One Dead, Two Asleep Over Lake Erie

One day at the hangar in Magnolia, Ohio, Sid learned that Doctor Garster, the only doctor in town, had died during a vacation.  “He’s the only wealthy guy in town, and he would at least once a year go to Canada, to the outback of Canada, where you flew in and fished for big fish.  And that’s where he was at, and he had a stroke and died, and they somehow got the message out that your doctor is here in a tent, dead.”  Somebody needed to fly to Canada and bring the body home.

“So Sicky said, ‘You wanna go with me?’  And I said, ‘Oh, hell yeah.’  So we got a body bag from the only undertaker in town and took the rear seat out of a 180, put the black bag in, and we take off.”  The Cessna 180 was the tail-dragging predecessor to today’s 182.

Sicky and Sid landed in Canada in the afternoon.  “They said, ‘Well, you’re gonna stay and fish or something, aren’t ya?’  And we said, ‘Oh, no, we gotta get back.’  And they said, ‘Well, that’s just foolish.  Why don’t you stay?’  And we said, ‘Oh, no, we’re gonna go.’  So we leave poor Dr. Garster’s stiff zipped up in a bag in the back of a 180 and head back to Magnolia.”

They flew into the night, and soon they were so tired that they took turns sleeping.  At some point, they both fell asleep.

“To this day, if he was alive, we’d still be arguing over who was supposed to have been flying when we both woke up, and it was pitch dark, the absolute middle of the night, no moon, and the compass said we were flying due north.”

In other words, they plane had made a gradual U turn while they were asleep, and they were headed back toward Canada.

“It’s a real credit to Cessnas.  I mean, if you take your hand off of a Cessna, the damned thing, if you’ve got it trimmed down, will just fly itself.”

When he told me this story, I said, “I’ve heard that.  I didn’t know it had been proven.”  “Well, we proved it,” he said.

“We had no idea where we were, no idea.  We just knew there was goddamned nothing but water.”

The year was 1951 or ’52, and radio navigation was still a new idea.  They didn’t have LORAN or VOR available, and GPS was decades in the future.  The only way to find out where they were was to see something, and over water at night, there was nothing to see.  At this point, they got out an E6B, a circular slide rule that pilots use.  They kept looking at their fuel quantity and calculating how long it would last.

“About every eight minutes, we were checking again.  We cut it back to 2,000 RPM, and we had everything leaned out, and we’re just dialing that damned thing, saying, ‘How long can we stay here?’  ‘Cause we knew it was gonna be a watery mess if we didn’t make it.”

They eventually saw lights, and as dawn broke, they recognized Toledo, which is a long way from Magnolia.  “So, we survived another one.”

Sid described my late stepmother’s reaction to the story.  “And Dana, with that warped sense of humor of hers, said, ‘Boy, wouldn’t that have been exciting if you had gone down.  I can see the press release now — small aircraft crashes, and three men killed, but one of ‘em was already in a body bag.’”