It was a dark and stormy night. Sounds like the opening line of a bad novel, but the night of May 24, 1996, was dark and stormy as we rocked our way in a Cessna 172 from St. Louis to Cincinnati Lunken. We pushed the envelope beyond reason and might not have seen the dawn except for a piece of luck that arrived at precisely the right instant.
The chain of events, as the NTSB likes to say, began innocently as I closed my briefcase at 1:00 that Friday afternoon after having spent a hard week in St. Louis finishing a deal. I felt as if I should reward myself.
I called a friend with whom I occasionally flew to see if he would be willing to fly my part-owned 172 to St. Louis so I could left-seat it home. David ran a charter business with a Navajo as well as a small-plane maintenance operation, which included maintaining the 172. He happened to be in our hangar and said he’d be glad to bring the plane to St. Louis. His ETA was 4:00. I happily cancelled my airline reservation.
The wind had started to blow out of the northwest during the afternoon, and was blowing in earnest when David landed somewhat after 5:00. No significant weather and the ride was not bad, he reported. Just slow.
Our 172 was well equipped for instrument flying by 1996 standards. Dual flip-flop King nav/coms, a KLN 90B GPS, a good autopilot, a Stormscope Wx-1000, and an ADF. We were both current on instruments and in the airplane. The sky was clear and we would have a great tailwind. What’s not to like (except for the sigmet)?
After refueling, David held the left wing strut against the wind while I climbed in to get the engine started. When I unpinned the control column, it jerked left and right, forward and backward, trying to wrest itself free from my grip. The rudder pedals pulsated against my feet. I was already fighting the weather. A harbinger of things to come.
I arm-wrestled the 172 downwind to the run-up area trying not to do a Lomcevak. The wings rocked and the controls continued fighting me as I went through the pre-takeoff checklist and gingerly taxied into position. A probable record: Shortest takeoff by a fixed-winged aircraft since Doolittle lifted off the Hornet in 1942.
We climbed to 7,000 per our clearance in clear, smooth air. We had a bodacious ground speed and were all smiles.
Billowy broken clouds soon showed up, but nothing unusual. In and out with a few bumps. Following Center’s suggestion, we diverted south for ten minutes to avoid some precip. After turning back toward Cincinnati, the puffies got taller. But there was only light turbulence with occasional light rain. The attention-getter, though, was the rapidly falling barometer.
As we popped out of a cu, I saw an ominous-looking line not far ahead. David thumbed the mike and asked if Center had any suggestions left or right. He did not. That might have been a good time for us to consider a 180. But it was still daylight, the Stormscope was not indicating anything significant in the line, we saw no lightning, and we still had that blistering tailwind.
The turbulence in the line was noticeably worse than in the previous buildups, and the rain was heavier. We went to 9,000 to see if the ride was any better. It wasn’t. Center gave us ten, even though it was not a normal altitude for our direction of flight. No better, and that was max for the 172.
Then the up and down drafts came on strong in heavy rain with occasional lightning. The turbulence was “rough” (my category just below “rough as a cob,” followed by “didn’t know it could get this rough”). Darkness had quickly enveloped us. Nothing was visible outside except the wings and prop when they were erratically illuminated by stuttering lightning.
Our airspeed decayed rapidly as I fought to hold 10,000 against the downdrafts. “Can’t hold ten! Ask for a block.” Center immediately gave us seven-to-ten. It was a bumpy rollercoaster, but I managed to stay within the block.
A biz jet at FL 320 came on frequency. Said he was in severe turbulence and asked for vectors to a suitable airport. While Center was deciding where to send him, he called again and asked urgently, “Is that an airport right below us?” The controller said it was, identified the airport and runway length for the pilot, and asked for the pilot’s intentions: “We’re going to land there RIGHT NOW!”
Bizjets were bailing out. But we in our mighty 172 chugged on undaunted. Well, maybe a little daunted. But not enough to pull the plug as Louisville slipped beneath us with an inviting light occasionally blinking through tiny holes.
The Stormscope showed a sizeable line of thunderstorms northwest of Cincinnati moving toward the city. I judged that the line would arrive in the Cincinnati area about the same time as we would. Do a precautionary landing in Louisville? We should have, but didn’t.
We were handed off to Cincinnati Approach a few miles southwest of Greater Cincinnati Airport. As disquieting as the weather had been up to this point, it was just a warm-up. Thor welcomed us the big leagues as we plowed into the new line.
The turbulence instantly leapfrogged from “quite rough” to “didn’t know it could get this rough.” It was constantly “rough as a cob,” but was catapulted to top honors by a terrific separate jolt about every 15 seconds. Lightning was constant. The rain was peel-paint heavy.
Then things really got crazy. Suddenly there was a brilliant God-awful flash-bang that took the electric system off-line. I thought the plane had exploded. After an eternity of four or five seconds, the lights and electronics re-lit. I quickly looked around and intercomed,
“Everything looks normal.” I said.
“Yeah. Looks great. Keep going.”
Within a minute or so, the heart-stopping FLASH-BANG, go-black happened again. After not breathing for five seconds, everything re-lit. And that became the “New Normal,” although every time it happened I wondered how much of this the electric system could take.
Approach advised us to expect the backcourse approach to runway 3R at Lunken, and advised that Greater Cincinnati was closed to all traffic due to weather. Oh, wonderful. Even Delta is on the ground.
The backcourse MDA was about 550 feet higher above the TDZE than the front course ILS. That could be an important difference depending on ceiling and visibility at decision time. Should we ask for the ILS? No. That would require considerably more flying in this muck.
Cleared for the approach, I got the airplane centered on the localizer with about 20 degrees of crab into the northwest wind, but immediately drifted to the right. I clawed back to the localizer and put in more crab. Still not enough. It took about 50 degrees of crab to get stabilized.
At the “missed” decision point. We look up. Nothing. David said, “I don’t see anything.”
“Neither do I.”
He pressed the mike button and I started adding power, “We’re going missed… NO, WAIT! I SEE THE AIRPORT!” he said.
I had never heard such beautiful words. At the last possible instant, we had flown into a clear hole. This was exactly the piece of luck (or miracle if you prefer) that we needed, precisely when we needed it.
The ground lights were beautiful, as only salvation can be. But ragged clouds brushed the hills all around us. What I didn’t see was an airport.
“No. Over here,” David said as pointed out his right side window. It’s really weird to be on final with the runway at two o’clock.
Approach handed us off to tower. He seemed as relieved as we were, although that’s hard to imagine. