A Flying Trip Underground, or 26 hours in Caroll Cave

Somehow aviation has bestowed one of the most splendid adventures of my life upon me! My friend Mike from Nebraska, my former physics teacher from my exchange year, had suggested during one of my revisits to Nebraska we should take another cave trip into Carroll Cave in central Missouri, the cave we had been in twice before over the years. Since it would be virtually impossible to drive to this site from Nebraska, take the trip into the cave and drive back on one long weekend, it was Mike who suggested we should fly down to save time. So a “flying trip underground” became true!

As an aviation nut, it seems a bit odd that you do the exact contrary of flying, going underground. But somehow I have not only caught the aviation bug, but also the “speleo bug”! I had recently joined a caving club in Germany and was enjoying going spelunking very much! And what better combination could there be than to fly to go caving!

It is 3.30 Sunday afternoon. We have finally arrived at the entrance of Carroll Cave, after a one and a half hour flight from Lincoln, Nebraska to Camdenton, Missouri and a drive in a rental car across the winding roads of the Ozarks to the cave entrance. All the equipment is piled up on the ground, and the four of us, which are Mike, Russell, Dale and me, are getting ready for our big trip into the cave. Mike is already dressed-up and starts packing sleeping bags and dry clothes in several layers of plastic bags, so that they will not get wet on the way in.

The first 1000 feet of the cave is a narrow water-passage, with water up to your chest, and at two places even up to your lips with an airspace of only a few inches left to the ceiling. After those two “Neckbreakers”, as these places are called, and a few more hundred feet of deep water the cave will open up to a gigantic dome, the “Mountain Room”, where we will camp tonight. But first we will have to get through the water and haul all the stuff along dry. And the water has only 45 degrees Fahrenheit, and the cave is not much warmer!

Since we all are “hard guys”, this will not bother us too much! To be honest though, I am cheating a little bit on that, because I brought along a wet-suit which I use on cave-trips in Germany. This is one of those neoprene-suits which fits tight to your body, so that only a thin film of water forms between your skin and the suit insulating you from any cold. It is a specially designed suit for caving, not as thick as the scuba-diving ones, so you can move easily about. I’m wearing that underneath my cave-overalls. Unfortunately the other three do not have such a suit, so they plan to move fast through the water and give me dirty names when the water gets deeper!

Finally we are done. There is so much stuff we have to take along, so two of us will have to make two trips in to get everything to our campsite. Naturally I am one of them, the toss of a coin finds out that Russ is the other unlucky person who has to do it twice! Mike and Dale will wait outside until we return from our first trip.There is no point that they should go along on the first trip to Mountain Room and then wait there freezing.

The carbide lamps are burning, the gate to the cave is opened, and off we go. First the water is knee deep, no problem. Soon we loose daylight since the passage turned to the left. Only our carbide lamps are providing light now, and we better make sure they will do it for the next 24 hours! Loosing your light in a cave will leave nothing to do but sit there and wait for somebody to help you, in the absolute darkness you will even fail to touch your nose with your finger. — The water gets deeper! I feel it rinning down my neck, and it’s cold!

After a couple of seconds it warms up inside my wet-suit, I don’t feel anything any more. But poor Russ must feel it! So we are moving fast to get through. The water is crystal—clear, we have no problems moving along. Fortunately the ground is even and there are no rocks, so we won’t have any problems going back out after a while with the water all turned muddy. And there is the first Neckbreaker! A big red arrow on the ceiling points to the best spot to get through. And the water seems to be very low, about a foot of air left! I stretch out in the water, floating through, I don’t even have to take my hard hat off. It takes about a minute, then I’m through. Russ is right behind me, wet up to his neck, but smiling. This was the easiest crossing of this place we have ever done (we’ve been in this cave twice before). But – Neckbreaker number 2 is still coming up. It turns out that this one has a couple of inches less airspace than the first one. But – we make it without problems as well.

After another three or four hundred feet of walking in chest-high water a black nothing opens up in front of us: Mountain Room! After you have been in the relatively small-sized water passage it is just overwhelming to enter this big dome. Our lamps are just not strong enough to light up the whole place. It is probably 300 feet long, 200 feet wide and at least 100 feet high! We get out of the water onto a mud-bank and start looking for a good campsite. Pretty soon we find it: A spot off to the left, about 50 feet above the river level, and it is dry and flat, just perfect for the camp. We drop all the things there we brought along and start going back, into the water, through the two Neckbreakers and out into the sunlight. The trip took us 40 minutes, during which Mike and Dale finished preparing the rest of the stuff.

After Russ and I get done telling about our trip in and the campsite we had found, everybody loads up and heads into the cave. The last guy locks the gate from inside and then makes sure again and again that he will not loose the key to the gate! It is fun for Russ and me, being more or less used to the water by now, to watch the other two get wet. The water gets deeper slowly, so the agony lasts for a long time. They are screaming and cursing at us! There is no help though, Neckbreaker forces everyone into the water up to their ears! Finally we arrive at Mountain Room, climbing up to our platform. A big plastic tarp gives us a piece of clean ground, where we put our sleeping bags, the dry clothes, a camp stove and all the other things meant for the camp.

Soon we are done with setting up camp. Everyone but me changed clothes, is now dry, warm and comfortable. All of us are burning to explore around a little bit. We walk up into the upper levels of Mountain Room, squeeze ourselves into small holes in the walls, but there is no continuation on this side of the dome. It seems that this huge dome has just one continuation: the Main Passage. So that’s what we want to follow now for a while. It is only six o’clock and we have all the time in the world!

On the way back down to the river, I’m first, I’m running down and throwing myself into the water! Walking and crawling around in a wet-suit makes you so hot, you can’t stand it any more. But in the water it is nice and cool! I feel like a guy in a Nestea commercial downing some iced-tea and plunging backwards into a swimming pool. The other three are standing on the river bank laughing at me. They just don’t know how nice 45 degrees water can feel!

The main passage of Carroll Cave is tremendously big. The tunnel has an average width of 40 to 50 feet and about the same height. It winds back and forth, the ground is covered with chocolate-colored mud in which the river has cut a small channel which we are crossing frequently. Sometimes we are walking on rocks and gravel, which the river has deposited there, and sometimes we have to struggle through soft mud up to our knees, taking away quite some energy. Every once in a while the river forms small ponds, which I cross with my wet-suit, happy to cool down a little bit, while the others climb along the banks over breakdown piles. The first thing we discover is that some survey crews must have been in the cave before; and they left small reflective markers every 500 feet. That is quite nice, we can tell how far we are from Mountain Room!

