It was the summer of ’73. Two years after my stay as an exchange student in the little town of Waverly, Nebraska, right in the middle of the USA, I was back for my first visit. I had a great time with my host family and friends. It was during my stay that my former physics teacher, Mike, together with some friends suggested we’d take another cave trip, like we had done at Halloween of 1970 during our senior year at Waverly High School.
I have mentioned the backgrounds of this already in my story “How do you catch the Aviation Bug” and also in “A Flying Trip Underground”. Actually it was this summer of ’73 the tradition of flying cave- and/or canoe-trips got started!
Mike had quit his job as a high-school teacher shortly before my first re-visit and had become involved in aviation full time. He also had joined the University of Nebraska Flying Club, which owned several airplanes which were available for members for a very reasonable rental price. So it was him, after the idea of another cave-trip to Missouri came up in the “hard core” of friends, who suggested to rent one or two of these planes to fly down to Missouri instead of driving. What a great idea, being totally infected with the aviation bug by now, very excoted I agreed at once!
We finally came up with 8 people wanting to go along on that trip. Mike arranged for two planes to be reserved for that specific weekend: Two Piper Cherokee Arrows with retractable gear and constant speed propellers. He also introduced me and the others to Tom, a good friend of him, who was to be the second pilot to control one of the airplanes.
On Friday afternoon, we all met at the airport in Lincoln, Nebraska. Mike had also arranged for a couple of guys to meet us at the destination airport, which was Camdenton, Missouri, about an hour and a half of flying time. Mike had another long time friend in Kansas City, Missouri, Charlie, who was quite an outdoor nut, and he had in turn arranged for the other two guys to take us to that cave: Carroll Cave, somewhere close to Camdenton, right in the heart of the Ozark Mountains.
On the apron of the general aviation terminal at Lincoln airport sat our two airplanes. It was decided that I would ride along with Tom, the Cherokee Arrow he was to fly was a yellow, white colored one with the registration numbers N3714T. I will always remember these numbers for the rest of my life!
Tom was quite a funny character. Apparently he had obtained his private pilots license not too long ago. He let me sit up front besides him, which I naturally was very happy about. Pretty soon both of our airplanes took off and started heading southeast, towards our destination.
Together with Tom and me in our Cherokee were Tim and Dale, two friends from Waverly High School. In Mikes plane then were Pete and two other friends of Mike, who had wanted to go along on that trip.
The flight to Camdenton from Lincoln leads you right over Kansas City. How exciting that was, talking to Kansas City Approach on the radio, being vectored right above Kansas City International Airport and seeing the runways, airplanes and terminals from the air. After leaving the greater Kansas City area, we were allowed to leave the radio frequency of Kansas City Approach, we switched back to the air-to-air frequency so we could talk to Mike.
We had lost sight of Mike’s plane by now, it seemed we must have been some miles behind. We were navigating by pilotage, that means we were following our track on the aeronautics chart we had on our knees. Tom didn’t use the VOR receiver, he was sure he knew where we were, and I didn’t have any knowledge at that time yet about radio navigation.
Pretty soon we heard Mike on the radio announcing he had reached Camdenton, that he was circling the town once and that he was just south of the baseball-lights, a sports-ground of a school where apparently a baseball game was taking place. It had become dusk by now, pretty soon it would be dark. So we answered that we also saw the baseball-lights, we would be there in a few minutes. Mike stated he would make another 360 south of the lights waiting for us.
When we reached the lights, we were looking hard for Mike and his plane, it should be easy to spot him and his position lights. But, very strange, no position lights in sight anywhere! We had noticed a small airport just north of the town, and that was strange too, shouldn’t the airport be south of town? We called back and forward with Mike, he assured us he was circling just south of the baseball-lights. We answered that we were south of the lights too, and where in the hell was Mike??
After a few orbits it became clear that we should land pretty soon, otherwise we would end up in the dark. Tom called Mike again and told him “… I will put her down now” and then arranged for an approach to that small airfield. It was high time by now, we even couldn’t spot the wind-sock any more, so Tom put 3714T onto a final for the runway heading north. A slight problem was a grain elevator right next to the final approach, but Tom managed to get around it and landed our airplane safely on the landing strip.
After rolling out, the landing strip was quite small, narrow, but paved, we realized that this place by no means was Camdenton, Missouri. There was only a little hangar, one or two small planes parked next to it, and then nothing but grass and pastures. We parked the plane somewhere and got out, happy to be on the ground, but puzzled to where we actually were!
