I am lucky to be a pilot, and I am a lucky pilot as well

It was a humid early September evening after a hot day. In Minnesota, that means when it cools off in the evening, the clouds come up, and the thunderstorms start. I hadn’t considered what would be happening later in the evening.

Our club had a 1959 Cessna 172 that I chose to fly to an EAA meeting at a local airport (KLVN). The club is based at KFCM, so this was about a 15-minute flight. It was still VFR when I left at about 6:15 pm, but I could see some clouds to the south. The flight down was easy. After leaving tower frequency, I switched to Unicom and, about five minutes later, I called my position reports as I landed on the single runway.

The meeting was in a hangar about midfield. There were several of us who flew in. The meeting was to visit a Velocity RG one of the club members was building, which was about ready to fly. My plane was about two years from being done, so I found this meeting very interesting: I learned about registration, final inspection and all the last minute things that need to be done on a plane before the first flight.

Scud over airport
Still marginal VFR, right?

My interest led me to stay pretty late. One of the other members who flew in said, “I need to go before it gets IFR.” I thought I’d look outside and see what things were like. It was dark out, and there was light drizzle. “Hmmm…” I thought, “what are the clouds like?” I listened to AWOS, and the clouds were reported at 2300 feet. Things seemed OK still, so I went back in the hangar to ask some more questions, so I would be prepared for my inspection when the time came.

I helped put away chairs and thanked our host. I offered to help with anything else he needed, since I was the last one there. He thanked me for the help cleaning up, and I went off to the plane.

It was starting to rain a little bit harder. More than a drizzle, but nothing that made me think I would be in trouble. AWOS was reporting 1600 feet, so I would be legal flying back. I could get ATIS from KFCM while on the ground at KLVN, and KFCM was reporting a 6000 foot ceiling. It seemed the clouds were going up as I needed to go west.

I fired up the Cessna and taxied to the active runway. I had an uneventful runup. I turned on all the lights, including the strobes that the club had recently added to the plane. I called on Unicom to take the active, and planned to depart to the west.

Pushing the throttle forward, the windscreen cleared of droplets and the runway was clear to see. I was off the runway in about 800 ft and was climbing comfortably. Upon reaching 2100 feet (about 1200 AGL), I thought I would level off and set up for a call to FCM tower.

Just as I switched frequencies, things got real dark, except for the once-a-second flashes from the strobes. The flashes revealed that I was in a solid cloud! I looked down, and it was black or white. I looked ahead – and black or white. I could see white when the strobes flashed and black the rest of the time. Even the landing light wasn’t penetrating this cloud.

I am instrument rated, but not current. I know the right thing to do in IFR conditions, but I wasn’t mentally prepared for this situation. After about 30 seconds, I thought to call approach, admit I am stupid, and have them help get me out of this.

I was mostly locked in on the analog attitude indicator, and probably gripping the yoke for all it was worth. When I turned my focus to the radio to enter the approach frequency I had memorized, I turned one of the digits. When I checked back, I was in about a 10 degree bank. I leveled it out, and changed another digit, then I was in another 10 degree bank.

The Six Pack instruments
Time to focus on that panel, and ignore the flashing strobes.

I had one more digit to go, but I didn’t think I could change it. I looked at the altimeter and I was at about 2200 feet. I thought maybe I could descend a hundred feet and I would be OK. I knew the area, and thought that 1000ft AGL was the minimum safe altitude, so I gave myself that margin. If I didn’t pop out at 1800 feet, I would do that third digit, and call approach.

I pulled some power off and pushed the yoke forward, trying to keep the VSI in the 200-300 fpm descent rate with the wings level. At about 1950 ft, I could see lights below me. I got to 1900 and could see ahead just fine, and the cloud deck was sloping upwards.

Off to the northeast I could see the beacon for KFCM. I switched the radio, picked up the latest ATIS, switched to tower frequency and called in asking for clearance to land. They offered me the long runway, and I rolled it on.

I got everything put away after landing. I carefully drove home, and thought about how lucky I was. Had I not been IFR rated, had the terrain been bad, had I not popped out when I did… I am lucky to be a pilot, and I am a lucky pilot as well.

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