We find out soon, it takes us about 20 minutes to travel 1000 feet. Also it shows that you are always overestimating distances in a cave, since 1000 feet feel like 4000! The survey crew has also marked every side-lead turning off the main passage, there is one about every 500 feet. And then – we see some fish in the river! That is quite a sensation, for we think we must be about 2000 or even 3000 feet from the entrance. The fish are of dark color, almost black, the smallest ones are an inch long, the biggest must be about 10 inches. Dale and Mike try to catch one, but they don’t succeed. And probably that is a good thing, since we also want to stick to the cavers motto: Kill Nothing but Time, Take Nothing but Pictures, Leave Nothing but Footprints!

We wonder how the fish can see or maybe feel our presence, since they don’t seem to have eyes. And what are they living off, we ask ourselves, there are no plants in the water, and no other animals we can see. But there must be some sources of nutrition, maybe some microscopic insects or creatures, or maybe the fish only live from the organic material flushed into the cave from the surface. It’s too bad that we don’t have a specialist along, so the four of us can only take guesses.

Meanwhile we have reached the 2500 foot marker from the Mountain Room, and we think about turning around. There is an opening in the left wall, another side-lead. Someone expresses the wish to take a look at it before turning around, so we find ourselves ducking and crawling through a passage two feet wide and three to four feet high. A small marker at the entrance opening of this passage said that this is “L-6”, probably the sixth side-lead from the Mountain Room. After about 100 feet we get to a Y-junction, so we continue into the left lead. A tight spot forces us down on our bellies, but it is easy crawling. Behind another turn the passage opens up to a small dome, the walls covered with beautiful formations, like draperies. Some of them are in a rusty red color, others are completely white. Above us the dome continues as a shaft, we get a few glances into a higher system of passages there, and more formations along the passage walls. Russ gives it a try to climb, but the walls of the passage we are in are overhanging, and without rope and/or other climbing aids it is virtually impossible and also too dangerous to push it. And we don’t want to damage the formations or even get them dirty. It seems only to be a climb of 15 feet or so.

We illuminate the openings of the higher system with our lamps from down below trying to see as much as possible. It is hard to tell if the passages up there are virgin, that means that no one has ever before entered them. Down here there are plenty of marks and footprints in the mud.

Finally we decide we have seen enough, now it is time to turn around. When we get to the Y-junction, Russ insists on having a quick look into “that other lead”. This one continues as the lead before the junction, a duck walk in a passage two feet wide and four to five high. It turns and twists, back and forth, back and forth. It goes and goes on for ever! Finally I sit down on the ground and refuse to go on, I’m close to a heat-stroke in my wet-suit, since no pool of water had cooled me for a while! Mike and Dale are in front of me, they also stop. Russ still wants to explore on a bit, he says, just a few feet within shouting distance. We hear him shove around the next few bends, and then a minute or so later we hear him shout that his light went out and that he can’t get it relit! How nice!

Dale rushes on and reaches him after a few more bends in the passage. Together they work on his lamp, but it still doesn’t work. It probably needs a change of carbide. But – we left all the stuff at the entrance of L-6! Russ just has to walk, or better duck and crawl between two others with light. All goes well, and ten minutes later we are back in the big Main Passage. Here the guys start working on their lamps while I take a plunge into the next deeper pool of water. Aahhhh!!

All the lamps are up again, doing fine now. Mine even doesn’t need new carbide, it is a special construction I also brought with me from Germany. It needs a fresh load of carbide about every 8 hours, while the others need to change carbide every four hours. Carbide lamps are the best source of light for a cave. They last longer and produce brighter light than electric lamps, just on a handful of carbide! And who wants to pay and carry around several sets of batteries for light on a trip like ours! Nowadays this seems to be different with the new LED-technology and affordable rechargeable batteries available.

We are back at our campsite. It is 8:15, we have walked straight back from our adventure in L-6. Mike is playing cook, he pours a couple of cans of beef stew in a big pot and puts that onto our stove. Russ and Dale are in their sleeping bags chatting and having a beer, while I’m still trying to get my wet-suit off! It’s agony! Finally I manage it somehow, just in time when dinner is ready. Beef stew with crackers and beer in Mountain Room, no fancy dinner in a Hilton Hotel could be better than this! Some lollies are for desert!

Pretty soon everybody is happy and very comfortable in his sleeping bag. A big discussion gets started covering who will be responsible of doing the dishes, which would mean getting out of the warm and cozy sleeping bag into the damp cave air, walking down to the river 50 feet below us, and sitting down on the mud-bank trying to clean things up. Every time we take a vote, the specific person has some important objections, so finally the dishes remain undone …!

All the lights are out, only a candle is burning, barely illuminating the ceiling of Mountain Room. And then – we see some bats flying around, circling around us and passing overhead. There might be about a dozen of them. They don’t bother us though. Bats are very interesting animals. Inside the cave, in total darkness, they must fly completely “on instruments”, they use their sonar-orientation system, by producing sounds of ultra high frequencies. Any obstacle will reflect these sounds, the echo will tell the bat where and at what distance it is, how big it is as well. So bats almost never hit anything, neither their fellow bats nor even you! And all the horror tales about them are not true either; they just are small but very useful creatures; when they come out from caves where they sleep during the daytime, they hunt for bugs and insects. And their flying skills are just awesome!

By talking about bats and other interesting issues, everybody gets tired and eventually fades out. When I wake up it’s pitch-black! Every now and then I hear a drop of water falling down somewhere or I hear a faint splash of the river down below. What time is it? I take a look at my watch: It’s five o’ clock in the morning.

I light a couple of candles and wake up the others. Actually we had wanted to get up around four, so we would have plenty of time for our big trip deeper into the cave. Everybody has slept quite well, only Dale was a little bit cold during the night. Soon breakfast is ready, consisting of some leftover stew and hot chocolate! A few more minutes in the warm sleeping bag after breakfast really feels nice! But then we have to get busy, if we want to get anything accomplished. The worst thing comes first: Putting on your cold, wet, muddy cave-clothes. Everyone screams and shouts, mainly questioning himself and everyone why in the world we are putting up with this stupid idea of a long cave-trip. My wet-suit is also damp and soo cold, uaaahhh! But finally the clothes are put on and warmed up.

I collect all the carbide lamps and walk down to the river to clean them and fill them with fresh carbide and water. The spent carbide goes into plastic bags to be carried back out of the cave. One of the cardinal sins of people not caring about conserving the fragile environment of caves is leaving spent carbide somewhere in the cave, where it will stay for years, centuries or even thousands of years!

