About a month and a half after I got my private pilot certificate (July 14, 1976 – still one of my favorite days in my life), I rented a Piper Cherokee from the FBO at an airport that no longer exists (3-M Airport in Bristol, PA … RIP) and flew my ex-wife and her colleague down to Ocean City, NJ. ‘Twas a late afternoon in September and, while it was a clear sunny day, the haze in the Philadelphia area limited the visibility to, maybe, 5-7 miles – VFR, but not real pretty VFR. After we took off, we flew in a southerly direction, east of the Delaware River over sparsely populated terrain.
I mentioned to my ex that I’d appreciate her help in spotting other airplanes, but the sky didn’t seem too bizzy and I wasn’t overly concerned. I had been flying in and around that airspace for almost a year and a half and was quite familiar with it – and with the relative lack of traffic over it.
About fifteen minutes into the flight, my wife pointed at a fly-speck on the wind screen and said, “What’s that?” I looked, but failed to see anything. “I don’t think it’s anything,” I said, “But keep an eye on it anyway.” The wind screen wasn’t as clean as it ought to have been and I had been too lazy to remove all the dead bug splats.
Perhaps a minute passed, perhaps less. She said, “I think it might be an airplane.” I looked again and strained my eyes against the haze, trying to find what I believed my ex was imagining. The fly-speck hadn’t moved from it’s place on the wind screen and wasn’t moving across it from one direction or the other. Then I looked a little closer and saw what I thought was smoke issuing from the tail of the fly-speck – and it was at my altitude and the speck started growing. I didn’t have time to say, “Hold on,” I just banked hard right and shoved the nose down. The ex-wife squealed a little and her girlfriend giggled, thinking it was part of the show.
The fly-speck had become a Boeing 727 belonging to, I believe, American Airlines and, as it passed, it filled our wind screen. Perhaps the pilot had seen us, as well, and had initiated a climb. I can’t say how close we were when it passed, but it was close enough to make me squeeze my okole.
As it happened, Philly International had changed its departures and was shooting airliners up and out and over my formerly airliner-free zone. I wasn’t aware of any changes in their procedures, wasn’t anywhere near their “Control Zone” as we called Class Delta Airspace back in that day, and have never been closer to another airplane before or since.
Our little pleasure flight continued after my diving spiral. We landed at Ocean City Municipal and, when I followed the two ladies from the Cherokee, I dropped to my knees and, literally, kissed the tarmac. Both girls thought me a little odd. I explained that we had come a little close to an airliner and the maneuver made sure that we wouldn’t get in its way.
We walked a couple of blocks to dip our toes in the Atlantic, then we flew home – farther east of the Delaware than I had ever been. We didn’t see another airplane on our return and not long after we moved to Pittsburgh, PA, where we did a little more flying and succeeded in never nearing an airliner again.
As I write this, it’s thirty-seven years since my close encounter. It seems like yesterday. Terror will do that to your memory.