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.
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.
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.
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.
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: email@example.com