My night from hell

It was a dark and stormy night. Sounds like the opening line of a bad novel, but the night of May 24, 1996, was dark and stormy as we rocked our way in a Cessna 172 from St. Louis to Cincinnati Lunken. We pushed the envelope beyond reason and might not have seen the dawn except for a piece of luck that arrived at precisely the right instant.

The chain of events, as the NTSB likes to say, began innocently as I closed my briefcase at 1:00 that Friday afternoon after having spent a hard week in St. Louis finishing a deal. I felt as if I should reward myself.

I called a friend with whom I occasionally flew to see if he would be willing to fly my part-owned 172 to St. Louis so I could left-seat it home. David ran a charter business with a Navajo as well as a small-plane maintenance operation, which included maintaining the 172. He happened to be in our hangar and said he’d be glad to bring the plane to St. Louis. His ETA was 4:00.  I happily cancelled my airline reservation.

The wind had started to blow out of the northwest during the afternoon, and was blowing in earnest when David landed somewhat after 5:00. No significant weather and the ride was not bad, he reported. Just slow.

Our 172 was well equipped for instrument flying by 1996 standards.  Dual flip-flop King nav/coms, a KLN 90B GPS, a good autopilot, a Stormscope Wx-1000, and an ADF. We were both current on instruments and in the airplane. The sky was clear and we would have a great tailwind.  What’s not to like (except for the sigmet)?

After refueling, David held the left wing strut against the wind while I climbed in to get the engine started.   When I unpinned the control column, it jerked left and right, forward and backward, trying to wrest itself free from my grip. The rudder pedals pulsated against my feet.  I was already fighting the weather. A harbinger of things to come.

I arm-wrestled the 172 downwind to the run-up area trying not to do a Lomcevak. The wings rocked and the controls continued fighting me as I went through the pre-takeoff checklist and gingerly taxied into position. A probable record: Shortest takeoff by a fixed-winged aircraft since Doolittle lifted off the Hornet in 1942.

We climbed to 7,000 per our clearance in clear, smooth air.  We had a bodacious ground speed and were all smiles.

Billowy broken clouds soon showed up, but nothing unusual. In and out with a few bumps. Following Center’s suggestion, we diverted south for ten minutes to avoid some precip. After turning back toward Cincinnati, the puffies got taller.  But there was only light turbulence with occasional light rain. The attention-getter, though, was the rapidly falling barometer.

Building cumulus clouds
Just puffies? Or is there worse ahead?

As we popped out of a cu, I saw an ominous-looking line not far ahead. David thumbed the mike and asked if Center had any suggestions left or right. He did not. That might have been a good time for us to consider a 180. But it was still daylight, the Stormscope was not indicating anything significant in the line, we saw no lightning, and we still had that blistering tailwind.

The turbulence in the line was noticeably worse than in the previous buildups, and the rain was heavier. We went to 9,000 to see if the ride was any better. It wasn’t. Center gave us ten, even though it was not a normal altitude for our direction of flight. No better, and that was max for the 172.

Then the up and down drafts came on strong in heavy rain with occasional lightning. The turbulence was “rough” (my category just below “rough as a cob,” followed by “didn’t know it could get this rough”). Darkness had quickly enveloped us. Nothing was visible outside except the wings and prop when they were erratically illuminated by stuttering lightning.

Our airspeed decayed rapidly as I fought to hold 10,000 against the downdrafts. “Can’t hold ten! Ask for a block.” Center immediately gave us seven-to-ten. It was a bumpy rollercoaster, but I managed to stay within the block.

A biz jet at FL 320 came on frequency. Said he was in severe turbulence and asked for vectors to a suitable airport.  While Center was deciding where to send him, he called again and asked urgently, “Is that an airport right below us?” The controller said it was, identified the airport and runway length for the pilot, and asked for the pilot’s intentions: “We’re going to land there RIGHT NOW!”

Bizjets were bailing out. But we in our mighty 172 chugged on undaunted. Well, maybe a little daunted. But not enough to pull the plug as Louisville slipped beneath us with an inviting light occasionally blinking through tiny holes.

The Stormscope showed a sizeable line of thunderstorms northwest of Cincinnati moving toward the city. I judged that the line would arrive in the Cincinnati area about the same time as we would.  Do a precautionary landing in Louisville? We should have, but didn’t.

We were handed off to Cincinnati Approach a few miles southwest of Greater Cincinnati Airport. As disquieting as the weather had been up to this point, it was just a warm-up. Thor welcomed us the big leagues as we plowed into the new line.

The turbulence instantly leapfrogged from “quite rough” to “didn’t know it could get this rough.” It was constantly “rough as a cob,” but was catapulted to top honors by a terrific separate jolt about every 15 seconds. Lightning was constant. The rain was peel-paint heavy.

