If you have read many aviation stories, you will suffer no harm by ignoring this one. It is an Old Story that happened yesterday. I’m sure you have heard it all before. I would find it only mildly interesting were I not the protagonist, the antagonist and the jester.
In the three years I have been owned by a Cessna Turbo 182 RG, I have landed in 26 states with but 500 hours of experience. The bulk of that has accumulated in the 25 months I have been instrument rated. It is not very much at all. I am based at Clow Airport (1C5) outside Chicago.
The opening act began when I had radio trouble in South Carolina. As I puzzled over why I could not reach ground control, the fuel truck screeched to a halt in front of me and the driver jumped out waving.
“Turn off your radio!” he screamed above the noise. “You’re blocking ground and tower, the big planes up above.” Seems the radios that were dead to me were apocalyptic zombies to everyone else.
I was certain it was my fault for not getting the leaking oil pressure gauge fixed once and for all. It had been repaired the day in April I discovered it and twice more by my home wrench, but it refused to stay healed. And persisted in dripping oil. My mechanic told me not to worry about it.
“You bought an old airplane,” he said. “All of us get a little leaky as we get older. We’ll fix it at the annual.”
After a several hour delay, the Carolina Avionics team pulled the breaker to Com 1 and declared I was good on Com 2. They also granted me absolution saying the leaking oil had nothing to do with the problem.
I flew the aircraft home without incident except that on some frequencies I could not hear the side tone, what you hear in the headset. My voice was muffled, like after a night of poker and tequila. On some frequencies I sounded as if I had downed a full bottle of Patron; I was not even intelligible.
The following day, my local avionics shop bench tested the radios and found that there was nothing wrong with them. How to explain the problem?
They believed the antennas – which were original equipment and over 33 years old — to be the culprit. They ordered two new ones and, while waiting their arrival, had detached, cleaned and reattached the old.
The service was excellent, but they did have one problem. In pulling and pushing the circuit breaker for Com 1, they inadvertently broke it. While the radio was working on the bench, it would not work in the airplane. I still had one on-board com and my handheld.
The next day, I flew the aircraft VFR on top of a low overcast to Birmingham, Alabama, and back with no real problems. I was sober on the side tone and only once did Memphis Center make mention that I was broken and unreadable. But in the next five minutes, she could hear me just fine. No harm done.
And now the curtain rises on Act Two
Leaving on a trip to Utica, New York, I made contact with a Cessna 180 in the pattern. Radio checks proved loud and clear. I waited for a moment when Chicago Approach wasn’t juggling aluminum. Loud and clear as well. The radio problems were over, I was sure.
After climbing through the clouds, I was asked to contact the second Chicago controller. I was back on the hard stuff! That dreaded muffled side tone was evident. The controller replied that he could read me but that I sounded like I was underwater.
“Did your radios get wet?” asked the controller. I doubt that a dousing would create such acoustics, but apparently the controller thought otherwise.
“Negative,” I replied while I nervously glanced at the oil pressure gauge. “The radios have been in the shop, but they tested perfect.”
“Try another radio, you are still underwater.”
I fished out my handheld, connected the antenna and called. No response. I called again. No response. I tried again on submarine com 2.
“That’s a little better,” said the controller. “You must be just below the surface but rising,” he added with a cackle as he passed me to South Bend. When I called them, the muffled side tone was worse then ever and they could not hear me at all.
Choking back concern, I scrambled for my handheld. Even with the battery fully charged, I could not reach them.
After a few anxious moments a 4,000-foot runway at Michigan City, Indiana (KMGC) appeared through the mist. I squawked 7600, closed the cowl flaps, leaned as much as I dared and started a steep descent.
A complete circuit of the field led to an uneventful landing and on the ramp I sat frustrated in the cockpit. I made a call to the national ATC number and my client.
I knew that my avionics tech was driving from his shop to my home airport in the afternoon. Could I make a NORDO flight to Rochelle (KRPG) and ride with him to my car at Clow? A quick check on my mobile showed the route at 1600 feet and seven miles, and the terminals were showing VFR within the next hour. But a huge thunderstorm was approaching the area and would be covering it in two to three hours. While the destination was 900 and 6, the Rockford (KRFD) terminals were expecting full VFR in less than an hour, just hours before the storms would close everything down.
Enter the antagonist. “You can make this flight,” he said to me in silence. “Piece of cake, are you kidding? You’ve done this before. Are you a pilot or not? It’s 1500 hundred and forever.”
I can not deny the thrill that the challenge being laid before me would bring. And how exciting the antagonist made it sound. But my conditioned response was one of caution.
“Not really,” I replied to myself. “The only scud I like to run is 2,200 feet or more AGL. I like to have a wide margin, chum. I think it best to wait. I CAN do this; I choose not to.”
“Are you kidding?” he beseeched. “What are you waiting for? That storm out west to guarantee you can’t get in? Wanna call the missus for a ride? She’ll LOVE that. How about 100 miles in a taxi? When do you come back for the plane? You don’t have the GUTS to go.”
