“Yep, right after I got my pilot’s license, I promised my wife that if she’d go along with the purchase of an airplane, I’d fly her to see her mom and dad anytime she wished. Well, next Thursday is Thanksgiving and she wishes to spend it with her parents.”

“They still live in Florida?”

“Uh huh, in Dunedin, just north of Clearwater. It’ll take us about three hours in the Cessna Cardinal—ten plus if we drive.”

“Ron, how long have you had your private license?”

“Four years last August.”

“Do you have an instrument rating?”

“Nope, not yet, Anyway, I shouldn’t need one. The weather looks great.”

Bob shook his head. “Buddy, this is late November. The weather can turn rotten before you know it—heck, a slow-moving front can stall across north Florida and leave your butt stranded for days. Instrument rating or not, you’re just asking for trouble this time of year.”

Now, since this was the same guy that gave me fits about flying a single engine airplane at night, I brushed it off.

“Aw, come on, Bob. You’re just spoiled. Not every pilot gets to fly corporate jets with all the bells and whistles like you have on the Jet Commander. Flying a 400-mph airplane with dual everything would spoil me, too.”

Bob was my mentor—especially when it came to flying. Among other things, Bob had been chief pilot for the State of Alabama. Now he was head of the aviation department for a major utility company in Atlanta and the chief pilot of a sleek Rockwell 1121 Jet Commander, tail number N56AG.

It was 1976, and I’d been a private pilot for four years. We’d owned two different airplanes. The first was a 1962 Cessna Skyhawk, painted two tones of the ugliest green you’ve ever seen. Now, we owned what to me is still the best-looking, single-engine airplane Cessna ever made: a Cessna Cardinal.

Without wing struts, she was sleek as a ’57 Chevy. Parked on the ramp, she sat low to the ground. In the air, she outperformed all the competition. The Cardinal was the first Cessna to use a laminar flow wing, so she didn’t fly like the other Cessna singles. She also wasn’t nearly as forgiving of sloppy piloting, especially during landings. Approach the runway too fast, and the Cardinal would float a few feet off the tarmac until she—not you or your passengers—was ready to land. If you tried to rush it, the Cardinal would stall abruptly and often without warning. If in the process, you hit too hard on the nosewheel, she would wheelbarrow down the runway, nearly out of control—a trait that ripped the firewall out of many such airplanes.

These bad habits earned the Cardinal an undeserved nasty reputation and lowered their resale value. Perhaps that’s why I was able to buy this four-year-old airplane for less than the price of today’s Mini-Cooper. The logic I used on my wife to get the deal approved was that with a faster airplane, we could be at her parent’s home north of Clearwater, Florida in less than three hours. Heck, we could even go for short holidays like Thanksgiving and Christmas!

So on the afternoon of November 23, 1976 we hopped in the Cardinal and headed south on Victor 97, the low altitude airway that stretches from northwest of Atlanta to southwest Florida. Thanks to a weak, slow moving cold front, the skies were clear, and at least over the northern portion of the route, we even had us a tailwind.

We landed at the St. Petersburg/Clearwater International airport in under two-hours and forty-eight minutes. My wife was impressed. And even though, after eloping with their teenage daughter, I wasn’t exactly the son-in-law they wanted—so were her parents. After all, not one of their friends had children that came to see them in their own airplane!

I was happy, too. Flying brought a freedom from the work-a-day world that only comes from total immersion. It was also something I could do that made me feel special.

On Wednesday, the day after we arrived, my wife went shopping with her mother, while I laid out in the sunshine at the motel. The holiday the next day was great. My wife’s uncle, an experienced Navy flyer, was also there, and we had fun swapping flying stories. Good company, great food, a good football game—who could ask for anything more?

Then on Thanksgiving night, the weather forecast brought some unsettling news. The weak cold front that gently pushed us along our way on Tuesday was now backing up as a warm front. According to the forecast, the weather in Central Florida should remain good; however, rain and low ceilings were expected to develop in northern Florida and southern Georgia during the day on Friday, and remain throughout the weekend.

Was Bob right? Was that knot in my stomach tension or the second piece of pumpkin pie?

