The dumbest thing I ever did

November 14th, 2018 by Ken

I’ve done some dumb things in my life.  Some I did out of ignorance, some out the search for adventure and some just to do it.  But, the dumbest thing I ever did encompassed all of those elements.

It was December 1966.  I was a 24-year old newly married veteran just back from nearly six years in the military.  I had made acquaintances with Dick Johnson who had served with me and had been discharged a little earlier than I.

Dick was a tinkerer and an airline mechanic.  He had been working on building an airplane in his garage and called me one day.   The plane was ready and he was bringing it from Lakewood to the Olympia airport for its maiden flight and asked me if I wanted to go along.

It never dawned on me that this was a dumb idea.  An airplane built in a garage, on its first flight ever and in the middle of winter.  Of course I answered yes.

When I got to the airport at the designated time – early in the morning, Dick pulled up in his VW bus, pulling the airplane, with its wings disassembled .  We unloaded it, put on the wings and pulled it to the runway.  After fueling we took off.  The plane performed well.  I sensed no problems at all.

We decided to fly to Friday Harbor in the San Juan’s, have lunch and fly back.  We landed safely, had lunch (I had a hamburger), refueled and got the plane back into the air.

Then, the Puget Sound winter weather hit.  Rain, sleet and clouds surrounded our little plane.  Since we were flying visual with no instruments whatsoever, we  needed to get down below the clouds.  We descended  lower and lower until we were just above the treetops.  Dick looked for a place to land the plane and found it.

An apple orchard on Vashon Island.  He brought the plane down on a little access road and pulled into an open area where several warehouses sat.  We exited the plane and went into one of the buildings.  There was no one around.  We decided to sit out the rain and the clouds hoping we could get back into the air before it got dark.  Flying with no instruments in the dark was not something Dick wanted to do.

While waiting, we began to eat apples from the dozens of boxes stored in the warehouse.  When Dick went outside to get a better view of the weather, I took a box of apples and stuck it in the back of the plane.

Dick returned and said, the cloud level was rising and if were going to make it off the ground now was the time to try.   He noticed the box of apples and told me to take it back into the warehouse.  “We don’t need the extra weight,” he said.  I did what I was told, but before leaving, I filled my old Army field jacket with as many apples as I could, maybe half a box.

Dick started the plane, turned it around, and got as long a start as he could.  He were worried about some power lines at the end of the road, but he revved up the engine, gave it all the power he could, and we took off, clearing the power lines by just a few feet.

In the air, and feeling a little more comfortable, I reached into my jacket, pulled out an apple and said, “Here, you want an apple?”  I thought Dick was going to lose his temper, but he took the apple, looked at me and said, “That’s one of the stupidest things you could have done.  What if we didn’t clear the power lines,” and then his voice trailed off.   We now had a bigger problem.

It started to get dark. It gets dark early in Western Washington in December.  We had no instrumentation and had to fly visual.  Lights were on in the houses and the towns below us.  We tried to make our way by identifying the different communities and I wasn’t sure we were going in the right direction until I saw the state capitol building all lit up.

We finally landed at the airport and there to greet us was not only our wives, but a representative of the civil air patrol just starting to call off those who had volunteered to look for a missing plane with two aboard.

It wasn’t until much later, with a little more maturity, that I realized what a dumb thing I had done and how easily events might have turned out quite differently.

I heard later that Dick had sold the plane to someone in California.  I heard it was a good plane.

Posted in The Real News

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