The weather is what it is – all alone in a Cherokee Six

I had an unexpectedly pleasant opportunity to do some general aviation flying many years ago when I was employed by a large regional carrier at the Raleigh-Durham Airport in North Carolina. One of my students in Roanoke, Virginia, where my home was, agreed to let me use his Cherokee Six so I could fly down to Bradenton, Florida. The plan was to pick up my sister and 12-year old niece and fly them up to Ruleville, Mississippi, the old family home, so our clan could be together for Christmas. It had been quite a few years since I had done any serious solo cross-country flying in a GA airplane, so I was eager for the day to arrive.

I wanted, one more time, to feel the exhilaration of flying an airplane to a place where I alone chose to go with no one looking over my shoulder all the time like they do when you fly for someone else for a living. To put it plainly, I wanted to be as free as a bird. I pre-positioned the airplane to Raleigh a few days before the flight.

Airline dispatcher
No dispatchers to help you when you’re in a Cherokee.

One major point of consideration here that I had forgotten was that when you fly for an airline year after year, you end up taking for granted all the preflight information that is generated for you by the army of people in dark, windowless rooms who are never seen, nor hardly appreciated. The dispatchers are really part of the crew of any airliner, and the work they do behind the scenes for you, a pilot, is invaluable. However, when you’re flying general aviation airplanes, you alone are responsible for finding and recording all that stuff yourself; you become your own dispatcher. And generally speaking, it would take you a couple of hours to dig up all the information a professional dispatcher can provide for you.

I finished a three-day trip for the company in Raleigh at around noon on a Thursday, and then quickly caught a ride over to the general aviation side of the field (the fun side), to prepare for the anticipated flight south in the Cherokee. The weather had been pretty good around the southeastern part of the country for the last three days, mostly VFR, so I hurriedly checked the en-route weather to Savannah, Georgia (not wasting time with a full briefing or the insignificant details like FDC NOTAMs), did the preflight inspection, stocked up on peanut butter crackers from the machine in the lobby, and then took off for sunny Florida.

Climbing to the south out of the Raleigh-Durham airport, the only weather concern I had was a SIGMET for building thunderstorms along the Georgia – Florida border. But I was sure I could wing my way around them at a low enough altitude. I had done that many times before in various parts of the country. I was on my own and feeling great; If need be, I would be free to change my plans at the drop of a hat and go any which way I needed to go without having to call or apologize to anyone.

The trip down to Savannah was uneventful, and I was glad to get back on the ground in order to stretch my legs and refresh myself. After refueling, I called the weather office again, and twice in one day I skipped a full FSS briefing while checking on the thunderstorms that lay ahead to the south on the next segment of my journey. The briefer said they had been building all afternoon and formed a pretty solid, northward-moving line from off the coast inland through Alabama to Mississippi. But he said that airplanes were getting around them okay.

To his credit, he did ask me if I had the pertinent NOTAMs for the flight. I lied and nonchalantly answered in the affirmative. I was anxious to get going again, and frankly speaking, I just didn’t want to hear all the meteorological gibberish that I listened to every other day of the year. I spent my working days being concerned with NOTAMs, and taxiway closures, and every other type of aviation minutia there is; I wanted to be free of all those constrictions. I was going VFR; I didn’t need any NOTAMs. I didn’t even want to talk on the radio. Just leave me alone and let me fly the airplane…

I took off and turned south.

Clouds over ocean
How bad can it be?

After only about ten minutes of flying southbound out of Savannah, I ran into steadily lowering conditions and decided to turn toward the coast and descend. I knew I could get right down on top of the water if I needed to. The sky all around me turned dark with rain clouds and mist, and the visibility continued to diminish until I was scooting along through tendrils of cloud at no more than five-hundred feet AGL. Here was the beginning of that line of thunderstorms.