I stated the obvious. “C’mon, I can get back to home plate, no problem. The issue is I can’t get to Rochelle. It’s IFR out there.”
He replied with a jab to the gut: “And then when is it going to get fixed?” And then the knockout: “A real pilot could make this flight.”
I have flown in this area for five years and know it quite well. It is northern Indiana and Illinois; there’s nothing to hit unless it’s a radio tower, the occasional smokestack or a windmill. But there are a lot of them.
“C’mon,” the antagonist whispered coyly. “The Rockford terminal area forecast is for full VFR by the time we get there. Let’s GO.” Somehow I missed the links in the danger chain clinking loudly together.
I called my tech on his mobile. He’s a Bonanza and Baron driver of 1,000 hours. He was between Rockford, which was reporting 1700 feet and nine miles visibility, and Rochelle. He said he saw the clouds breaking. That agreed with what the weatherman thought as well.
Sitting at the computer and looking at all the weather one last time, the antagonist convinced me the flight was doable. I decided to let him fly the plane.
The Final Act had begun
Departing Michigan City, the plane leveled off at 1500 feet and I gasped when I saw how very close we were to the ground. One hundred miles at pattern altitude? I noticed that the antagonist had suddenly become silent. Looking around for him, I realized that he had passed back the controls, disappeared from the scene and I was alone.
For the first 15 minutes the flight was uneventful, but you know what happened next. I was stunned to find myself in cloud and acting as the main character in the Old VFR into IFR story.
Fumbling with the radios, I tried to find an AWOS nearby. Either because I was practically on the ground or the radios had just completely quit, I couldn’t pick anything up.
I clicked on the autopilot and I dialed down a few notches on the altitude to get back to marginal visual conditions. Out of the clouds I was so low I could read the signs on Interstate 80. Surely that better weather was just ahead.
Just then a hole, a big beautiful hole with blue above it, and in it, opened directly in my path. I clicked off the autopilot, ran the power to redline and shot up at 72 knots, Vx. As I neared the top, it closed slightly and at 2200 feet I slipped through the white and the clouds were below.
Oh that beautiful layer of white fluffy gorgeousness! The feeling of safety permeated my soul. But while it was gorgeous, I didn’t see any other holes. And now I could see the thunderstorms — large and rising, but still nearly 75 miles away.
Expecting nothing but silence, I call up Chicago approach. I was astonished when they answered. I confessed. The controller was professional and helpful and made no mention that they had been tracking me, no mention of any problems. She gave me a code, issued me a clearance to 3000 feet and pointed me toward Rochelle.
It was all so routine from there. I requested and got vectors to the GPS 25 approach which has a WAAS glideslope.
I made the decision that the autopilot had done enough. “Let’s end this flight with dignity,” I said to myself. Locked needles led to a landing as soft as a kiss to a beloved child and I exited the runway with little brake and a lot of relief.
The avionics team tugged the plane in before I could disembark. As the plane eased into the hangar, I discovered that I was hopping mad. But not at them.
It was me that was the target of my wrath. I shouldn’t have listened to the antagonist, my own ego.
I jumped from the aircraft blowing a gasket. As the venting of my steam commenced, I noticed the cadre of experienced aviators who had come to gather around, hanging on my wings and my words. As the torrent became a trickle and the heat and pressure diminished, I felt ashamed, a jester, a fool. But as I examined their faces all I saw was kindness and wisdom.
“I don’t how you could’ve done it any better,” said one, once I finally took a breath yielding the floor momentarily. I knew in my heart there were many ways I could’ve done better and started to sputter again.
“Hey, you made it,” said another. True enough, but there should be no doubt. I seethed at myself and walked toward the door to look at the sky that fooled me.
The wizened cropduster whose Air Tractor sat next to my Cessna matched my steps.
“Don’t be so hard on yourself. That’s flying, my friend,” he said as the toothpick in his mouth twitched along with his words. Sensing my speechless confusion, he continued.
“Look at it this way. You just became a better pilot. Learn from it. Don’t do it again.”
He turned to where his words had stopped me in my tracks and with a handsome smile and a light touch of my shoulder, he went to start his flying day. There was nothing I could say, or needed to.
I have never felt so strongly the commonality that we pilots share as in this moment. I had laid myself bare, blaming no one but myself, confessing to multiple infractions all the while knowing that it was my own ego, the antagonist, who was to blame. In that hangar I felt the acceptance of my mistakes as the price we pay to learn to carry our lives in our hands, transporting ourselves across time and space. And learned that you can hear all the Old Stories, but the lessons don’t ring so true as when you act in one.
Under the watchful gaze of those who had made their own payments, I wrote in my heart that never, ever again. I have met you now, my antagonist. I will recognize you and your seductive ways. You will not fool me, shame me, or manipulate me again.
But I hope that another pilot reading this will take some time to tell me your thoughts as well. Please be kind.
I never thought I would be the narrator of the Old Story, either.
While it just happened to me yesterday, it will happen again tomorrow.