While I’m sitting on the mud-bank next to the river, I hear a strange sound out of the passage leading to the Neckbreakers and eventually out of the cave. And then I see it – there are dozens of bats coming back into the cave, no, hundreds of them! They swirl around me, and there are even more coming! I’ve never seen anything like that before! They are going, no, flying up the Main Passage, and when they fly by close to me I hear this funny, rattling and clicking sound again. But not one bat hits me! For several minutes I sit in awe and watch, I just wish I’d have a movie camera here to record sight and sound. Soon there are less bats coming, it seems that the main bunch is through now. I don’t know how many there were, but it must have been hundreds, maybe even thousands.

The camp is all broken up, the stuff ready to be hauled outside, that we’ll do tonight. But first we will set off on our big trip deeper inside! To be taken along are quite a few things: enough supplies of carbide, water will be provided by the river. Then we need bags for spent carbide and garbage, lots of candy bars, an ammunition-box with camera and flash-equipment, a collection of tools and spare lamp parts as tips, tip reamers, tools, glue etc. Everybody takes something, the speleology-bag (dragging bag) I also brought along from Germany comes in quite handy.

Before we set off, everyone makes sure that his lamp works, he has his emergency lights ready and working, which consist of a spare flashlight and also a cyalume light-stick in a pocket. Everything is OK., we are on our way. We walk up the Main Passage, well known to us by now. We make it to the junction with L-6 in half an hour. Pretty soon after the junction, where we turned around yesterday, walking becomes more and more difficult. The mud on the ground is very soft, sticky, sometimes several feet deep. It sucks! It has a consistency like nougat, but it probably won’t taste as good! The river starts to meander back and forth through the mud, and we have to cross it at every meander, which is extremely exhausting! Around the next bend there is a rope-ladder hanging down from a hole in the ceiling. This ladder, as we know from some friends who know the cave much better, leads to an upper passage system, which is connected to another Y-junction further down the way. But we stay in the lower system, the Main Passage, together with the river.

Half an hour later we have reached “Crystal Junction”, here the main passage seems to make a major turn to the left. We know it leads to the “Crystal Room”, a few thousand feet further on. But we will not go there today. The true Main Passage goes straight on, although the river seems to be smaller than the one coming out of the Crystal Room passage.

After taking a few pictures (and cooling down in the junction pool) we continue on straight ahead. Walking becomes easier again, for the smaller river has not deposited so much mud. Also the mud is nice and hard, like ordinary chocolate! The water has cut a neat channel in it, about two feet wide, and it meanders back and forth from wall to wall. The passage itself has become a bit smaller, but still about 20 to 30 feet wide and also high. And then we reach an area with lots of formations!

The walls are covered with them, sparkling in our lights, consisting all colors from a deep chocolate brown, then red to a brilliant white. From the ceiling there are thousands of “macaronis” hanging, as those very thin and delicate stalactites are called. They have a diameter of a single drop of water and a length of up to a few feet. They are all untouched; I’ve seen caves before where similar decorations have mostly been broken off by vandalists!

Then I discover some excentriques! These are delicate stalactites which do not follow the law of gravity which should make them grow straight down, they are curved, twisted and spiraled around in all funny directions. There must be hundreds of them as well. What a sight!

A lot of the macaronis are tilted into the direction of the Main Passage, pointing out. Probably a wind blowing mainly in the direction towards the entrance for long times must have caused them to grow that way. As we move on, more formations appear along the passage. And also more excentriques. It is strange, home in Germany we get excited if we find a single excentrique in a cave, and here are so many of them!

The formation-area lasts for a few hundred feet. Thereafter the passage appears as before: Yellow-brown walls, the ground covered with dark, chocolate-colored mud and the winding channel of the river. The mud gets stickier again! Behind a couple more bends we finally reach the “Y-Junction”, a bigger room with a side lead to the right which, as we know, feeds back to the rope-ladder. A marker on the wall tells us that we are 6,500 feet from the Mountain Room, so that’s more than a mile! It took us one and a half hours to get here. We decide to speed it up a little bit now, so we get to see more! The Main Passage continues to the left, now a bit different than before. The river often gets covered by breakdown piles, over which we are climbing. Big piles of bat manure tell us that we are in an area where the bats must reside during the day or during winter. And there they are – we discover a bunch of them hanging from the ceiling. They are disturbed by our lights and start to swirl away. There must be a few hundred of them together covering a spot not bigger than a square foot. We can hear them squealing angrily about our appearance.

On and on the passage goes, sometimes we walk in the river, sometimes over breakdown piles. And then the walls close in and the ceiling comes down. We remember this part from an earlier trip a few years back: We will have to go in the water with about a foot of air space to the ceiling for a distance of about 200 feet. The tricky thing about this spot, there are big, sturdy stalagmites submerged under water, and with mud getting stirred up you can’t see them. So if you move on too fast, you bang into them with your delicate parts of your body, which is not too nice. So this is not another Neckbreaker, but rather a “Crotchbreaker”! I’m going first, slowly feeling my way, spotting the stalagmites in the water and warning the others. Again the water is quite low, leaving us more airspace than we expected. Five minutes later everyone is through and on the other side.

We are back in walking cave. Lots of formations appear again, in all colors and shapes. It is just too much to grasp, I’m taking a few pictures hoping they will turn out. Plastic marking-tape is stretched out by the explorers of the cave to force everyone to walk clear of the beautiful, white formations. The passage leading on is very big again, with lots of breakdown piles we have to cross. On the left side a big side-lead opens up, somebody has smoked “Maped Log” with a carbide lamp on a mud-bank. And then there is that small hole in the right wall.

We remember this well, this will be the only connection we know to the “Thunder River System”, which intersects underneath of the Main Passage of Carroll Cave. We take a look ahead down the Main Passage, it continues big and wide into the darkness. We turn around and head for the small hole, since Thunder River is the target we had wanted to shoot for. The hole starts as a crawlway, very much like L-6, it leads steeply downhill. After a few minutes of crawling and ducking we can hear a rumble: Thunder River! Then the crawlway breaks out into walking cave again, with another river, running from left to right. The walls are reddish colored, and the river is much bigger than the one in the Main Passage up above. From the right we hear the rumble, that’s Thunder Falls! We make a mark in a mud-bank so we’ll find the entrance to our crawlway again, then we follow the river downstream and soon hit the site of the fall. The passage opens up to a big dome, and the water runs over a bank and falls down about 10 feet. On the left side another small hole leads down to the lower part of the dome. A rope is attached to a big rock, it helps us to get down safely. Then we see the falls from down below. It is tremendous! Mike and Dale are wading across the pool of water to stand next to the fall, while I try to take some pictures of them. The noise of the falling water in the big room is overwhelming. We can only shout to overcome it. The water in the pool is quite deep and turbulent, better not fall in!

