Serendipity Was Her Name

It looked like a fair morning to depart Oshkosh on the final day of EAA’s AirVenture. We entered Hangar B for a short meeting-just long enough to find a gray sky with threatening clouds waiting for us when we emerged. The 1948 Cessna 170 was packed tight with all our camping gear, and, after eight days using port-a-potties, my husband Tom and I agreed all we really needed was to fly far enough to find a real bed and bathroom.

Once airborne, however, our destination of Harbor Springs, Michigan, only 290 miles away, beckoned like a siren. Wouldn’t it be great to spend that evening with our friends in their lovely home overlooking Lake Michigan?

Five minutes into our flight, my ‘request’ to Tom to give me heading sounded more like a yell. We’d put Escanaba in the GPS as a potential first stop, but, with the clouds to our left appearing darker and lower with every glance, I wasn’t certain we’d get there. Let’s head for Appleton, I said, and take baby steps northeastward-ideally, toward an airport.

It was raining lightly, and we could still fly at 1,000 AGL with plenty of headroom. We passed Appleton, were cleared to transition through Green Bay’s Class C, and continued on. I looked back at Green Bay and wondered if we should have stopped there, even though Runway 24/6 was closed and we would have had a nasty crosswind.

Onward past two other airports, along Lake Michigan’s shore, with the brightest stretch of sky out of reach to the east. One and a half hours later, Escanaba’s ASOS reported thunderstorms north and northwest with lightning. Within seconds I saw the first strike and pointed our shiny plane toward the airport.

We had quickly tied down when an airport employee came by to admire our plane. We gladly chatted with him, having no place else to go. There was no food or courtesy car at ESC. Then, just as it started to rain, we spotted Terry Glimn strolling over to ask if we’d like a ride to town. We had met Terry, a longtime flight instructor, two years before on the same route from Oshkosh. He suggested we park the plane under a nearby open-air hangar, and lucky for us we did. We were about to forget to cover the wings with tarps and could have gotten water in the tanks, thanks to the 170’s poorly designed fuel caps.

Just then, two other aircraft landed, and, as one pilot pushed his Cessna 150 out of the rain, Terry asked the man if he would like to join us for lunch. We had room for one more in Terry’s small truck. The pilot declined the invitation, which became our stroke of luck, serendipity. Terry then saw his friend Colette Miller who had flown in with her Citabria en route to Newberry, the nearest airport to her summer home on Lake Michigan.

Running through the rain, the four of us piled into the truck and headed to Ernie’s for possibly the world’s best chicken Cobb salad and strawberry shortcake. We learned that Colette loves aerobatics and wants to teach it someday, is working on becoming a CFI, and has a teenage grandson.

When we returned to the terminal, Colette checked the forecast, which was for clearing in Newberry. As she went to preflight her plane, she invited us there if we couldn’t get into Harbor Springs, although she lived 20 miles from the airport. She took off while Terry proudly showed us his Kitfox and Comanche. He loaned us an air pump for our tires and a grease gun for the tailwheel, then graciously invited us to stay overnight with him and his wife Nancy, if we weren’t allergic to cats.

While Tom repacked the airplane, I checked the weather again and determined that we could get into Harbor Springs. As we waved good-bye to Terry and took off into a clearing sky, Lake Michigan was now a peaceful blue contrast to the thick green forest below. We heard Colette on the radio and wished her well as we followed the coast to the Mackinac Bridge.

The clouds looked tame until we got within a few miles of the bridge-or where we thought the bridge should be, as we couldn’t see it or the shoreline across the straits. A half hour earlier, I had asked Tom if we had enough fuel to get to Harbor Springs. He had filled the tanks himself at Oshkosh and determined, based on our time en route estimate, that we would arrive there with an hour reserve.

However, the gauges were bouncing around, as they often do, but closing in on the big ‘E.’ With daylight diminishing and clouds lingering over the Mackinac Bridge, I said, ‘Maybe it wasn’t full when we started, and, you know, we have been running full rich all the way.’ We had parked on the grass at Oshkosh, and an uneven surface can alter an oil or fuel level read dramatically. Without discussion, our heads and airplane turned 90 degrees toward Newberry, the ‘moose capital of Michigan.’ Twenty-five long minutes later, we landed into a healthy breeze and taxied to a pump.

Within moments, Colette drove up to greet us. She had seen the 170 overhead while driving home and turned her car around to check on us. ‘The pumps don’t take credit cards,’ she said. Tom got out the dipstick to check the fuel levels. Low in the right tank and not much in the left. He pumped in 27 gallons of 100LL. We did the math; we would have had little to no reserve at Harbor Springs.

Colette used her airport fuel card to fuel us up. She unlocked the small terminal building for us where we looked at a weather map. It was clear in Harbor Springs, and we now knew we had options. The clouds had moved east, and the Mackinac Bridge stretched beneath us like a guiding hand. The sun, glowing red behind the low stratus clouds in the west, cast a pale pink-purple hue on the lake and the shore beyond. It was beautiful.

I relaxed when we passed Pelston Airport, its two big lighted runways welcoming evening arrivals. As we flew between Boyne Highlands and Nubs Nob ski resorts, the sun dropped out of sight. ‘Eight miles’ read the GPS, and, soon after, Harbor Springs Airport appeared like a long lost friend.

Our friend Joan arrived shortly after we phoned to drive us to her home on the lake. A half hour later, sitting on the spacious deck, we watched the sky glow then darken, sipped a glass of wine, and toasted life. Serendipity was with us that day, and she came with an affirmation that most flying adventures turn out well if you invite her along.