Many of us have had near misses in our lives. For example, a car runs a stop sign and misses us by an inch. Adrenalin pumps, our heart beats wildly and we repeat our story at least 20 times over the following days. I have had plenty of traffic near misses in my forty plus years of driving. However, the colossal near miss of my life took place in a single engine airplane over the Gulf of Mexico at eleven o’clock a storm scattered, moonlit Saturday night August 19, 1989. We were twenty miles off the coast of Florida when our newly overhauled aircraft engine exploded and caught fire.
In a series of posts during the following several days I will tell you the whole story of how we survived without a scratch. This is my TRUE story!
CHAPTER ONE - DEPARTURE
My friend, his 15 year old son, and I were scheduled to leave Tampa, Florida much earlier that particular Saturday. I had business in Tulsa on Sunday afternoon and wanted to return to Missouri for a short rest, repack, and departure to Oklahoma. A severe thunderstorm system hung over Florida and much of our return route all day and well into the evening. Finally, at 9:00 PM the sky began to clear. A short conversation with the weather center confirmed it; we would have good weather all the way back to Missouri.
My friend was my partner in the aircraft and a new VFR pilot. We agreed that he would pilot the 1973 Cessna 182 Skylane for the trip home. We had bought the airplane less than a year before and soon after discovered it needed a major overhaul. When our tires lifted off the tarmac in Tampa we had 39 hours on a fresh overhaul by a Federal Aviation Administration licensed mechanic. It is important to note that I am the son of a flight instructor with high time in a variety of aircraft, especially this particular model. My friend and I had previously agreed that, due to my experience, if there was ever a problem when we were flying together that I would fly the aircraft.
My friend settled into the left seat and I in the right, the Tampa tower cleared us for takeoff to the west toward the Gulf of Mexico. A few hundred feet above the runway the tower gave us turn instructions that I should have taken as a bad omen. He directed us to turn to the wrong heading to the south. Our route home was set as north northeast with a single fuel stop scheduled in Birmingham, Alabama. I pointed out the tower’s error to my friend and he instantly relayed the message to the controller.
My friend was our only contact to the outside world. We wore headsets, which allowed us to comfortably talk to each other. To communicate by radio it was necessary for the left seat pilot to key the microphone via a yoke, or steering wheel, mounted button and speak into the boom microphone protruding from his headset. The controller immediately responded to our requested course correction with a new, unapologetic heading. We began a gradual climbing right turn to our course and assigned altitude of 6,500 feet.
I leaned back slightly and relaxed, we were finally headed home.
Tomorrow: Chapter Two, Oh My God, Our Engine Exploded!
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