After everyone has taken a close look at the scenery, we continue on downstream. The water stays deep, the passage turns right and left, and there is mud again! It gets worse and worse the further we go. Finally we turn around; we had wanted to go upstream Thunder River anyway. We get back to the waterfall, climb up the rope and through the hole back into the passage above the falls. It is ten o’clock now, time for a break. After all the exciting sights and experiences some candy bars really taste good. And most of the lamps need recarbiding as well!

Half an hour later we are on our way upstream Thunder River. We must have crossed underneath the Main Passage of Caroll Cave, and now we are in unknown territory, at least for us. Thunder Falls has been the furthest point any one of us has been in this cave before. Thunder River is big, flowing rapidly. Good, that means there will not be so much mud deposited, makes it easier walking. Sometimes the water gets quite deep, but nobody seems to care any more. And I’m happy about that anyway, it will provide opportunities to cool down in my wet-suit!

The river meanders quite a bit. It has cut a deep channel into solid limestone. At higher levels the passage is not twisting as much as down at the river bed, so we try to stay up high as much as we can and cut off a loop of the river. Here we find lots of formations again, side passages lead off from the main passage. But we stay with the river, there should be only one thing you want to do at one time in a cave. After an hour of walking upstream the riverbed in the loops becomes quite tight and low, the river cutting underneath the limestone, forcing us to climb up even higher cutting off the loops and then dropping down into the river again. And then at the next loop the whole procedure starts over. Very exhausting! At one place the upper story curves completely away from the river, we are walking through big passage with dry and flat ground. Then the upper passage rejoins the river, but there is quite a drop off down to the river, almost vertical, looking quite tricky. Is it possible to get down?

We can see that down there the river is curving away again, the big passage continues straight ahead again high. But how to get down safely? The continuation of the big passage looks tempting, but is it worth the try? Mike and I trace back to the last loop of the river and then try to follow it directly in the riverbed. It is possible, enough space for our heads! Half wading, half swimming, we get to the point where Russ and Dale are waiting in the upper level They are looking down at us. The climb up the other side to the big passage looks just as tricky! It seems as if the river wants to go on separately from the upper level now. It’s twelve o’clock, we shouldn’t spend much more time, since we have to go all the way back!

We agree that Mike and I will go on further upstream for 15 more minutes and then turn around, while Russ and Dale wait and rest a bit. If we should not be back within 45 minutes they will come and look for us. Okay, lets go! Mike and I head on upstream. Shoot, it is getting quite difficult now! The upper level has disappeared completely, the river passage has about 2 feet of air space above the water. It is about seven feet wide, and the water is very deep. A few times we loose ground and have to swim. For at least 500 feet the passage continues like this. Sometimes it is shaped like a keyhole. We are rushing ahead, trying to see as much as possible. Then there is this small hole in the ceiling, we shine our light through and glance into a another big, walking passage intersecting above Thunder River. Is that the same walking passage than before, or is it a new, upper system? More mysteries waiting to be solved! But it is not meant for us on this trip, so we continue on a bit more. The river passage stays low and tight for a while, then it gets bigger and higher and bigger and higher again. My gosh! This is a cave without end! The walls are brilliantly red and yellow, the riverbed is covered with rocks of the same color, and there are some completely black rocks mixed in between. It all looks very beautiful. On and on we go, or better we rush, we want to see more. The river forms pools now, ponds or even lakes, and at one of them I seem not to see any water! I stand there wondering whether I’m dreaming, but then a drop of water falls from the ceiling and hits the pool, and then I realize that the surface of this pool has been completely still and the water is so clear that you just couldn’t see it!

And there are some fish again! They are completely white. Three or four of them swim around in this pool, the biggest about two inches long. They also seem to have no eyes. My gosh, we must be several miles deep in this cave, in a whole different world, and there are fish. If we try to grab one, they avoid us. They must feel our presence. I look at my watch, still a few minutes left! So we go on even a bit further, the passage continues with the river and gets even bigger again. At every bend we say we’ll turn around after the next bend! Then I discover that my watch has given up and had stopped. Great! There weren’t a few minutes left! Have we been gone 15 minutes now, or 30 minutes, or maybe even an hour? We don’t know. We turn around and are running back now. It’s not easy to hurry, you have to be careful not to hurt yourself, fall in the water or damage something! We now realize how far we have gone. It seems to take for ever to get back to the point where Dale and Russ are waiting. But we make it, there they are! Still in the upper passage. Thank Heavens they haven’t started searching for us yet. Since I have the only (watertight) watch, now being useless, we are wondering what time it might be. We guess around one o’clock. We’d better head back. How long will it take us back to Mountain Room, maybe 6 hours? And then we’ll have to pack up, haul everything out of the cave, pack the car, get back to Camdenton Airport, drop the car, fly back to Lincoln, will we make it before midnight??? So the secrets of upper Thunder River sink back into darkness behind us …

Back in Mountain Room. We tried to hurry as much as possible on our way back. We made quite some good time to Thunder Falls, found our hole in the wall and crawled up the Main Passage, recarbided one more time, slipped through the Crotchbreaker, kept a good path. On the way I took some more pictures, and we discovered a bypass in the Crystal Junction area. The last few thousand feet were really hard, with the mud, it sucked even more! Everybody got quite tired when reaching Mountain Room. Before we go out, we enter our trip in the cave-log deposited here in a canister on one of the walls. Then everybody packs up and heads for the Neckbreakers. We take bets whether it will be dark or light outside, and whether the weather will be good or bad. Neckbreaker Two, thereafter Neckbreaker One, no problem for us any more! Pretty soon we see daylight shining ahead. Daylight!!! The key to the gate is not lost, fortunately, the lock works. We are out! And it’s warm here, it’s hot! We pile all the stuff on the ground and look at each other, all wet and muddy, but happy. We made it! This was one of the greatest trips anyone of us ever took! Two of us will have to go back to Mountain Room and get the rest of the stuff, the other two will start getting things organized. We don’t know yet that there will be more excitements and some problems on our trip home. But that is a different story …

Members of the flying trip into Carroll Cave, Missouri on September 4 and 5, 1977:
Mike Larson, Lincoln, Nebraska
Russell Copple, Alvo Nebraska
Dale Gerdes, Omaha, Nebraska
Jürgen Matthes, Karlsruhe, Germany

Time in: Sunday September 4, 4:30 p.m.
Time out: Monday September 5, 6:30 p.m.