In theory, I had been sure that I would have more visibility than what I had in reality; the rain and mist chopped it down to only a mile or two at most. As I launched out over the beach somewhere in the vicinity of St. Catherines Island I descended until I was, in fact, right on top of the waves. The visibility was better there, but, of course, at that altitude, I could no longer receive any VOR signals, and the airplane had no GPS equipment – no airplane did back then. All I had was a coffee-stained sectional chart, and it looked coldly aloof and insultingly bare of any useful information at the time. I guess I had gotten what I wanted; I was all alone.

You know, it’s funny, the things you think about when you’re alone in an airplane and find yourself in a tight jam. I guess you mostly think about other places you’d rather be… Any which way you look at it, I was flying the airplane right up into a corner with no way out that was legal and safe; I was going to have to do some bootleg IFR flying. The clouds were now tickling the water with the ever-increasing rain intensity. Unless I was going to land on the beach and take my chances with that unpleasant potential I had no choice but to go higher and confess. I took a deep breath and set power to climb.

Just about the time that I had what I was going to say to Jacksonville Center all figured out in my mind, the airplane entered the base of a very dense monster that greeted me with a torrent of rain, and wind, and turbulence; and I was only at about 1500 feet or so. It wasn’t going to work; anything would have been better than that. I chopped the power and pointed the nose back toward the water. There would be only two choices: I’d have to either find a beach to land on, or press on southbound over the water in whatever visibility nature was going to give me.

“In for a penny, in for a pound.” Isn’t that the way the old adage goes? I decided to just keep on flying. “The line of storms isn’t all that wide. Just hang on for a little while longer,” I told myself.

The minutes crawled by very slowly with intermittent periods of fairly good visibility mixed with patches of rain and fog. While searching for salvation in my sectional chart, I noted the frequency of the Brunswick VOR on Jekyll Island, 109.8 MHz. If I could continue flying to the south okay, I’d eventually pick up the signal of the station and navigate my way to the airport there. I’d land and wait out the storms. That became the new plan; it sure seemed like a good one, too. But there was one very unsightly wrinkle in that suit of ideas.

NOTAM book
Ignoring NOTAMs can set you up for a rude surprise.

Because of my prior indifference and insouciance, I neglected to check any NOTAMs at all. If I had been willing to accept only the most pertinent and tangible bits of information from just one of the two FSS briefers who tried to give them to me earlier I would have known at that dire moment – as I was struggling on top of the choppy waters of the Atlantic Ocean to find a safe harbor – that the Brunswick VOR was down for maintenance. It was off the air.

It’s about 65 nautical miles from the Savannah airport to the Brunswick VOR. At my cruising speed in the Cherokee, I gave it about thirty minutes to cover the distance. I had been in the air for about 20 minutes by then, so I figured I was somewhere in the area of Wolf Island – ten minutes from Brunswick. Even at the very low altitude, I thought I should have been able to receive the signal from the station at that distance, but there was nothing there – not even a test transmission. “Okay,” I thought. “I’ll go a little further south.”

I didn’t want to get too far off the coast because I had no marine safety gear on board, so I turned more toward the southwest. In just a couple of minutes, I reached a distance from the coast where I could keep the shoreline in sight whenever I flew into a patch of clear sky. I was also looking for, but never sighted, any seagulls or other coastal birds.

Time ran out on me, and I knew I must have been abeam St. Simons or Jekyll Island, but I just didn’t have enough visibility to catch a glimpse of either one. So now I had a decision to make: Should I keep going south or turn inland to fix my position somehow? Looking on the sectional chart, I quickly decided that I needed to know where I was right then. I was approaching the busy airspace around Jacksonville with its numerous restricted and MOA zones. And I didn’t want to tangle with those. I remember thinking to myself about then: “This was supposed to be a fun, free-as-a-bird adventure. Why do I feel like I’m back in the simulator?”