Then things really got crazy.  Suddenly there was a brilliant God-awful flash-bang that took the electric system off-line. I thought the plane had exploded.  After an eternity of four or five seconds, the lights and electronics re-lit.  I quickly looked around and intercomed,

“Everything looks normal.” I said.

“Yeah. Looks great. Keep going.”

Within a minute or so, the heart-stopping FLASH-BANG, go-black happened again. After not breathing for five seconds, everything re-lit. And that became the “New Normal,” although every time it happened I wondered how much of this the electric system could take.

Approach advised us to expect the backcourse approach to runway 3R at Lunken, and advised that Greater Cincinnati was closed to all traffic due to weather. Oh, wonderful.  Even Delta is on the ground.

The backcourse MDA was about 550 feet higher above the TDZE than the front course ILS. That could be an important difference depending on ceiling and visibility at decision time. Should we ask for the ILS? No. That would require considerably more flying in this muck.

Cleared for the approach, I got the airplane centered on the localizer with about 20 degrees of crab into the northwest wind, but immediately drifted to the right. I clawed back to the localizer and put in more crab. Still not enough. It took about 50 degrees of crab to get stabilized.

At the “missed” decision point. We look up. Nothing. David said, “I don’t see anything.”

“Neither do I.”

He pressed the mike button and I started adding power, “We’re going missed…  NO, WAIT!  I SEE THE AIRPORT!” he said.

I had never heard such beautiful words.  At the last possible instant, we had flown into a clear hole.  This was exactly the piece of luck (or miracle if you prefer) that we needed, precisely when we needed it.

The ground lights were beautiful, as only salvation can be. But ragged clouds brushed the hills all around us. What I didn’t see was an airport.

“No. Over here,” David said as pointed out his right side window. It’s really weird to be on final with the runway at two o’clock.

Windsock
A blistering crosswind to top it all off.

Approach handed us off to tower. He seemed as relieved as we were, although that’s hard to imagine. Tower gave us an immediate, “Cleared to land three right,” just as a brilliant three-pronged lightning bolt simultaneously hit the hills on the north, east and west sides of Lunken. A spectacular greeting card and a warning that Thor was still out there.

As we descended below MDA, the tower operator said in an encouraging voice, “I see your light. Keep it coming. Keep it coming. You’re doing great.” He was throwing us a lifeline and reeling us in. I loved it.

Then I made a big mistake by shifting from the crab method to the slip method for crosswind landings, which was my normal crosswind technique. We were crossing the Ohio River a few seconds from the threshold. The bucking 172 rapidly drifted right of the runway despite all of the aileron and rudder I could muster while keeping the airspeed and altitude of the 172 within bounds.

“I can’t hold the runway,” I said to David. I started thinking “go-round.” To his ultimate credit, David said in his usual calm way, “I’ve got it.” This was not the time for him to talk me through a severe crosswind landing. We needed to land if at all possible.

He crabbed us radically back over the runway as we crossed the threshold and flared. Our ground speed was so slow I could have trotted beside the airplane.  At the last possible instant before touchdown, he paralleled the nose with the runway and added a hefty amount of left aileron and right rudder. Love those high-wing airplanes. Before the plane could start drifting, David danced the left main on to the runway, then the right followed by the nose wheel. We slowed to taxi speed in a couple of seconds, and he said, “Your airplane.”

I felt like screaming, “That was the best landing I have ever seen!”

The wind fought me every inch of the way to the hangar as the rain pelted and lightning flashed.  After shutting down with the nose close to the hangar door to take advantage of the lee, I kept the controls cranked in and the brakes on. David jumped out, got drenched chalking the mains, hurried into the hangar and raised the door. Only after he pulled us into the hangar and rolled the hangar down did I stop “flying the airplane.”

As my feet touched the hangar floor, my legs began to shake.  I had to hold on to the wing strut.  I had not felt fear during the flight, but in the safety of the hangar, the realization of what we had flown through sank in.  I found a chair, sat down and drank water until I stopped shaking.  It was a night from hell with many lessons learned.  High on the list: Unreasonably pushing the envelope carries great risk. Precautionary landings are good things.

36 Comments

  • STL to Cincy, probably a 5 to 6 hr drive in any weather…had you landed Louisville and stayed the night you’d be questioning the use of GA airplanes for travel purposes…pilots push it because they love flying and they want the satisfaction of completing the mission, and proving the worth of GA flying, as John Z said a few days ago…it’s quite a predicament…

    • We, as GA pilots, first and foremost need to realize that flying a Cessna 172/182 or any other small aircraft has its limitations. Is not like going on an Airbus 320. Every time I read something like this, I promise to myself to never get on a situation like this, despite the fact that I own an aircraft very well equipped and I have a current instrument rating. I love flying, but I like to enjoy it not suffer it. If a thunderstorm can bring down jet airliners, what could happen with my little 182. I am pretty sure these guys learned a very important lesson and I am 100% sure they don’t wish a repeat.