Taking a picture

3714T, the magic Numbers Part 1

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.

Waiting for help
Waiting for help

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!

Jump start
Jump start

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.

Formation flight
Formation flight

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.

How do you catch the Aviation-Bug?

C-130 Hercules
C-130 Hercules

Even as a small kid I was fascinated by airplanes. We used to live in a small suburb of Hannover, Isernhagen it was called, and our home was about half a mile off the final approach track of Hannover Airport. At that time the airport had only one runway, today it is RWY 27L. At that time there was quite a bit of traffic to and from Berlin through the Central Corridor. Pan Ams (called Clipper), BEA (British European Airlines, called B-Line) served Hannover with DC-6 and Vikers Viscount, and pretty soon I knew their typical engine noises. Besides them there were Convair Metropolitans and Super Constellations (Super Stars) of Lufthansa Airlines and others. I especially remember the Super-Conny, it’s 3-fin tail looked like a fork, I thought!

Much later, I had my own bicycle and was allowed to roam a bit further away from home, I pedaled on my own to the airport and stood next to the fence close to the threshold of runway 27L, right at the spot where the airplanes taxied onto the runway. At that time the airplanes still used to perform a run up, which sounded very spectacular, especially with the DC-6. Then the pilots let go of the brakes and the airplanes thundered down the runway, I thought that was great. And the Viscount with its typical turbine-whine, I thought it was cool too (but at that time no one called it cool)!

I always dreamed of flying along, but at that time one could hardly afford it. As a small child my parents had given my sister and me a flightseeing trip over Hannover, but I hardly could remember it. My parents took their first vacation trip by plane in 1962, to Tunesia, right at the day when the big storm surge hit at the North Sea coast. I adored the pictures my father brought back from their trip, I felt bad though because there were very few pictures from airplanes and their flight.

In school I was not too good a student! Especially German and English, also Math, somehow I didn’t like too much! My interest in airplanes was manifested in construction of a few model airplanes and by reading about adventure books dealing about aviation, but, off course, all those activities were not honored at school! So it went on for years, still I went to the airport now and then and enjoyed watching the first jets, Pan Am 727s and BEA BAC 1-11s, thundering down the runway. Also the first Caravelles showed up at Hannover every once in a while.

1969 my father decided to fill in an application for me to participate in an exchange program lasting an entire year. I was not too enthusiastic about that idea at first, but (at that time parents still had some authority) my father’s remark was “you will do that now” and that was it!

It took until May 1970 before I learned where I would be sent to. It could have been the USA, England, France, Australia, Brazil, Japan or even Iceland. You had to state a number of countries as your choice for the exchange year, but you had no guarantee where you would end up. The listed countries were my choice, I was well aware if it would be Japan or Iceland, I would have quite a language-problem!

Around Pentecost I got a letter from a family, who wrote that I was to be their new (guest) son for a year. They lived in Waverly, Nebraska, in the USA! Where in the world was that?? – It turned out, Waverly was a small town close to the capital of the state Nebraska, Lincoln. I would fly to the States in July together with a whole bunch of other exchanges, after a preparation conference in Bonn.

My time in the USA and the experiences, adventures and happenings are a different story! The flight over the ocean, via Iceland to Philadelphia in a DC8-63 was very exciting. After another conference close to Philadelphia there was another flight from Chicago to Omaha in a 727 from United. My guest-family picked me up at Omaha.

During my year in Nebraska I had to go to school, naturally. I went to Waverly High School, 12th grade. In Germany I had already completed 12th grade, at that time it took 13 years to complete high school in Germany and graduate, so I faced having to pass through 13th grade in Germany after my return. Here in Waverly I had to decide which classes in the American school system I would take for the year. To stay halfway current, I took math and physics, but also some practical classes like typing and drivers education. The latter saved me a lot of money after my return to Germany, since I had obtained my American drivers license before the year was over!

My physics teacher, Mike, was only 7 years older than I! His class was interesting and fun. Some time down the year the subject was vector calculations. Normally I would have said: “Yawn, we had that some time ago, how boring!” But with Mike vector calculations got a very different taste!

Apparently Mike had optained his pilots license already some time ago, and he now explained that vector calculations were used amongst other things to calculate tracks of airplanes to a destination considering wind, speed, heading and other factors. He divides us in groups of three and gave us a calculation: Prepare a flight from Lincoln to Beatrice, Columbus and back, the latter two being smaller airports not too far from Lincoln. He had gotten the actual wind on the ground / aloft and the actual weather before physics class had started. After all groups (there were four of them) had finished, Mike announced all over sudden: “… who feels like it and will chip in a few bucks as contribution to the costs, he can fly along with me this afternoon to prove if the calculations were correct!” I was speechless! Naturally I participated! Such a practical reference to the class, I never could have imagined anything like that in my own school at home!

The flight with Mike was great fun, we flew in a Piper Cherokee. Also our calculations were (almost) correct. I was so impressed, that I searched the opportunity to fly along with Mike a few more times during the rest of my stay. Sometimes I even was allowed to touch the control-yoke! And when Mike offered a basic aeronautics course in the second semester of the school-year, I naturally participated in that as well. At the end of my year I had caught the Aviation-Bug quite good!

Back home, I first had to finish my high-school career by passing through the 13. grade in a new class. My old class had finished school in the meantime after they had passed the graduation exams, which are mandatory in Germany. I struggled through the dry (and boring) subject matters, but after a year I also passed the exams and graduated. I was glad that was over with! All the time the idea rested in my head to get a job somehow connected with aviation. But which one, and how? I had asked Lufthansa airlines to send me information material about their careers as airline pilots, but I found out that at that time was too tall to meet their requirements. Also their very stiff ability tests scared me a bit.

So I enrolled at Hannover Technical University in mechanical engineering thinking I could specialize later to air- and space-engineering. Unfortunately it was the time of the first oil-shock. At that time the outlook for aviation and space was pretty grim, at least in Germany. The project VFW 614 was discontinued, it wasn’t sure whether the first airbus A300 would be a success, the vertical-takeoff plane of Dornier was scrapped, in short it didn’t look good.

Therefore I struggled with dry theoretical issues again! Especially thermodynamics was hard to digest. Maybe it was the professor’s fault, because a lot of fellow beginners had the same problems. One of the major exams of thermodynamics, about 90% of the students flunked!