I drew a deep breath and turned the airplane to the west, still trying to listen for the Brunswick VOR, but I eventually gave up on that idea. So, there wasn’t much else to do except continue to battle the same elements I had been trying to outwit for the last 30 minutes — patches of clear air followed by smudges of cloud and rain, visibility never more than two miles or so, and often down to near zero. As I crossed the coastline, I found that I was able to climb to just over 1000 feet before I entered the cloud bases, so at least I felt like I wasn’t going to hit anything solid and unforgiving in front of me. The minimum safe altitude for that specific grid was 1200 feet. There were no obstructions on my chart anywhere in my area over 500 feet in elevation. I just hoped I was actually in the area I was looking at on the chart.

As fortune would have it, I soon broke through the side of a fog bank only to spot Interstate Highway 95 directly below me. It had to be 95, because that was the only large, four-lane, north-south highway anywhere around. It led me south through one more large bank of cloud and rain that I was fearful of ducking under because of all the tall towers along the highway before I broke out for good – sighting nothing but clear, unobstructed skies all the way south to the horizon. The Sarasota airport and a soft bed were only a short hour or so ahead.

Cherokee Six
The Cherokee Six is a good airplane, but it has its limits.

The next day’s trip from Florida to Mississippi was not without its own menaces. We had to file and fly in very low IFR conditions all the way from Sarasota to Montgomery, Alabama, and then on to a point near Laurel, Mississippi. Upon reaching that point, now with my sister and niece on board, I was forced to cancel IFR operations and fly a mix of VFR and IFR in uncontrolled airspace once again almost on the deck the rest of the way to the Ruleville-Drew airport. Storms and tornadoes were tearing through the Delta region along numerous stretches of several counties. We did, in fact, spot one tornado ahead of us south of Greenwood and altered our course to the west to pass behind it.

For the last half-hour as the sun was setting in the west, scattered-to-broken low, thin stratus clouds were forming just above the ground — at times no more than about 200 feet above the muddy cotton fields. And even though I had flown over this section of the country a least 100 times and knew every town in the Delta, I couldn’t see enough of any one piece of ground to connect any dots and fix my position. My old home began to look strangely foreign. I started to realize that I might not be able to find Ruleville.

I ended up flying the VOR approach to the M37 airport on the Greenwood VOR 324 radial – a distance of about 22 nautical miles. My airplane didn’t have DME on board, so I flew the radial until the cross bearing radial off the Greenville VOR centered on the second radio. At that time I knew I was in the general vicinity of the airport, but I could only see small patches of dissociated brown earth beneath me whenever the low stratus layer allowed. I saw nothing that I recognized at all.

It became glaringly apparent that we were somehow going to have to get under the broken stratus deck if we were to have any chance of spotting something that looked like home. I chopped the power and made a wide 360-degree descending turn to the left through a break in the layer just as the sun dropped below the horizon. When I rolled out of the turn – beneath the shelf of cloud and at about 100 feet of altitude on a westerly heading – I suddenly spotted the two hangars and the airport parking apron only about one mile in front of us – it took me completely by surprise.

I couldn’t believe my good fortune. I turned in my seat and calmly announced to my thoroughly oblivious sister that we had arrived. She smiled and put down her novel. We flew directly over the ramp in a left bank, and the first thing I saw was our father standing there with his hands on his hips in that unmistakably vexed patronal stance that I had come to know so well while growing up fearful of his wrath. He had been worried about us, and his expression – even from that height and speed – left no doubt as to what he was thinking: “It’s about time you got home!”

I look back on that long three-day cross-country flight and try to extract some lessons from it. What did I learn from the experience? The only things I can up with are these: After you leave the ground, no matter what you’re flying or where, you enter a new world with new sets of priorities and concerns that have absolutely no consideration for you or your machine. The weather is what it is, and there’s nothing we can do to change it. It seems to say to each pilot: “If you can handle me, the way I am now, go about your business. If you can’t, then I’ve got you, don’t I?”

