I Can’t Believe I Did That #1

Editor’s Note: This is the first article in our new series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. The aim is not to embarrass or demean the author, but to offer lessons that other pilots can learn (and hopefully avoid). If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com.

The Geneseo trip 2012: wake-up call

By: Chris Tarbell

During the first few hours after a new private pilot’s checkride, he feels unstoppable. He brings friends and family for rides, showing off the skill he’s been working on for so long. You can’t really describe flying to the average person without strapping them into the airplane and taking off. They smile, and nod, and they think they understand, but in all honesty, they can’t even begin to fathom the wonder, excitement and thrill that is flight without experiencing it.

Eventually, every green pilot makes a mistake that gives them a wake-up-call and makes the unstoppable pilot a mortal once more. It usually happens in marginal weather, at night, or in gusty winds. This story is about my wake-up-call. It is my hope that any student pilot, or young private pilot, can learn from my mistakes, and hopefully avoid the fear and humiliation that I suffered.

I had drawn out my flight training. My first flying lesson was given to me as a Christmas present when I was in the eighth grade. Due to the fact that I didn’t have a job, it took me until my junior year at East Longmeadow High School to really get serious about flying. Finally, on December 29, 2011, I passed my checkride.

I spent the first few months of the New Year taking friends and family for rides, satisfying my critics, boosting my ego, and building my flight time. Although local flights and short cross countries were fun with a few passengers in the Cessna 172 Skyhawk I was renting at Skylark Airport in East Windsor, Connecticut, I longed for a long cross country; one that would be a real adventure.

Geneseo Airshow
The Geneseo Airshow, called “the greatest show on turf,” made for a great cross country destination.

I stumbled upon the Geneseo Airshow by accident. I had read that pilots could fly in, watch the show, and fly out once the TFR expired upon the show’s conclusion. It was in early May when the idea hit me. Fly to Geneseo, watch the show, and fly back. In my eyes, the plan was perfect. I was always a warbird fan, and the grassroots airshow was known for warbirds, great aerobatic displays, and simply a good time.

I highly recommend it to any pilot or aviation enthusiast. I devised the flight plan fallowing major highways, a power line, and a few VORs. The plans were set, but making the trip alone wouldn’t be as fun as having a passenger along for the ride.

A great friend of mine, Jack, had been my first passenger after I passed my checkride. He was an aviation enthusiast himself, and had begun his own flying lessons. He’s a couple years younger than I, so in a way he looks up to me, and without hesitation, jumped at the opportunity to go to the show. On the evening of July 14, we fueled up Niner One Golf, and headed westward into the setting sun.

I had planned a morning departure on July 15; however I feared being fogged in, delaying a morning departure and arriving in Geneseo too late to land before the TFR went into effect. Considering this, I elected to make the flight on Saturday afternoon, land at Penn Yan after dark, spend the night, and make the quick hop to Geneseo in the morning. The flight out was beautiful. With full tanks, full stomachs, backpacks in the back seat, and the Cessna’s 150 horsepower Lycoming up front, the experience was off to the amazing start I had dreamed of.

Along the way, we watched the sun set before us, a fireworks display, and enjoyed conversation about how the cross country and swim teams would do the next school year. We found Penn Yan without much difficulty, landed and took a cab into town.

The next morning greeted us with a thick overcast, and a few rain showers. After listening to the ASOS at Penn Yan, I figured we could make it to Geneseo safely. There was sufficient visibility, and the clouds were high enough to fly under. This was mistake number one. As we flew westward, the clouds descended and the rain intensified forcing a return to Penn Yan.

Had I called flight service for a complete briefing, I could have lessened the risks involved with flying close to poor weather, and saved 0.8 hours of flying time. After landing, I called the air boss at Geneseo requesting more time to land. All transient aircraft were required to be on the ground by 9:00 am, but the TFR didn’t go into effect until 10:00 am.

Due to the weather conditions, he kindly accepted allowing us to land at any time up until 10:00. The weather improved, and half an hour later, we set the wheels down at Geneseo with the opening act, a red and white PT-17 Stearman Kaydet holding short for takeoff.