After the end of the second semester I decided, besides taking a summer job, to fly back to Nebraska and visit my former guest-family and some old friends from my exchange year. Over the past years a nice and lasting contact had established with a “hard core” of friends, to which my former teacher, Mike, belonged as well. Mike had organized some extracurricular activities for his students while I was there, one of them was a cave trip and another one a canoe trip, both in the state of Missouri. Those trips infested my with two other “bugs”, since I both went spelunking and canoeing as hobbies later on in my life. At a meeting of the hard core the idea came up to repeat such a tour while I was there.

Mike had left Waverly High School in the meantime and had joined the Nebraska Department of Aeronautics for a full time job in aviation as a professional pilot (sometimes even for the governor of Nebraska), as an instructor and a tutor for aeronautics presentations. It was his idea, to make a cavetrip in Missouri over a weekend and fly down there. Driving to Missouri by car would have taken far too long, about 12 hours one way, too much for one weekend. Mike had the opportunity to rent one, even two airplanes from the University of Nebraska Flying club for a very reasonable price and therefore make this trip possible. Again I was speechless about this perspective.

The cave trip to Missouri was a great adventure, but that is a different story (see 3714 Tango). Shortly before I had to fly back home, Mike took me up in a Cherokee and gave me a couple flying lessons, also he took the hard core for a visit to the Strategic Air & Space Museum, at that time located at Offut Air Base close to Omaha, Nebraska. It was very interesting, and after that visit we went to Omaha Approach (Tracon) and watched the air traffic controllers. I was so fascinated, I could talk to some controllers, sit at the radar console and watch them handle the traffic.

Back home I started my summer job, together with some fellow students we were employed by Gilde Brewery of Hannover as assistant beer delivers! That was quite a job! The task was to be front-seat-passenger in a big truck delivering loads of beer to distant places and cities. It was fun! Besides I did some research on the possibility to join ATC in Germany. I visited Hannover Tower, the approach unit and even Hannover ACC (enroute center), which was still located at Hannover at that time. I was somehow a bit disappointed by realizing they were still using ancient technology there (steam radar, as it was called)! In Omaha I had seen digital and computerized radar processing already. But I filed an application anyway, also since I was assured that air traffic control in Germany was under full development and soon everything would “be better”!

Pretty soon I got an invitation to a qualifying examination, at that time it took place in Frankfurt. It lasted 2 days, and you didn’t get the results until some time later. My fellow students were back at school, but I continued the job at the brewery for a while, I wanted to wait if anything would turn out of my application. And then sometime in November I got a letter telling me that I had passed and they wanted to invite me for a theoretical course at the Air Traffic Control School in Munich at the beginning of December.

So the Aviation-Bug finally led to something constructive! I worked as an air traffic controller for 33 years until I retired a few years ago. I stayed in Bremen for 2 years after the theoretical training in Munich, then a short intermezzo in Frankfurt and then the rest of the time in Karlsruhe at Rhein Control, being an Upper Area Control Center. Some years later I even optained my private pilots license, of course with Mike in Nebraska. Unfortunately it was of not much use to me here in Germany. Anyway, I have stayed interested in aviation over all these years, besides being a controller, have followed several adventures of aviation with “hot ears” (e.g.. first solo balloon flight across the Atlantic, see A Balloon, a Weather Report and a Broken Foot), and I still get excited watching a “heavy” take off at Frankfurt Airport or anywhere else. You see what the Aviation-Bug can do to a person!



A balloon, a weather report and a broken foot

Funny ballons
Funny ballons

This is another adventure I experienced because of the International Air Traffic Control Net!

It was September 1984. In the aviation world an interesting and exciting project was under way.
Joe W. Kittinger, the guy who had broken the record of the highest free fall from a balloon raising into the stratosphere (the Excelsior III, at altitude 102,800 feet/31,300 m on August 16,1960) was on its way again. This time he wanted to cross the Atlantic Ocean as the first solo aviator in a balloon.

Those aviation adventures usually were discussed or even covered in the I-ATC Net. Ernie, W1BFA, had good connections and kept all of the net-gang well informed. On many of those adventures even the participants were ham-radio operators and would eventually join in to the net.

On September 18 I came home from early-shift, and as often before lunch I switched on my radio to see or rather hear what was happening on the I-ATC Net frequency. Ernie was on, off course, and I heard him talk to N4HDP, which was Joe Kittinger in his balloon! Wow!! But – I could not hear Joe. He had already crossed the Atlantic Ocean and was still flying his balloon somewhere south of the Alps in northern Italy. Apparently he was trying to set a new record!

It is very common on the picky lady shortwave that you can hear someone from far away, Ernie in Maine in this case, but you cannot hear someone nearby. From my location to Joe’s balloon it was only 300 miles or so, too short a distance for the radio-waves to be bounced back to earth. What a pity, how exciting if I could have talked directly to him!

But then – Ernie called around telling everyone on the net that Joe had wanted a current weather report and forecast of the area ahead of him. The weather seemed critical, and he wondered whether he should finally land his balloon. The closest aviation facility for him seemed to be Genoa airport.

There seemed nobody to be able to fetch that weather report. But – at my work it would be possible to get that report within a blink of the eye! The Söllingen Sector only needed to call the Zurich guys and ask them about a current report! Gosh – I got on the phone and called my work.

A telephone call into the control room always is answered by the active watch-supervisor, which happened to be Paule. Paule was well known and dreaded for his light temper, which he lost regularly when things out of the ordinary happened. When I identified myself and asked him to tell the colleagues on the Söllingen Sector to get a Genoa weather, for sure he lost his temper: “What the hell you need that weather for, you are off duty!!” I patiently tried to explain to him, and luckly he didn’t say nothing further, but did as I asked him to. A few minutes later he spelled the weather report to me on the phone. These reports are written in an international abbreviated code called METAR, which every aviator can read and understand, we had to learn this code amongst other things during our theoretical training at the ATC school. So it was not difficult to copy it down.

After thanking Paule for his “tremendous help” I got on the shortwave and spelled the report over to Ernie in Maine. Ernie then repeated the report back on the air, so Joe in his balloon could copy it. Since I couldn’t hear Joe, he also couldn’t hear me! The report said that there were numerous thunderstorms reported and forecasted in the Genoa area. So Joe didn’t think about it for a long time, but decided to end his record flight and put the balloon down, since a continuation of the flight into a thunderstorm was too dangerous. Eventually Ernie lost contact with him, with the balloon being too low during the final phase before landing, and also because Joe was too busy with the landing to continue blabbering on our net!

Later on I learned from the News that the balloon had landed successfully, but it was a hard landing in rough terrain! Joe had broken a foot during landing! I surely felt bad about it, was my weather report the cause of the broken foot???

