I Can’t Believe I Did That #6

Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

Always Check the Weather – Always

By Chuck Feeman

Thunderstorm over airport

A good day to fly – just a few puffy clouds. Or is it?

Growing up in Ohio, the phrase, “if you don’t like the weather, wait a while and it’ll change,” is quite common. Having lived in a few other states, I have discovered the phrase is not unique to the Buckeye State. As pilots venturing to new places, we may want to pay extra attention whenever we hear locals chatting about weird or sudden weather changes they have witnessed.

I learned my lesson very early in my flying career. With hours barely into the teens, I soloed as a 20 year-old back in the early 1970s. I spent the next several hours practicing the maneuvers my flight instructor Bob taught me thus far. The beautiful farm land north of Shelby Community Airport offered plenty of interesting ground markers to hone my skills. You could even perform pylon turns around a cow if she stood still long enough. I was accustomed to taking the “iron compass” northeast out of Shelby for about 15 minutes, then turn west a few miles to reach this area.

That was my plan on a particular day in late spring.  My wife and I made the short, pleasant drive from Mansfield (hometown) to the airport. After parking, we made a brief exchange of pleasantries to others in the pilot lounge. I gave my wife a “see ya in an hour” kiss, then made my way for a thorough check and walk-around of the red and white Cessna. I was ready to hit the skies.

Just before entering the aircraft, Bob, my instructor, came outside and yelled across the parking lot, “Hey Chuck, keep an eye on the weather.” I nodded, waved, and did a quick 360. Beautiful blue sky with some cumulus clouds, light winds from the south – what a day to fly. And, hey, I had almost 20 hours, a few brief sprinkles may be a good learning experience.

Taking off on 18, nothing appeared unusual–I climbed out and turned the 150 to follow the railroad tracks. Level off at 3500, check of the gaugesnow let’s practice some slow flight, some s-turns, maybe add some VOR work heading backyeah that would be good. As I was clearing for my turn west, I noticed a flash in the rear view mirror. Gosh, what was that? About two seconds of focus on the mirror revealed some serious lightning off in the southwest, below Shelby.

The logical action would have been to fly a few minutes further to Willard Airport, or any of the other small airports around, and set down in good weather, but that thought never entered my mind. My inexperience surfaced and instead, I made a quick 180 and set my sights on getting back to Shelby. Although the lightning still seemed to be far off, the sky was starting to change; but in ten or so minutes I’d be back to home base, so I pressed on, not sparing any cruise speed. I was heading towards those dark clouds and they were heading towards me, and as I edged closer to the airport I felt the change.

Light rain began to fall and I grabbed the microphone: “Shelby Unicom, Cessna 22875 heading back in.” Bob was on the other end and told me to use 18, and that they would turn on the lights for me. I saw the lights come on in the direction of 1:00 and then lost sight of everything off the nose–the heavy rain had reached me and I was still about 5 miles away. I checked straight down to make sure I was still following the railroad tracks, but looking straight ahead saw nothing but the rain hammering the windshield. If it was still lightning, I didn’t notice the flashes, nor did I feel threatened by any strong turbulence.

Cessna 150

The Cessna 150 is a great airplane, but it’s no match for a thunderstorm.

Mmmm . . . moisture being sucked into the engine. I pulled a little carb heat. Bob and I practiced some hood time and I knew enough to keep the wings level and maintain course. Decreasing some airspeed and altitude seemed logical–didn’t want to fly past my intended destination. A minute or so passed, and the rain stopped–and there was the airport. What a beautiful sight and my trainer instinctively banked in that direction. The lighted yellow wind tee glowed like a giant lightning bug sitting along the right side of 18. I stayed fixed on the wind tee and don’t remember ever checking the skies again. Reporting that the field was in sight; Bob responded by saying, “22875 come straight in.”

What? Straight-in? How do ya do that? Bob, you taught me a lot thus far bud, but we never even discussed straight-ins! “Roger, will come straight-in” like I did ‘em everyday. OK, I can do this. Just fly towards 18 at an angle with pattern altitude and line her up like it’s a long final.  As I flew closer, the rain began again–but not heavy.

A slight turn to the left and the runway began to slowly line-up. Having throttled back to 70 mph, I added power to get me there quicker–I was still a couple of miles out. The power started to increase my altitude, and then Bob’s words came back to me. “Control airspeed with the yoke, altitude with the throttle.” A little forward pressure and the airspeed picked-up. Then the vertical speed indicator began to point down–oops, too much pressure. Finally getting the right adjustments, the approached stabilized and I focused on my landing spot–just after the numbers.

Amazingly, the rain stopped again and everything felt good. Adjusting the power, adding some flaps, and now this final felt as comfortable as any other. More flaps, less power. Wanting to get down as quickly as I could, instead of waiting until the threshold, I cut the power as soon as I crossed Route 39, a state highway that ran across the top of 18. Still the 150 floated further than desired and I lowered the nose.  This of course increased my speed and for the first time, I landed without a peep of the stall warning (I was taught full-stall landings).

As I prepared to turn to back taxi, Bob’s car was down the runway. That indicated I wasn’t out of the woods yet. He flashed his headlights and waved to follow him as he buzzed around me. Leading me to the 150’s hangar, we tucked her safely away and a heavier rain started as we hustled into the car. Driving back to the lounge, he mentioned that in situations like this, it is important get the aircraft on the ground; “anywhere you can,” and he never mentioned my situation again. He didn’t need to.

We parked at the lounge door and the heavy stuff really started. Inside we joined the few others who were waiting out the storm near the weather gauges mounted on the wall. The anemometer indicated peak gusts of 60 mph. All I said was “wow” and turned and caught my wife’s gaze. I’m not sure if it was her anger, fear, or relief, but we didn’t talk much for a while.

The storm had not even lasted another 15 minutes and when we left the airport, the sky was again blue, winds calm. Reflecting on that flight, I felt good about keeping my wits and getting the aircraft and myself back in one piece, but it was my arrogance, stupidity, or whatever, that put me in that situation. I was blessed; a guardian angel was definitely by my side in the right seat; the rain had let up just at the right times, the most severe weather did not hit until after the landing, and . . . oh that rearview mirror.

Since that day, I have never forgotten how rapidly the sky can change. It also makes sense to plan every flight with a way out–take a fire drill “what if” approach. And with today’s multitude of sources to weather (channels, sites, phone calls, personal stations, pireps, WX), even if you are going up for just a short local flight, always check the weather . . . always.

Chuck Feeman is a private pilot who lives and flies in Florida. He got hit with the flying bug at age six when his uncle took him up in a Cessna 172 so, of course, he loves to fly Cessnas.

4 Comments

  1. Will Eifert says:

    Great story, Chuck!

    You’ve touched on something I’ve learned in my early flying experience: planning for the unexpected.

    It seems a little counter-intuitive. After all, in all of the other things we do in life we don’t plan on a disastrous event, and that serves us well. But flying is a different story. It’s better to know where to go and what to do if the weather turns or the engine fails.

    Thanks for sharing your story,

    Will

  2. Hunter Heath says:

    Well told! Seems that in this case, you had not just “get home-itis,” but “get back-itis.” Somehow, the idea of heading off to a safer airport can get lost in the eagerness to put down at the home field.

    • Chuck says:

      Thanks Hunter – yes you are right, the instinctive response of “home” versus the logic of safety took over.

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