There was not a soul within sight. There was no tower at that airport, no service station, nothing! After wandering about for a while, it was really getting dark by now, we got the idea to walk onto the driveway leading out of the airfield, towards that small town we had seen from the air. It seemed to be a couple of miles away!
But then there was a car coming! It turned out to be a sheriff. He stopped and gave us strange looks, especially after we asked him in despair where in the world we were. He answered in astonishment: “You are at Buffalo, Missouri!”
Now that was a nice surprise. We rushed back to the plane, got out our aeronautical chart and started looking for Buffalo. Yes, there it was on the map, about 30 miles southwest of Camdenton! Boy o boy, how we had goofed!
We had a problem now. Mike had filed a flightplan for both of our planes, and we needed to close them. We had lost radio contact with Mike after we had landed – naturally, we were too low to reach him by radio 30 miles away. Especially if he had landed too, which we assumed, it was totally dark by now. The sheriff had departed, so the opportunity to use his communication system to contact Mike and let him know we were down safe had vanished!
But there was a payphone on one of the hangar’s walls. Great! Tom had the phone number of Camdenton airport – but – the rotary dial plate of the phone was stuck! The phone itself worked, you could hear the dialtone when you picked up the receiver, you could also insert a dime, but you couldn’t dial. Now what??
Dale soon found out that you could simulate the pulses of the rotary dial by shortly clicking the hook-switch of the receiver. But it is very hard to click it at a constant speed so you actually will dial a number. He tried and tried and kept trying. Apparently some time all this clicking opened a connection to an operator, who came on the line and asked what in the world was going on at that extension! Dale patiently explained the situation to her, she understood, got very friendly and promised to help.
The nice operator managed to establish a connection to Camdenton airport, and pretty soon Mike was on the line. His first statement: “Where in the hell are you?!” So we explained once again.
Mike was glad that we were on the ground safe and well. He remarked hadn’t he heard from us a bit later, he would have activated Search and Rescue! Whew!! But now everything was clear, and we agreed that we would take off from Buffalo first thing in the morning and make the short hop over to Camdenton. Spending the night would be no problem, we had sleeping bags along and would have spent the night somewhere in the grass at Camdenton airport anyway.
We sure had plenty of grass here at the Buffalo airfield. But this place seemed the end of the world, nothing going on, and the sleepy little town somewhere in the distance. Finally two of us agreed to walk the small road towards town to see whether they could round up something. 45 minutes later they were back and brought along – a case of beer! Now that was an encouraging sight!
We soon arranged our sleeping bags underneath the wings of 3714T and had our first ALB (after landing beer)! But – it was way too early to go to sleep, so what do you do at the lonely airfield of Buffalo, Missouri? We soon found out that there was a public swimming pool right next to the small hangar of the airport, which, of course, was closed by now. Not a soul in sight! So we thought it might be a good idea to go for a swim.
We had to climb the fence. And we didn’t have any swim suits along, so we went skinny-dipping! And right in the middle of the show there were car lights approaching shining onto the swimming pool: The sheriff! We jumped out of the pool and into the girls dressing room. Luckily the sheriff didn’t enter the pool area, apparently he just made a routine check whether everything was alright.
After he left it was back into the pool, and after the swim back to our camp underneath the wings. We managed to go through almost the entire case of beer! Some time along we felt me must take a picture of ourselves with all the empty beer cans on the wings – quite a sight. What would the authorities have said to that picture?
I don’t remember at what time we finally faded out and scrambled into our sleeping bags, it must have been midnight or so. I woke up in the middle of the night by the strangest conversation I have ever listened to. There was a big dog who had walked towards our campsite, and he sniffed at us and then gave one deep and loud bark: “Whoof!!” Tom replied with a loud “NO!!!”, and then Dale added softly and painfully “Doon’t shout”. This threesome conversation repeated itself several times: “Whoof!” “NO!” “Doon’t shout”.
At six in the morning we were up and ready to go. We packed everything and loaded the plane, deposited our empty beer cans in a trash can next to the hangar, got into the plane and started the engine. But – the engine gave only a burp, the prop made half a turn and quit. Now what?
Tom turned the starter key several times more, but the prop only turned a few degrees and then quit. Also all the control lights in the panel went dark when he engaged the starter. That meant: Dead battery! How nice! Now what???
Someone came up with the idea to walk to the filling station from which we had obtained the case of beer yesterday and see if someone was awake already. He then could drive his car to our plane and jumpstart our engine. So Dale volunteered to walk to the filling station while us others waited somewhat perplexed next to the plane.