But in the long run I suppose it was good that he put her down. Thunderstorms, you just don’t mess with them. And – after a while, I got a nice QSL-card from Joe confirming our contact we had via Ernie!

QSL card N4HDP
Danke für den Wetterbericht

A-A-S, the three Musketeers

Aviation serverance
Aviation serverance

The title of this story must seem like a puzzle. It will be solved as the story progresses.

It was the early 80’s. I was working as a radar-controller at Karlsruhe UAC, better known to the aviation world as Rhein Control. In my free time, besides caring for my wife and home, I had several hobbies, one of them was amateur radio.

I was licensed since 1979, known to the radio world as DF6OM. It was fun to sit in front of the radio being able to talk to people all over the world. This was a long time before cell phones, computers, internet, chat-rooms, email, facebook and all of those gimmicks. Especially fun was joining a daily meeting called “International Air Traffic Control Net”. This was a group of people either involved with ATC or other parts of aviation, like pilots, aviation technicians, any individual with some connection or interest to the aviation world. This group had been started by Ernie, W1BFA, a retired watch supervisor of an ATC unit in Maine. Ernie got up very early every morning and started calling on 14.277 Mhz, and eventually a group of 5, 6 or 7 people joined in and chatted about all kinds of matters, mostly connected with aviation. Of those people one might sit in Maastricht, another one at Algiers airport, another one in the center of England and so forth. I joined the group as often as I could, it was much fun. Ernie has passed away by now, but the I-ATC Net is still active, meeting every day at 12:00 UTC, now on 14.279 Mhz.

One day, after early-shift, I got home, and since lunch was not ready yet, I switched on my radio which I had left sitting on the I-ATC Net frequency. I immediately noticed that there was turmoil on that frequency. Ernie was there, so was Kamel, 7X2BK, the friend from Algiers, and a few others. They were constantly shouting “cq Japan, cq Japan”, which meant they wanted to have contact with some station from Japan. But – no Japanese amateur station seemed to hear them. Now – the shortwave is a very picky lady, sometimes she is in a good mood, other times she is not. That means, sometimes you can talk to the whole world with a wet thumb as your antenna, and sometimes it is very difficult to reach some areas. That is because of the laws of propagation, which depends mostly on the sun’s activity, the time of day and year, the weather and other factors. These factors create the reflection layers in the atmosphere which will bounce your radio-waves back to earth a long distance away from your location.

But what in the world was going on there now? I listened in for a while, finally by catching some of the conversation in between cq calls. They wanted to have contact to a Japanese station because they were searching for a very special medicine, which seemed to be produced only in Japan. Apparently there had been an accident to a young girl in Yugoslavia, she must have badly hurt her spinal bone and must have fallen short of disrupting her spinal chord. This medicine was a stimulant for growth and regrowth of nerve tissue, so they badly needed it there. A friend of this girls family was an amateur radio operator, or ham, as we say, and he knew about the I-ATC Net and asked them to help. So they had found out the name of the medicine, and also that it was manufactured and available only in Japan.

The shortwave kept on being picky at that time, no one in Japan heard the desperate calls. Once or twice the name of the medicine was stated (which I have forgotten in the meantime). It sounded like a familiar name of a medicine you hear every now and then. So I got curious. We have an international drugstore in Karlsruhe, so I got on the telephone and called them. I got a nice lady on the phone, I explained to her who I was, what I was doing and what I heard on shortwave. I gave her the name of the medicine and asked whether she knew anything about it. She took a while and then came back and said “Sir, we happen to have one package of this stuff right here in our store. It has been ordered by a medical professor for studies, but has not been picked up yet!”

I got very excited when I heard this. I asked her if this would be available for a good purpose, and she said yes, if I would be able to provide an official confirmation that this medicine was needed for an international emergency.

So here I was. What should I do now? Well – first I had to break in to the I-ATC Net to let them know that I located that medicine right here in the center of Europe. The fellows were still shouting and griping out their “cq Japan”. In a transmission pause I keyed my mike, stated “Break break”, thereafter identified myself. When Kamel, who seemed to handle the communication this day since Ernie was so weak, handed me back the mike, I informed them about what I had found out. Immediately everyone got very excited too, they urged me to get the medicine as soon as possible. I assured them I would try everything I could and I would call back.

So here I was again. Now what? There were two problems: Getting an official confirmation, and figuring out a way to get the medicine to Yugoslavia as quickly as possible. How to approach that problem? First – I got on the phone again and called the lady at the drugstore in Karlsruhe. She promised to hold the medicine, she said that it had been sitting waiting for that professor for a while anyway, and she could order another pack from Japan and it wouldn’t make a difference if that professor had to wait a bit longer. I promised I would provide the confirmation needed.

By that time I had forgotten lunch! My wife Maria was in the room with me, all excited too and listening and watching how things progressed. I now had to think – what will be next? I decided to call the fire department respectively their rescue squad. So I did.

What then happened was very frustrating. Their first question: “Who are you anyway?” The next statement: “Well, this could be anyone pretending a story like that!” After long and exhausting explanations – amateur radio, I-ATC Net, international medical emergency, need for a medicine, confirmation and information about transportation possibilities, their reaction was: “This is not within our responsibility, call the police!” So I did.

What then happened was very frustrating. Their first question: “Who are you anyway?” The next statement: “Well, this could be anyone …” – I think I just have written that! But it was exactly like the previous paragraph, their last statement: “… not responsible, call the Red Cross!” So I did.

What then happened was very frustrating. Their first question: “Who are you …?” … … “not responsible, call the fire department!” I was ready to pull my hair out.

In the meantime my radio was blaring since the others on the air kept calling for me wanting to know how things were coming along. I felt this whole thing was slowly slipping out of my hands! So I got on the local vhf frequency and called, wanting to know if anyone of my local amateur radio club, which is called A36, was on the air. Fortunately it was the case. I asked them whether they could help me with this case and take care of the shortwave traffic for me, while I would continue trying to get anything going on the telephone. So they did, and it took some load off my back.

Next try on the telephone was Lufthansa Airlines. After the original question “… who are you anyway …” they at least listened to the story, but then were of not much help either. They told me I could ship that package as VIC (very important cargo), but that would be connected with costs of at least DM500 at that time, about $250! I would have to bring the package to the airport in Frankfurt myself and deliver it personally with address of the recipient at the cargo terminal. So this was not very encouraging either. Now what???

Finally, I got the idea to call my work. There I got Hans on the phone, who happened to be the active watch-supervisor at that time, and who also was the boss of my own shift team. He patiently listened to my story and then told me: “Now sit down and watch the phone, but don’t do anything else. I will see what I can do to help. I will call you back as soon as possible.” So I did.

