Even though I had only 75 hours, I fully intended to use my private pilot's license. Liz and my parents (Jack and Georgia) agreed to pile into a Cessna 172. We planned a trip from Dayton, Ohio to Little Rock, Arkansas, Tulsa, Oklahoma, and Dallas, Texas and back. Some more experienced pilots questioned the wisdom of embarking on such a long trip in the dead of winter with the ink still wet on my license. It was the first of many successfully completed learning experiences.
December 19: Time to spare, go by air! Low ceilings prevented our departure. Sometimes the wisdom of flying is deciding not to fly.
December 20: The big draft. We left Louisville, Bowman Field and were airborne half an hour. Mom was shivering in the back seat. Usually it is a little colder in the back seat than the front seat, especially if the sun is shining in the front seat like it was that day. Then I noticed that my door was cracked open, creating a 20 degree gale in the back seat. I wish I could say that was the last time I took off with a door ajar, but it was not. Fortunately it is easy to close a Cessna 172 door while in flight.
December 23: Am I in a cloud? After visiting my sister in Little Rock, we departed for Tulsa. The weather was not very good. It was supposed to be 1500 feet overcast, five miles visibility, and a chance of rain showers. My plan was to fly over the interstate, through the Arkansas River valley, avoiding the Ozark Mountains, and then on into Tulsa. We flew 15 miles and ran into a rain shower and clouds that were no more than about 600 feet off the ground. I made an immediate 180o turn and started back to North Little Rock airport. When I arrived at the airport there was a cloud less than fifty feet off the ground at the north end of the runway. My only alternative was to land with a 20-mph tailwind. I had never landed with a tailwind. I set up the approach, and predictably the airplane was still 200-300 feet off the ground halfway down the short 3500-foot runway.
My only choice was to go around and attempt another approach. In a few seconds the airplane would be enveloped by the cloud off the end of the runway. I did not have an instrument rating at the time, but I did know enough about the instruments that I could make a 180o turn. The climbing left turn was uneventful. I came out of the clouds parallel to the runway. On the next approach I adjusted for the strong tailwind and landed without incident.
A flight instructor on the field saw the whole thing happen and offered some advice. His main concern was that I did not contact anybody on the radio. By not making my presence known, I created a collision risk for any aircraft on the instrument approach. He did admit that it is more important to fly the airplane than talk on the radio.
December 25-28: Grounded again. We spent an extra three days in Dallas, waiting for a strong weather system to pass. Sometimes when you make a decision not to fly, you wonder if you would have made it if you had tried. Unfortunately this time we knew, another light airplane attempted a flight from Dallas to Little Rock and came out of the clouds in pieces. He may have been torn apart in a thunderstorm or brought down by icing. More about icing later.