And each pilot in his own machine has his own limits. At the outset, I thought I would have an easy, enjoyable three days of flying to do in a very nice general aviation airplane. What it turned out to be – all three days – was more like an aviation obstacle course for either the wantonly ignorant or those who are brazenly stupid. I am glad I had an instrument rating and a fair amount of experience.

One last thing I learned was this: for Heaven’s sake, get a full and thorough weather briefing that includes all the NOTAMs you can find. Things can go from sublime to insurmountable in just a few minutes. You’re going to need as much information as you can get your hands on.

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

22 Comments

  • I’m thankful you and your family got on the ground and in one piece! With or without instrument experience, I don’t think I would have attempted this flight under the forecast conditions. GA flying is best when it’s fair weather flying. Small planes are frequently ill-equipped for heavy instrument flying, and it sure makes for a miserable trip most of the time! I use my instrument rating as a “get me out of a jam” card, but I don’t plan on flying IFR if I don’t have to.

    • ROCA, thanks for the comment. Yes, there’s no way I would entertain such nonsense today. But this misadventure took place 33 years ago when I possessed more bravado than brains. There were three moments of extraordinary intervention that saved me that I did not mention in the article – something akin to a sixth sense… But the world no longer wishes to hear such things. Peace and safe flying to you and yours, my friend.

  • I would come to some very different conclusions.
    You were single pilot in a borrowed airplane VFR in IMC, penetrating a line of thunderstorms as low as 500 agl, and skirting around a tornado???
    Easy decision for me. Stay on the ground. You were very lucky to have lived to tell the tale!

    • LL,

      Yes, you are correct. I was very fortunate to have lived through that debacle. Looking back on it, I can hardly believe I actually undertook the flight in the first place. Old-age-wisdom dictates that I not even fly single-engine at night anymore, much less try the stunt in the story again. But the truth is, people try to get away with things just as bad or worse almost everyday of the year. But now we have towers everywhere. Obstacles many hundreds of feet tall sticking up all over. Trying to scud run anymore is a death sentence for sure.

  • Dave thank you for sharing. Reading these stories and realizing that a 24,000 hour (!) pilot can make mistakes, only enforces to me, the inexperienced pilot (under 500Hs) how much more I can learn, how much safer I can be, and you have my word, only full briefings from here on out :/)

    Liad.

    • Liad,

      How wise you are to learn from others’ mistakes and going another direction before making them yourself. Although this foible in my professionalism took place when I had but 7,000 hours, I still make plenty of mistakes today. However, I can honestly say that the mistakes I make in this current time will not be caused by recklessness and carelessness – most probably by fatigue and just plain old age.

  • At this point in my life of flying, I won my instructor’s confidence during my last IPC preflight briefing by stating that when it comes to single engine IFR flying I only practice (what I call) Gentlemen’s IFR.

    • After 46 years in aviation, I think I practice what I’d call ‘chickens’ IFR’ when it comes to single-engine airplanes. Actually, it’s been twenty-two years since I last flew IFR in single-engine airplanes. I was fortunate to survive the episode in the six. And that was the last time I ever did anything like that until I got to Alaska. But that’s a whole different story; if you’ve never flown for a living up there you have to hold judgment on taking chances until you do. I would though as a general rule, say that it’s best not to hold to an inflexible agenda when it comes to general aviation. But people take these kinds of chances even today. Much more dangerous now than 33 years ago… In the last 46 years I’ve had seventeen friends and acquaintances that I know of die in general aviation airplanes. I was one of the fortunate ones who didn’t run out of luck – or blessings if you want to call them that. Fly safely.

  • Nothing personal, but stories like this show how pilots end up becoming statistics. Had a bad start, made it through, and then did it AGAIN.

