8378Z; That was the ‘call letters’ on my dad’s airplane. It was a great plane, Cessna 205, 6-seats, long-range tanks, STOL Kit (equipped for ‘short takeoffs and landings’), and a real ‘workhorse’ of a plane. By that I mean that you could load it down with weight and fly a long ways. That comes in handy when you’re traveling from rodeo to rodeo in the summertime with several guys and all their gear, and going to two rodeos a day (one in the afternoon/one at night). *(Over the 4th of July we went to 3 rodeos in one day! Cody, Wyoming, Red Lodge and Livingston, Montana)
The year was 1981. I was on track to make the NFR (National Finals Rodeo where the Top 15 in the World compete) in Oklahoma City. I had caught a ride with PRCA World All-Around Champ, Paul Tierney. Paul had leased a twin-engine plane and hired a pilot for the rigorous rodeo run through July and August. We flew to Custer and Aberdeen, South Dakota where I’d won the bull riding at both places. I had left our plane in Sturgis, South Dakota. I’d be back to Sturgis late that night where I’d meet my traveling partners, Gary Toole and Ricky Bolin. We’d leave there about noon-ish the next day for Hill City, Kansas.
The day before one of my main instruments had stopped working in our plane. The ‘attitude gyro’ just quit working. The ‘attitude’ instrument tells you if you’re climbing…or descending, or turning left or right. It’s an extremely important instrument. I had asked the pilot of Paul Tierney’s plane about it. He told me that, as an alternative, I should watch the compass….and that anytime the compass was moving…I was turning. I did not have an instrument rating but was fairly proficient in using my instruments in flying.
I was a good, safe pilot…..unless you ask Julie! Earlier in the year Julie and I, and Denny Flynn were flying to Del Rio, Texas to the Super Bull, the George Paul Memorial Bull Riding…which was the largest, highest paying Bull Riding event in those days. In making my landing approach I came in ‘a little hot’, had to make a fly around and then made a perfect landing. Julie tried every way in the world to get another ride home from Del Rio…but to no avail….she was forced to ride back home with me in the plane. We made it home fine but she was pretty hard to get loaded up in the plane after that!
I made it back to Sturgis sometime after midnight. The next morning the weather around Sturgis and Rapid City was overcast with some thunderstorms and low cloud covering. We were ready to head out for Hill City but I wasn’t going to ‘chance it’ with the marginal weather…and the faulty instrument. The weather reports were telling us that the clouds were moving out and we should be able to fly ‘clear skies’ all the way to Kansas. As soon as we got the good report we were taking off and headed for Hill City.
Only about 15-20 minutes into the flight the weather changed dramatically……for the worse! Heavy, dark clouds moved in and the ‘ceiling’ was only 300 ft. We stayed below the cloud covering, which is pretty dangerous considering that there are communications towers taller that that! The clouds appeared to be about 50 ft thick. We’d see huge gaps in the clouds of blue sky. The clouds were dropping even lower and I knew I had to try to go above the clouds. I told Gary, who was flying the right-hand seat, to keep an eye on the ground and I’d try to take it up through one of those patches of blue sky. Almost immediately we were encased in clouds….couldn’t see up, couldn’t see down. It sounds crazy but when you’re in the clouds like that you can be flying upside down and can’t tell it. It’s like being inside a paper bag.
I remember my flight instructor teaching me that you can just turn an airplane loose and it’ll fly by itself. That’s great if you’re several thousand feet up, but we’re 300 ft above the ground. That wouldn’t work! I looked at the compass and it was moving (which meant we were turning). I turned the yoke (the wheel) loose and the compass turned even faster. Not good! We were all in panic mode when Gary grabbed the yoke and pulled it straight into his chest. A No-No in most conditions…..and if the plane happened to be upside down…it’d fly us right into the ground!
Well, that didn’t happen; within a few seconds we cleared the clouds and our wings were vertical to the ground and we were climbing. I grabbed the yoke and brought it back to a horizontal, straight and level position. We were all exhausted from the stress of those few minutes. In 5 more minutes we were flying south with nothing but blue skies ahead.
I look back at that day often and it seems obvious to me now that the Lord had everything to do with preserving us that day…..and saving our lives.
8378 Zulu made it safely into Hill City, Kansas!