The show was wonderful, and after a brief rain storm blew through around noon, blue skies, beautiful airplanes, and the snarl of radial and inline engines filled the air. The privilege of walking right up to the airplanes that had just flown, talking to their pilots, and watching them fly was an experience I’ll never forget, and hope to experience many more times in my life. As the show came to a close, we put ten extra gallons in the tanks, and departed eastbound under a cloudless blue sky neglecting again to call for a briefing of any kind.

As we approached Albany, the weather worsened. Wishing to be under the overcast layer in case I couldn’t find a hole closer to home, I descended. It soon became clear that we weren’t going to make it through, and would have to wait for the weather to move ahead of us. These were the remains of the rain showers that had given us trouble earlier in the morning.

We contacted Albany Approach who graciously vectored us toward South Albany airport. We landed VFR without incident, and, while we were waiting, started washing the plane, a task that was usually left for the rain to take care of. After about two hours, the weather seemed to have moved on, and it was getting late. It looked like we would be making another night landing when we got home.

The legendary Get-There-Itis infected me in full force. I had to go to work in the morning, Jack had things to do, and someone had the plane signed out at 9:00 the next morning. The airplane “had to” be back at Skylark that night. For the third time that day, I foolishly started the engine, taxied out to the runway, and took off.

It looked like nice flying weather. The rain hand moved on before us, and it looked like it was going to be an easy flight as we crossed the Hudson River.

That’s when things got hairy.

clouds at night with moon
In the clouds, at night. A bad place to be as a VFR-only pilot.

Darkness set in as we approached the Berkshires. A low-lying cloud layer, probably a mist left by the rain and falling evening temperatures, had developed forcing me down to 2000 feet. Suddenly, a cloud appeared up ahead. That’s when my passenger, Jack, said three magic words: “Chris, turn around.” I banked the wings left, and was instantly enveloped by complete and total darkness. I had flown into a cloud, at night, at low altitude, over mountains.

That’s when I heard the voice: “Climb,” my flight instructor’s drawl filled my head. Full throttle, wings level, trim for 70… no 80 just to be safe.

“Confess,” the voice said as smoothly as I remember it when we were practicing such an emergency on a clear day the previous summer.

Tune 125.35 for Bradley Approach. “Bradley Approach,” I began speaking rapidly, “Skyhawk niner one golf is south of Pittsfield, in the clouds and climbing.”

“Skyhawk niner one golf,” the controller sensed the urgency in my voice, “Understood. Squawk 5217 and ident. Are you instrument qualified and equipped?”

I answered that we were equipped but not qualified. I only had the three hours of instrument time required for my private pilot’s license. The controller then switched all other aircraft to another frequency, and told me to keep climbing up to 4500 where I would be clear of clouds. Another controller came on the air and gave me vectors onto runway 20 at Westfield Barnes Airport. We broke through the tops of the clouds at 4000, and could see that the airport was in the clear. We thanked Bradley for their help, switched to Westfield tower, and uneventfully landed VFR.

After parking, we called home for a ride, and covered the last fifteen miles of our trip by car. After telling what had happened, I feel into a deep sleep.

After cutting the engine and switching off the master at Westfield that night, I vowed to Jack, and myself that I’d never do that again. In fact, I considered quitting flying all together several times over the fallowing twelve hours. Jimmy Doolittle said that flying an airplane is a lot like riding a horse. If it throws you off, the best thing you can do is get back on and try again, and someone had to fly the remaining leg back to Skylark in the morning.

Around 10:00 the next morning, I walked out to Niner One Golf waiting patiently where I had left her at the base of the tower. After a quick preflight, I started the engine, called the ground, and taxied to runway 33. It was a little nerve-wracking flying the familiar route back to Skylark; following the river and I-91 down to East Windsor. Every bump of turbulence was seemingly out to get me.

The incident took its toll on Jack too. He stopped taking lessons, and I doubted he would ever fly with me again. After I got myself back in the saddle, and logged a few hours with another pilot in the left seat, I convinced him, and myself that I was still a good pilot, and now, a better decision maker. A few weeks later, the day before I was to leave town for college, Jack and I took to the air again to go “island hopping” flying to Martha’s Vineyard, Nantucket, and Block Island. The flight convinced him to resume his own flying.