Now, weather is a huge consideration for low altitude flying—especially when the pilot lacks an instrument rating. I was working on the rating; but without it, our flying was limited to visual flight rules—at least 1,000-foot ceiling and three miles visibility. The warm front could bring the clouds down much lower. Worse still, if fog accompanied the low ceilings, we’d be ground-bound for sure.

On the drive back to the motel, I noticed that the moon had a ring around it—a sure sign of increasing moisture in the atmosphere.

Friday morning in Central Florida dawned bight and clear. So far, so good. But to be on the safe side, I called Flight Service to see what the weather was like to the north. The news there wasn’t so good. From Atlanta south to Macon and Valdosta, the clouds and visibility were presently still good enough for visual flight, but conditions were expected to deteriorate rapidly by early afternoon. The ceiling was forecast to drop to 800 broken with visibilities under three miles by 4:00 PM. On the hour, Jacksonville and Gainesville reported ground fog with visibility less than one mile and sky obscured; however, it was expected to burn off by 10 AM and become partly cloudy.

I made the decision to try and outrun the approaching weather. “We’d better head for home.” I told my wife. She was disappointed to have to cut the trip short but understood my concern. An hour later, we’d said our good-byes and were airborne. Rather than fly the airway a few miles out over the gulf to Cross City in the crook of the panhandle, we decided to take a more easterly route—one that would take a bit longer, but one that had more places to land should that be necessary.

Before we ever reached Ocala, the clouds were on the increase. By the time we overflew the airport at Gainesville, the cloud bases were down to 2000 feet. As we crossed into Georgia, we had to descend to the VFR minimum altitude of 1000-feet to stay clear of clouds, and even then, wispy trails of lower clouds often impeded our view of the ground.

Radio chatter from the control tower in Valdosta confirmed our observations that the ceiling and visibility were dropping rapidly. Flight service reported the same conditions in Albany, Macon and Atlanta. Then, I heard a student pilot somewhere in our vicinity telling air traffic control that he was at 3000 feet over the Valdosta VOR—a high frequency navigational aid—and wanted a special VFR clearance to land. (A SVFR clearance allows operations in visibility as low as one-mile as long as you remain clear of clouds.)

We were scud running at 1000 feet, and the clouds above us formed a solid deck. There was no way that dude was clear of clouds at 3,000 feet, and I wanted no part of a mid-air collision.

At the time, Lake City was reporting scattered to broken clouds at 3,000-feet and visibility greater than five miles. With good weather behind us, we made the proverbial 180-degree turn and headed back.

The Lake City airport has a non-FAA controlled tower. As we approached, their landing instructions were like none I’d ever received: “Cardinal calling Lake City. You can land any runway you like—you’re the only aircraft in the area. Hey Joe, get that forklift over to hangar five and load those crates.”

A national motel with a restaurant was a short ride away, and one of the nice folks at the airport gave us a lift. We checked in, determined to make the best of it.

Our room smelled musty, so I turned on the air conditioning. As is the custom, my wife went to inspect the bathroom. When she returned, she informed me that the bathroom was alive with mold and mildew. She said, “THIS WON’T DO!” and wanted another room. That was okay with me, but she’d have to handle it. I was lurking by the magazine rack as she approached the desk clerk.

“Sir,” she said politely, “you gave us a room on the front side by the parking lot. Since we don’t have a car, it would be more convenient for us if we could have one that faced the inside.”

The clerk looked perplexed but gave her a key to a different room. Accustomed to being the beast of burden, I loaded all the gear on my back and took it to the new room around the corner of the building. My wife was already there. As I reached for the door, she came out shaking her head. “This one’s worse than the first one,” she exclaimed.

It was back to the front desk.

“I hate to be a nuisance. But this room is right by the pool. With the kids swimming and splashing, I’m afraid the noise will keep us awake. Do you have something farther away?”

The clerk handed her a rack of keys. “Lady, no one’s going to be swimming in the rain, but we’ve got thirty-five empty rooms. Pick one you like and return the rest.” She did.

As night fell, we walked across the parking lot to the restaurant for dinner. The fog was as thick as pea soup. A Florida Highway Patrolman in the parking lot confirmed that the weather was bad all up and down the Interstate. A call to flight service before bedtime revealed that the entire southeast was socked in. The next morning, things were no better.