  • “Get-home-itis” is a common and often fatal disease of aviators of all types, age and calibres. As aviators ( to follow on John’s comments) we often confuse the “need” to get home (or anywhere for that matter)with our want or desire to get home, when in fact what we “need” is to get there SAFELY and in one piece!

  • The old saying still applies:
    ‘There are old pilots, and there are bold pilots; but there are no old, bold pilots’.

    • Right! And the other one is also applicable: “I’d rather be down here wishing I was up there than up there wishing I was down here.”

  • Good thing he had his own airplane. He would not have made it home that night on a commercial flight.

    (tongue firmly in cheek)

    Once committed, nice job of flying.

    • Thanks, but as someone once said about being ridden out of town on a rail, “If it weren’t for the honor of it, I’d rather not do it.”

  • Nine of ten people who put themselves in such a situation would be dead. Thanks to “divine intervention,” they live to either put themselves in a similar situation or act more wisely–hopefully, the latter.

    Thanks for having the courage to share the story, so others may benefit.

  • Great Story! Basically, you got stuck trying to beat the CBs to the airport. Your judgement said you could make it, and you did–but with no margin for error left.

    I’m glad your story had a happy ending–and that you’ve chosen not to repeat it.

  • Somebody was watching out for you,David. You are one lucky pilot that you didn’t encounter some heavy hail. I flew airline for 30 years, and I am so glad that you made it and hope you never try that stunt again.

    • Yes, Someone was. We were lucky on several counts, including no hail as you point out. Be assured I’ve sworn off flying in T’storms.

  • Assuming reasonable terrain clearance …. lower is usually better, turbulence-wise … like around 5k or so….. “thicker” air, too.

  • Dam it Dave, you had me on the edge of my seat, I am sure my laptop was trying to crab on a crosswind as i Read the story. Loved it…I am going to have to rest now and have a nice cup of tea and a lie down after all that… best regards

  • Thank you for sharing your story Dave, I felt I was riding with you as I read it !

    I hope I never have to experience anything similar in my flying

    Regards

  • Wow, that’s such an incredible story. I’ve just started my cross country and loving it! I’ve wanted to do this for 46 years!….. Well, maybe 24 🙂 I love listening other pilots experiences. Thanks Dave!

  • I always admired pilots who have the courage and are humble enough to tell the REAL story. In aviation humbleness is a great life saver.In this case ,when you admitted your own limitation by transferring the command or controls to the other pilot.We all can learn from that..I sure did.

  • I thought I was the only one who had an experience like that. I kept waiting for you to wonder whether the 172 would hold together. That was my primary thought in a Piper Tri-Pacer over the hills of southern Missouri in 1958—that and the trees just below and of course trying to keep control of the airplane. With no instrument time, there was no choice but to try and stay below the violent clouds— not always easy when they’re sucking you up and spitting you out almost constantly. Long story short: After three failed attempts at different cow pasture landings, the sheets of rain finally opened up long enough for me to make a good approach and get down on the slick grass of the shortest (of course) of the three fields I tried. Not a scratch on man nor airplane and when I ground-looped to a stop the left wing was hanging over a barbed wire fence and the little 150 Lycoming was ticking away like a sewing machine. I sat there for an indeterminate amount of time and let it run. I had a new respect for the Tri-Pacer. This one was rented but I later bought one just like it. And what did the FBO I rented from have to say? “Always remember to check the weather thoroughly west of your course.” I learned there’s no excuse for getting caught in a squall line like I did. I waited to the point where I couldn’t out-run it. I shudder to think what it must have been like on instruments and for a long period at that. Congratulations on making right decisions after you were caught and on a fine writing job about it.

    • Thanks. Sounds like you’ve had your share, too. Fortunately, we’re both older and wiser for the experiences. I did wonder about the 172’s holding together, but not until after I was safely on the ground. Guess I was just too busy at the time to think about it. In any event, it’s a testament to the ruggedness of the 172. Might have been a different story in a higher performance aircraft. Thanks for the comment and your story.

      • Thanks for the response. I agree with your statement that it might have been a different story in a higher performance airplane such as a Bonanza. I don’t mean to take much more space but when I got into real trouble I remembered a line that could only come from a Hollywood B movie in which a Japanese commander in World War II, riding copilot in a reconnaissance plane, got tired of listening to his pilot complain about how the war was going and barked out: “Shut up and fry da prane.”

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