So what did I learn? As a private pilot just shy of 100 hours, I feel that I’m not in a position to preach, but perhaps someone out there will take something away from my mistakes. I now call the Flight Service Station before every flight, even if it’s only local flight for lunch. They’re there for our benefit, and full of useful information. Although they may give you some fluff like telling you that the high pressure center is over Missouri when you’re planning a local hop in upstate New York, there is no such thing as having too much information when it comes to the weather, and NOTAMS.

I also set my own minimums, and leave a larger margin for error. Later on in October, I was planning a flight from Potsdam, New York to Turners Falls, Massachusetts. A call to the Flight Service Station, although it delayed my departure by over an hour, saved me from attempting to scud run through the Adirondacks. I departed an hour late, and enjoyed beautiful weather, and an even better view.

Chris Tarbell is a 19 year old freshman at Clarkson University in Potsdam, New York, studying aeronautical engineering. He’s now logged 93 hours and is working toward his instrument and commercial ratings.

17 Comments

  • Reading an article by a pilot around my age and also around the same level of experience as myself describing an incident such as this. I will definitely get a good weather briefing before every flight now! Thank you so much Chris for your honesty, hopefully it’ll help out some of us young and low-time guys in the future.

  • Thanks for sharing this, Chris – Well written and well thought out (even if after the fact). Glad your friend resumed flying, and glad others will get a chance to learn from your decisions and experience.

  • Chris,
    The fact that all this occurred and you learned is what will make you a better pilot. It’s all about attitude. I know so many people that would tell stories like that as a badge of honor of how they pushed the weather and lived to tell the tail; experience for them becomes an enabler, not a teacher.

    Your approach is spot on. Learn from mistakes and you are destined not to repeat them.
    Brent

    • Brent,

      Thanks for your comments. A few great instructors, and plenty of IFR time on the simulator were key. Thankfully there wasn’t any turbulence to deal with. It was also a great motivator to get working on my instrument rating since that trip would have been an easy under IFR.

      Best regards,

      Chris

  • Now that you’re up in Potsdam I’m sure you won’t learn about icing the hard way. OK for hockey, bad for pilots. As a Clarkson Alumni I’m glad you survived the experience and are moving your education forward at a great school.

    • Doug,

      Ice has gept me on the ground once up here! Clarkson Hockey has had a rough season this year only managing to tie against SLU. The women’s team has done well however…

      Go Knights,

      Chris

  • Chris, good article. Keep up the good work, And your dream. And that school you’re going to has an outstanding reputation for all types of engineering. Who knows, maybe one day, you and I will meet, if you ever get up to KPBG.
    Make sure and share that enthusiasm with any younger relatives and friends. We need more young people like you in aviation.

    • Doyle,

      Thanks for your comments. I haven’t ventured out to the Plattsburg area yet. I’ve only been on a few local flights and the one cross country I mentioned out of PTD. I do a majority of my flying when I’m home in Massachusetts. As a pilot, I take it as my duty to get others involved with flying. Aviation is only as fun as the people you meet and fly with.

      Blue skies,

      Chris

  • Chris, thanks for the article, and your experience, I am really glad that you ultimately did not end your friends (or your) flying career. You worked to hard for it. I am a guy that waited 40 years to fulfill my dream and am currently a student pilot. I have to say, as a geezer that it took a lot of courage to publish your story. I’d fly with you any time with an attitude like yours, I gotta think that you will be fine…

  • A great post… I am starting my PPL this month as a hobby and already this post has nudged me to keep an eye on that weather, knowledge is power!

    Ben

    • Ben,

      Good luck the rest of the way! I’m glad that you took something away from my experience, and I hope that it proves useful to you in your flying!

      Blue skies,

      Chris

  • Well written article, you could be a writer as well as a professional engineer or pilot. 🙂 Do call for a briefing if you’re going VFR, even if you know what the weather is going to be. Reason: TFRs that could pop up. Unlikely, but it does happen. If one does pop up, you’re covered and FAA would have a hard time doing an enforcement action. Also, if you inadvertently violate any FAR like you did on this flight, consider filling out the NASA form.

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