Back in 1986, as a recently-licensed pilot, I rented an airplane and flew a friend to a nearby town for dinner. By the time we finished, it was dark. Now, I had flown this route many times, but never at night. Since I didn't yet have my instrument rating, I had to rely on landmarks for navigation. Unfortunately, I was flying along a body of water called Puget Sound, and the small island I was using for a landmark wasn't lit very well. I saw what appeared to be the pattern of lights I was looking for and assumed I was on course. However, instead of the smaller airport where I was supposed to land, it turned out that I was heading toward a major commercial airport.

While approaching the shore, I was in communication with the tower where I was supposed to land. They were looking for me visually and kept saying they didn't see me. I could see the airport, so I continued toward it. About the time I began my approach, I noticed that the lengths of the runways were wrong. I radioed the tower:

Tim: Uhhh, Boeing tower, this is Cessna 12345. I think I'm coming up on Seattle airport. What do you want me to do?

A long pause followed.

Boeing: Repeat please...

Tim: Boeing tower, Cessna 12345. I think I'm coming up on Seattle airport. What do you want me to do?

Boeing: Contact Seattle tower now!

I changed frequencies on my radio for Seattle tower.

Tim: Seattle tower, this is Cessna 12345. I'm 1/2 mile [40 seconds] west of Seattle runway 34 for a landing at Boeing Field.

Another long pause.

Seattle: Repeat please...

By this point I was getting nervous.

Tim: Seattle tower, Cessna 12345. I'm 1/2 mile west of runway 34.

Seattle: Cessna 12345, you are violating our airspace.

Tim: I know... what do you want me to do?

Seattle: Make an immediate left turn, and fly over the center of the airport at 1000 feet.

Tim: Okay.

Seattle: Cessna 12345, what are your intentions?

Tim: I would like to land at Boeing Field.

Seattle tower ordered me to change course several times to keep me from hitting anyone, and then told me to contact Boeing tower.

Tim: Boeing tower, this is Cessna 12345. One slightly rattled pilot, 5 miles to the south, inbound for landing.

Boeing: Okay, you're cleared to land. Is everything all right?

Tim: Yeah, I just got a little lost. Can you turn up the landing lights for me?

As I approached the airport, I again became aware that I had a passenger in the plane. He was wide awake and sitting bolt upright.

After I landed, Boeing Field contacted me. "Cessna 12345, after you park, Seattle tower wants to talk to you by phone." "Okay, thanks for your help," I said with a gulp.

Afterward, when I explained to Seattle tower what had happened, the controller was understanding, and I never heard from the FAA. My passenger was simply glad to be back on the ground.

After we got back to the flight club, we discovered that the closet containing our motorcycle gear was locked. Lacking the means to open it, we decided to ride home in our T-shirts and short pants. That turned out to be a problem, as the wind chill was about 5F (-15C) at freeway speed (55 MPH / 90 km/h), and it would take us almost a half hour to get home. While leaning down to minimize my exposure, I noticed that the headlight appeared to be dancing. Eventually I realized the cause was my own shivering.

By the time we got home, we had stopped shivering. I guess we were too numb. Since I had no feeling in my hands, I had a hard time opening the door. Finally, we stumbled in, and I started making a pot of hot chocolate. We found some old flannel shirts and put them on, and wrapped blankets over those. My forehead was aching badly, but as we drank our hot chocolate and thawed out, we realized we were more or less okay.


More Shocking Stories...