By afternoon, we began playing a game we call briefer roulette: In four years of flying, we’d learned that when I called Flight Service, even in marginal weather, I usually got an optimistic forecast, sometimes with just a hint of caution. When my wife called, it was all gloom, doom and foreboding. This time, neither of us got a forecast to celebrate. In fact, our frequent calls to Flight Service must have annoyed the briefer. He told my wife, “Lady, if you’ll give me your phone number, when I can get Eastern off the ground in Jacksonville, I’ll give you a call.”

At dinner, I asked my wife how she’d like to spend Christmas in Lake City. She said, “That does it. We’re getting out of here.” She grabbed the Yellow Pages and the telephone and began making calls. “Okay, Sky King,” she announced, “At 11:35, we’re catching a Greyhound to Atlanta.”

Traveling by bus was new to us. First, no reservations are required. Second, you can’t request a window seat. Third, they only take cash—no checks or credit cards. Fortunately, none of this presented a problem.

Our bus was coming from Miami, and it was almost an hour late. Its final destination was Detroit. While we waited at the terminal, another passenger arrived carrying a brown paper bag. He nodded and quickly disappeared into the men’s room. He emerged a few minutes later looking scrubbed and clean shaven and wearing a fresh shirt, albeit one with the largest palmetto bug my wife had ever seen perched on his left shoulder. Some of the other passengers that soon arrived weren’t so neat and clean or so well-shaven.

Soon the lights of the Greyhound bus lit-up the rain drops on the windows as she turned the corner and came into view. She slid into the diagonal slot out front marked “arrivals and departures.” Filling the heavy night air with the smell of diesel fuel, she let out a loud gasp as she came to a halt.

The door swung opened.

My wife and I climbed aboard and took a seat about half way toward the rear. As we walked down the narrow, unlit aisle, I noticed something sticky on the floor. I heard a nasty cough coming from the rear of the bus. Was this to be the Midnight Cowboy all over again? I decided to try and get some shut eye. My wife however, remained wide-eyed and fully awake. It would be an interesting ride.

All the way up a foggy Interstate 75, rain pelted the bus’s windshield as the big tires cut through giant puddles of standing water. The terrible driving conditions didn’t slow our driver at all. He was in and out of the right lane, passing everything in sight. The bus made off-interstate stops in Valdosta and Tifton and then had a half-hour layover in Macon. We pulled into Atlanta at 5:05 am, averaging far better than the 70-mph speed limit for the 322-mile trip.

Once inside the station, a trip to the men’s room was the first order of business. Looking in the mirror, I realized that I now looked just like the rest of the bus riders—wrinkled clothes, bags under my eyes, in need of a shave.

My dad was an early riser, so we knew we could call on him for a ride home. My old man was like a gerbil on steroids—high energy and always on the go. In those days, he was in building material sales and drove a station wagon, usually filled to the brim with brick samples.

Long before we began looking for him at the curb outside the bus station, someone tapped me on the shoulder. It was my dad. Faster than a Greyhound in the rain, he’d parked his station wagon in one of the empty slots in the boarding area out back. He said, “Hey folks, ready to go?” We were.

Three weeks later, a friend with a twin offered to fly me to Lake City to pick up the airplane, IF I paid for the gas. When we arrived, the weather was only slightly better than when I left. Still without an instrument rating, I flew most of the trip home at 500-feet directly over I-75. Between Macon and Atlanta, the weather cleared and the landing at Peachtree-DeKalb airport was uneventful.

I’d had enough of Florida in the fall. I’d also learned an expensive lesson: Fuel for my airplane cost $55; a rental car was $105. The motel in Clearwater was $177; the one in Lake City was $68. The bus ride home was $65. The fuel bill for my pal’s 300-hp twin at 90-cents a gallon was over a hundred bucks. Parking my airplane in Lake City for almost month cost me $105.

Worst of all, Bob was right—again. With time to spare, go by air.

After retirement from a career in advertising and marketing, Ron Burch has authored a number of published essays and magazine articles, in addition to a full-length novel.


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