Half an hour later a car came towards the airfield, Dale was in it together with a nice man. He had jumper cables and was ready to give us an electric shot. Luckily the airplane battery was a 12 volt type battery, otherwise the whole procedure would not have worked. The only problem: The battery of 3714T was sitting at the bottom of the luggage compartment! So that meant unloading everything, opening the lid covering the battery, connection the jumper cables, jumpstarting the engine (with Tom at the controls, of course), then unconnecting the cables, covering the battery, reloading all the gear, everything against a huricane-force wind from the running propeller! Finally the cargo-door was closed and latched, and us three scrambled against the prop-wind across the wing into the cabin of our airplane.
The engine held, we were airborne. AIRBORNE! What a feeling! The flight to Camdenton took us 10 minutes, there was the airport. We landed, taxied off the runway and parked the plane next to Mike’s Cherokee Arrow. Again Mike and the others had wondered what in the world had happened to us now, since the adventure with the battery had caused a delay of more than an hour. We told our story exhaustively!
But now everything was alright. Soon the friends of Charlie arrived, they were to take us to and through the cave. But first – we went for a hearty breakfast in a cafe in Camdenton. We deserved it!
Then, off to the cave trip. It was the first time we all went into Carroll Cave. Mikes friend Charlie had suggested that cave to us, and it was a splendid trip. I have described Carroll Cave in my story “Flying Trip Underground”.
After the trip, which took all day, we camped at the entrance of the cave. We had a great time. We had planned to go back to Camdenton airport some time Sunday morning, have breakfast first and then leisurely fly back to Lincoln. But wouldn’t you know, getting into 3714T on Sunday morning we noticed the battery was dead again!
Fortunately there were plenty of cars at the airport, so no problem finding one to give us a jump start. We knew the procedure by now, loaded the plane during a windstorm and soon were airborne again turning on course towards Lincoln. This time we kept close proximity to Mike’s plane and were talking to him on air to air frequency.
It was nice to fly formation with Mike, a chance to get some good shots of each other from the air! We crossed the Kansas City area again and were soon getting close to Lincoln. But something was funny: We didn’t hear from Mike on air-to-air any more. We gave him several calls, but no answer! And then – we noticed that one after the other, all electrical instruments of the plane went dead! No more control-lights, the radio panel was dark, only the basic flight instruments like altimeter, airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator and turn and slip indicator were still working. What in the world was going on?? The only explanation: The dead battery must had drawn such an electrical surge that it must had damaged the generator. And therefore we couldn’t talk to Mike any more! Luckily the engine runs on magnetos and therefore is independent from the generator. But – we needed to talk to Lincoln Tower to get into the control zone, and we also needed electricity to get the landing gear down. We assumed that Mike had figured what our problem was and that he would talk to the tower, so we just followed him into the control zone. While turning onto final Tom flipped the manual switch of the landing gear, he had remarked that the gear would free-fall by gravity and that some springs would help it to come down.
Since it was now close to noon, it had turned warm, therefore it was quite bumpy. We did not hear anything that we thought sounded like the gear coming down, and we also didn’t feel anything due to the turbulence. Now what? Tom decided to go around, he pushed the throttle forward and climbed out again. We all were puzzled. What to do now? We noticed a green light from the tower, ah, they had understood our communication problem and were clearing us to land. Somehow, we thought, they must have seen that our gear was down, otherwise they shouldn’t give us a steady green light, should they? Tom performed a nice traffic pattern and prepared for another final approach onto runway 17 L. Meanwhile I had an idea, I took one of the aeronatical charts, bent it into a tube and then put the tube around the 3 green lights which under normal circumstances should indicate that the gear was down and locked. When I peered into the tube giving me darkness around the 3 lights, I noticed that they were glowing very dimly! So the gear was down, wasn’t it?? Tom continued his approach and flared out. It was a very awkward feeling, would we now hear the normal squeal of the tires or a loud crunch?? But then – SQUEAL, and 3714T sat on the runway. Whew!
After rollout we taxied to the apron an parked the airplane next to Mike’s. He and his passengers hat gotten out of their plane and were awaiting us anxiously. Mike was wondering why we had gone around, but then understood when we explained our problem. He then stated he’d run out waving his arms like crazy had he seen our gear not down during our first approach. But then – everything had gone well, we were down and safe, and our adventure with 3714Tango (besides the fun we had on our cave trip) had come to an end.