Oklahoma. My unit was based in the town of Pecan Gap Texas. Pecan Gap consisted of a small restaurant, a service station, a feed store and about fifteen private residences. The town was surrounded by thousands of acres of cotton fields. 

My airport was owned and operated by a man named Weldon Briscoe who was also my boss. The landing strip was in the middle of his 160-acre place. Being a carpenter in the off season Briscoe asked me to build a hanger for him, which I did. It was large enough to hanger two planes - both Stearman biplanes that were once military trainers and had been converted to ag aircraft.

For the benefit of the unlearned, commercial aircraft, even crop-duster types, have to be inspected every 100 hours of flying time by a federal authorized mechanic. To get this inspection each time I reached one hundred hours, I had to fly to Chickasha where American had their headquarters and did all the maintenance on the planes.

One morning Boss Briscoe said, "Roberts, your time is up. Take the plane to headquarters and get the danged inspection."  Whereupon I looked all around and observed that there was pretty heavy fog enveloping us. Briscoe allowed that we were located only a few miles from the Red River, and fog forms along the river at this time of year. "If you can take off, you will be out of the fog very shortly since it just hangs along the river area."

The fog wasn’t very thick, I noticed, because I could see the big red ball of the early morning sun through the fog.

So I mounted my trusty steed and, keeping my eye on that big red ball, departed for Oklahoma. Sure enough, I soon came out of the ground-hugging layers of fog and viola! It was a beautiful clear day on top of the fog. 

I continued to climb, thinking if I got high enough I could probably see that the fog was just local. I climbed and climbed and climbed. At ten thousand feet all I could see in all directions was the brilliantly white cottony fog; no holes, no openings anywhere.

I wasn’t too worried though, I figured I would take up a heading to Chickasha and no doubt would leave the fog behind after a bit. As I said, it was a beautiful spring morning and I was enjoying the flight thinking how lucky I was to be flying on such a glorious day. 

I flew for about an hour and very slowly two thing began to crowd into my consciousness. One, the fog was not any local thing at all and two, my fuel gauge was getting nearer and nearer to the empty point. The fuel tank located in the top wing of the biplane directly in the middle of the center-section. The fuel gauge was a glass tube attached to the bottom of the tank directly in front of my eyes. It was placed there for a reason.

This airplane was originally designed for a 225 hp Lycoming engine which consumed about 10 or 12 gallons per hour. The tank held about 46 gallons of fuel which would give one about three and a half hours of flight. But...when the plane was converted to crop-dusting configuration a 450 hp Pratt Whitney engine was added. This engine burned about 20 gallons of fuel per hour of flight, meaning I only had about 30 more minutes of flight before I ran out of fuel. 

Still no sign of the ground anywhere. I became alarmed and began to make desperate plans.

I decided I would have to go down through the fog. I would slow the plane to the slowest speed that it would fly and still have control, and take whatever came, be it good or bad. Just before I did this suddenly I saw a small hole in the white layer below me.

As I circled the hole I could see the ground and there was a strange pattern on the earth. I could not imagine what it was. Whatever it was, I was about to find out. 

I rolled into a tight turn and cut my engine back, beginning a corkscrew descent into this cloudy well of an opening. Nearer and nearer came the ground. When the altimeter showed that I was only about a hundred or so feet above the surface suddenly - I was in the clear. Thank God, there was a clear space between the bottom of the fog and the earth! 

The strange pattern I had seen was a fish hatchery. It was a small lake with dikes running parallel across it, spaced about twenty feet apart. I had not remembered this landmark though I had flown this way several times in the past.

Of course, I rolled out of my tight turn into level flight and stopped my descent. However, I was still as lost as a goose. I took up a heading to the northwest anyway and figured, "At least I can land in a pasture or field."  

Then I suddenly came to a highway. "That is where I will put this flying machine down," I determined. I turned so I was flying along parallel to the pavement, expecting to hear the engine stop any moment. Then up came a sign that said "Duncan 10 miles." This was going to be my first fuel stop. Within minutes I was on the runway and taxing into the gas pit.

I pull up to the fuel pump and shut the engine down. Needless to say I was a bit sweaty. The small airport fuel boy came sauntering out and looked at me and then up at the low ceiling, shook his head and said "What in God’s name are you doing flying in this stuff?" I wondered the same thing.

The gas boy filled my tank and it took 45 1/2 gallons. As I said, the tank was a 46 gallon tank. 

Moral: I was stupid for taking off in the fog no matter what the bossman sez.


  1. Aaaaaaaaaaand Gramps tells 'nother story indicating that the Lord has plans for his life 'cause He watched out for Gramps yet again! :D

  2. Hey Gramps,
    Just wanted to say I love reading these stories. Hearing about your exploits and adventures always brightens my day. Thanks!
    -Jason Roberts