Seabee at Night
Julie and I volunteered to fly a Republic Seabee to Texas. The Seabee's owner, Ed Freeman, was making a permanent move out West and we were anxious to help. Especially with the flying part. The Seabee is an exciting airplane to fly. We packed camping gear, bacon and eggs, sleeping bags and maps.
The trip was a little over a thousand miles, so we planned to do it in three days. It's not a fast airplane. A quick look at the charts showed that a southern route would give us more water landing sites. I wanted plenty of them.
My brother-in-law, David, decided to go along with us. That made a good load for the old Seabee, but we were headed for lower elevations. Once past Alabama, most of the takeoffs would be near sea level.
Our third stop was near Albertville, Alabama, on Guntersville Lake. We called Julie's grandparents to come pick us up. They took us out to eat. Then, of course, we had to show off the airplane. It all took a little longer than I had expected. The sun was getting low in the sky when we left the water.
Our next stop was about an hour southwest of Guntersville, where we planned to refuel and spend the night. I called from about 20 miles out, telling them that I was inbound in a Seabee and would be there in about 20 minutes. There was no answer.
At about 10 miles out, I called again. Still no answer. We were getting a little concerned because we hadn't been able to spot the airport beacon. It was a clear night. We should have seen it already. I rechecked the navigation radio. We were tracking a VOR that should have taken us right over the airport. We circled around for a better look. We were over the only town for miles around. It was then that I wished I had planned for a longer fuel reserve.
We had discussed fuel reserves earlier. I had pointed out that extra fuel wasn't a luxury we could afford in the underpowered Seabee. Besides, with an amphibian, you can land practically anywhere. This argument didn't sound so good when we were looking down into the dark pine forests of east Mississippi.
A quick scan of the map and the gauges showed that we had maybe 20 minutes of fuel and that the nearest airport was at least 30 miles away. That is, assuming that we weren't lost. Which was a pretty big assumption, considering that there should be an airport right under us.
"There it is!", David yelled, pointing off to the right.
Sure enough, as I banked to the right, I saw the airport. There was a row of airplanes, partly illuminated by the outside lights of a closed terminal building. We were over the airport all right, but the runway lights were turned off. David rechecked the airport information. He said, "They're supposed to be on. Maybe they didn't pay their power bill."
We had little choice but to land, whether there were lights or not. I checked to see what the runway heading should be, then flew outbound for two or three miles, then turned to face the runway. I could see the runway numbers reflecting the airplane's landing light. I rechecked the gear and flaps, then guessed by my ground speed that I was landing downwind.
I eased the power off and floated to a good landing on the second half of the runway. It didn't matter. I was just happy to be on the ground. We taxied to a nice looking spot, shut the engine down, and set up our tents beneath the big wings.
I felt good that night. I had proven once again that superior skill can overcome any adversity. I made a mental note to find the person responsible for leaving the lights off. I would point out to them that a pilot of lesser abilities might have been inconvenienced by the lack of facilities.
We were up early the next morning. David was packing equipment and Julie was frying bacon on the Coleman stove, when the airport manager drove up. He looked us over and said, "When did you come in?"
"Last night," I said nonchalantly, "by the way, did you know the lights were off?"
"Yep," he said, just as nonchalantly, "ever since the city dug that sewer line across the middle of the runway, we've been trying to discourage folks from landing here."
I looked in the direction he was pointing and noticed for the first time that a trench five feet wide and ten feet deep had been dug across the midpoint of the runway.
"Guess you noticed that last night, huh."
"Sure," I said, "No problem."
I made another mental note. Next time, do some flight planning. Blind luck won't save you every time.