    • SOTG,

      Yes, you’re right. But it happens still today. Hard to believe… The risk factors are always changing – increasing or decreasing as you travel each mile. How can you mitigate the dangers – don’t fly at all, or perhaps just try to leave yourself outs as you go? I cross the country, back-and-forth, several times each month. I hear ELTs sounding their incessant alarms on almost every flight; many of them are authentic in their inanimate broadcasts for help and assistance. People are down somewhere; people are hurt – perhaps fatally. How many of them simply were not able to eliminate the risks?

  • I’m curious as to if a Six with modern avionics, moving map GPS, Sat or ADSB weather, etc. would have helped or hindered the decision to keep flying? I’m a VFR pilot and I was asked to help ferry a Warrior 1800miles to its new owner. The other pilot is a very experienced IFR guy. I jumped at the chance, and logged lots of time without having to pay for it! That said, I was extremely impressed with the in-cockpit weather. At one point a “pop up IFR” clearance was granted that got us through a front and another time the weather information made the decision to put it on the ground an easy one.

    If you had GPS and in cockpit weather, do you think you would have made the same decisions to keep going?

  • Robert,

    I believe I can honestly say that having GPS aboard would not make that much difference today. Maybe it would have back then, I don’t know. What WOULD make a difference is time – as in years – as in wisdom… Having GPS aboard means that the flight would have taken place in the last few years. I have more wisdom now than I did 33 years ago. GPS or no, I would not complete the flight today under the same circumstances (weather conditions) that I had back then. Today, I would turn around and return to Savannah, Georgia to wait out the storms. As for the second day, I don’t think I will ever fly in very low IFR conditions in single-engine airplanes again; it leaves no out in case something goes wrong.

    • More to the point, do you think that having the information right in front of you, in the form of digital weather and airport information would have been helpful? I believe it would have and does now. A lot of the weather and airport info you neglected to pay attention to would be right in front of you either on the cockpit glass or an iPad, etc. It’s hard to ignore or wish away when it’s at your fingertips. You hoped it would get better and pushed on. Today the display would have indicated long before entering the IMC that it was a poor choice. I’m thinking any sane person would tie it down faced with not prognostication but reality.

      • Robert,

        I’m sure the additional information which today’s technology offers would have helped me see the reality (in real time) of what I was facing at that time. And it would have helped me in making decisions about how and where to abort the mission. There’s no doubt about that. But without hard numbers to define an ‘abort barrier’, how does one know WHEN enough is enough? Now, the question here is not about me and this featured article. I learned from my experience, and I’ve had a good, safe career for 33 years afterwards. No more scud running, no more low IFR in single-engine general aviation airplanes for me. But what about those younger people who are emerging today – you know, the ones with a few hundred hours under their belts who are starting to feel pretty confident? Will all that in-cockpit technology help them make the right decisions and abort before they get in too deep with weather? Or will it give them a false sense of security and urge them to push bad situations to the point where nothing will extract them from disaster? Those are the questions. SJ Morgan touched on the key when he mentioned risk management and aeronautical decision making. I believe those are the important aspects. Pilots with thousands of dollars worth of high-tech avionics that give them tons of information continue to plow into the ground at alarming rates. WHEN do you give up the game, and HOW do you inculcate into new pilots this knowledge and ability to always make the right choices – even if those choices spell failure and disappointment? Does it begin with teaching new students that little airplanes are wholly unreliable when it comes to dependable transportation? I don’t know; you tell me.

  • Ok, so we have a professional, air transport rated pilot who eschews a proper briefing (when low ceilings and T storms are indicated, go figure), and doesn’t file an IFR flight plan, which would have given him plenty of warning of the weather, along with positive navigation flying the airways, ensuring adequate terrain clearance, delivering him to the final approach for his selected airfield. And, he did this for a 3 day trip.

    The pilot had everything he needed to make this a trip that would have been safe, and uneventful (my favorite sort of trip).

    The problem here is not the single engine aircraft, or lack of a GPS. This was a poor risk management decision from a pilot who should have known better.