It took about half an hour, during that time I joined in on shortwave and told the group that something might be going on, but we needed to be patient. Finally the phone rang again and Hans was on. He told me: “Now you get in your car and go to the drugstore in Karlsruhe and get the package. The lady is informed. You take it home. You are off duty tomorrow, but you get up early and drive to Frankfurt airport. Be there at 6:30 am. Get to Lufthansa crew dispatch. Have them take the package and deliver it to Captain soandso. Be sure to get a receipt for this. Have the Captain, who will be on a flight to Belgrade in the morning, take the package with him and deliver it to an individual you will have to coordinate yet with your shortwave friends. Have him get a receipt too. Go home then and rest, and tell me how things went during your next shift!” I was stunned!

So I did as he told me. I called on shortwave and informed the group about this. They gave me a name of a person who would be at the airport in Belgrade. Then I went to Karlsruhe, the Lady in fact gave me the package. I had to pay for it, I don’t remember what it was, but it might have been $50 or so. Next morning I was in Frankfurt and delivered the package as told. And it eventually reached Belgrade and the girl.

What had happened? Well Hans, being the active watch-supervisor of Rhein Control that day, had called SAR Center and told them about that story. SAR in turn had then called Lufthansa Airlines and ORDERED them to follow along with the described procedure. When SAR calls, apparently everyone says “Yes Sir!!”. SAR also called the drugstore and later provided the confirmation. So all over sudden everything went like greased.

Our local amateur radio club sponsored the costs for the medicine. And some time later we received a thank you letter from that girl with a picture, who eventually recovered from her injuries.

And now the puzzle is solved, who the three musketeers were: A A S = ATC, Amateur Radio and SAR!

How a forgotten Revision can turn into a Nightmare


It was sometimes during my first training sessions at Bremen ACC, the enroute area control center responsible for the lower airspace in northern Germany. I had passed one year of theoretical education at the Air Traffic Control School in Munich, at that time located at the old Munich airport of Riem. There all of us newcomers learned the basics of ATC: Rules and Regulations, Navigation, Meteorology, Separation-Basics, Aeronautics and quite a bit of other stuff.

After all that theory we were sent to different control-units, in my case it was Bremen ACC. Here I was put into one of the shift-teams, and assigned to two individuals, my “coaches”. They were to supervise me while doing the first steps on the position, always cutting in when things went wrong.

In Bremen you had to go through training on the coordinator positions first. Training would be complete if you passed a check-out without any flaws, and then you would obtain your licenses for the respective positions and you would be entitled to work on your own without any further supervision by your coaches. Radar training was to follow the coordinator training, but that was some time down the road.

For now I had to understand what coordination meant: Negotiating every detail and data on any flight within your control sector with the next guy, respective the next sector or control unit the flight was to enter, or receiving information from the previous guy upon any changes concerning the flights you were expecting from him. These changes in altitude, variations of expected time over a fix or deviations from the coordinated flight-path were called “revisions”, and I soon learned how important a revision could be.

I was training on one of the “east-sectors” of Bremen ACC. It comprised a bunch of airspace north of Hannover, up to and including the area of Hamburg. This sector was bordered by other sectors of Bremen-ACC to the south, west and north. Underneath were the approach areas of Hannover and Hamburg airports, above the upper airspace controlled by Maastricht UAC. To the east lay the border with eastern Germany, a border no one was supposed to cross.
The only exception to this were the 3 corridors, of which we controlled the entry point to the northern corridor. This entry point was BKD (Brünkendorf) VOR/DME.

The coordination partner for the northern corridor through eastern Germany was Air Safety Center in West-Berlin, a joint control center run by the allied forces. With them we had to follow all the same procedures as with everyone else. In the corridors flights were only accepted up to 10 000 feet altitude. In the northern corridor it was common practice to fly odd levels plus 500 feet eastbound, even levels plus 500 feet westbound. So a flight from Berlin would enter our area at FL 85 (8500 feet) or at FL 65, lower levels were normally not flown in the corridor.

We were expecting a Pan Am 727 from Berlin on its way to Hamburg, estimated some time over BKD at FL 85. As with all other partners, if there were any deviation in time and/or altitude from that estimate, Berlin Air Safety Center would give us a revision.

At the same time, Lüneburg airport (some miles northwest from BKD) was conducting parachute jump training, that is students jumping out of small planes with their chutes opening automatically once they left the plane. Those planes needed a clearance from Bremen ACC to drop their students, and they obtained the clearance from the responsible sector, our sector. And the individual issuing this clearance was, by telephone – me!

We (as others also) called this para-dropping circus “Deppenwerfen”, that means “idiot warping”! When the call from Lüneburg reached my position, I wasn’t sure what to do. My coach patiently told me “… now look around, do you have any other traffic which could conflict with the dropping? No! And what altitude they want to drop their students from? Fl 70. And in what altitude are we expecting the clipper 727? FL 85. So???? – Go ahead and tell them idiots “Cleared to warp!” So I did.

We could see the para-dropping plane on our radar, and we also saw the approaching Clipper, but only his symbol, since at that time we didn’t have universal transponder settings. After the clipper would call in on our frequency, we would assign him one of our own transponder codes and thereafter have him positively identified with call-sign and his altitude on the screen. The Lüneburg plane showed a steady FL 70 on the scope.

Soon the frequency crackled alive with a harsh voice “Bremen, this is Clipper 123 at FL 65 – – What the hell is all that crap in front of my windshield?!” Our hearts stopped!

What happened? Apparently the Clipper came in a different altitude than the one we expected him to come. And the poor students, after they had been warped out of their plane and their chutes automatically opened, they all over sudden were encountered by this enormous Boeing 727 rushing through their cloud of parachutes. The poor guys were literally trying to climb up the yarns by which they were hanging from their chutes to get out of the way!

Soon there was yelling all around us. My coach yelled, the neighbor positions yelled, the watch-supervisor yelled, the Clipper captain yelled, and the phone was ringing angrily, and after answering it someone else yelled. But – after a few minutes it turned out nobody was harmed, except excessive adrenalin within the 727 crew, the poor students, my coach and me. Phew!

After everything calmed down, came the investigation. It turned out that Air Safety Center in Berlin had simply – forgotten to pass the level revision! Clipper 123 had turbulence at FL 85 and still within Berlin’s airspace had wanted to descend to FL 65, which he had been allowed. Finally my coach told me: “See, how important a proper revision is!” So I learned …

Idiots warping
Idiots warping