    I doubt that there is a pilot who doesn’t know someone who ran out of fuel, altitude, air speed, or ideas while scud running when they could have been on an IFR flight plan, or safely on the ground, at the airport cafe or hotel restaurant, enjoying a nice steak.

  • SJ,
    Yep, that’s about the size of it. It happened 33 years ago; it’s happening today; it’ll happen again in the future. As an aviation instructor and mentor, how would you instill in your students and charges a more professional approach and attitude that would prevent them from getting into situations such as the one in the story? Have you ever pushed a worsening situation too far, or almost too far? You have to let your students get their feet wet, so-to-speak, with weather. But what would you do to engrave in them an indelible line that they’ll not cross when it comes to decision-making processes? The FAA recommends adopting hard numbers so far as ceilings, winds, and visibilities are concerned, but those numbers vary from pilot to pilot depending on experience levels. What may be routine for one pilot may be a crisis for another. Your job is to ensure the inexperienced pilot lives to gain the experience. How would you do that?

    • How does it go?
      “Good decisions come from wisdom,
      Wisdom comes from experience,
      Experience comes from bad decisions,
      Experience like this I don’t need”.

  • Dave – thanks for your post and various responses here in this thread.

    To answer your question, how do we get new pilots to fly safe? the answer is not simple, but I believe it is straight forward.

    Flight instructors must first be schooled on teaching their students how to recognize and then manage flight risks to maintain a margin of safety at all times. The CFIs also need to teach students how to evaluate their own attitudes towards flight risk. Then recommend students for continued flight instruction as well as for the check ride only if they exhibit a safe risk-sensitive attitude, and not just focus on evaluating the students’ mechanical flight skills. If we did all that in primary flight training, then we’d produce safer pilots. Not perfectly safe pilots, but safer.

    None of the flight instructors I’ve ever experienced understood well the concepts of recognizing and then managing flight risks as Richard Collins teaches it. You can’t just tack on a few hours of risk management in a PP curriculum, however … these flight risk management skills must be understood well by the CFI and be integrated overtly into every single ground school lesson and flight lesson.

    For pilots who already have our tickets, it would be worthwhile for the FAA to produce an online course in flight risk management that, when passed, would qualify as the one hour of ground instruction required for the BFR (that would save us money as well as time and of course, help us improve flight safety).

    Then CFIs should be required to apply flight risk management techniques as part of the required BFR flight instruction. An hour of such flight instruction every two years isn’t much, of course. But it’s better than nothing, which is the norm now.

    Doing the obligatory touch’n go landings, steep turns, and stall series in a BFR is also helpful, so I don’t recommend ditching those elements … but the CFIs should also spend at least half their air time working on scenarios with pilots that involve making informed risk management decisions (involving weather, traffic, the airworthiness of both the pilot and aircraft, fuel management, airport pattern work, etc.). Teach pilots how to add up all the risk factors and recognize when our margin of flight safety is dangerously close to zero.

    • Duane,

      I believe you and SJ Morgan are thinking alike and correctly. The topic is ‘Flight Risk Management.’ I believe the questions are: How to teach it, how to learn it and use it, how to recognize that you, YOU, are actually involved in it whether you realize it or not. I got my CFI ratings re-instated three years ago after many years of dormancy, and in the course of doing so I noted that the FAA has really been pushing risk management for several years. However, the topic was never broached during the time I spent at the flight school – by anyone – students or instructors. This was a very active school with many students passing through per month. How many other schools are neglecting this elephant in the room?

  • Duane,

    You mentioned a short trip to Alaska where you saw the other side of flying in marginal weather, I’m sure. All I can say is that I’m very, very happy … and very lucky … to have learned to fly in Alaska!

    • Duane, yes, I was furloughed from my company for a couple of years in the early 90s after the Gulf War started… I flew almost one year in Alaska. And that was enough to get the basic idea of what Alaska flying is all about. There’s not much – if anything – in the lower ’48’ that can compare to it. As you already know, it’s a different world. Are you still up there?

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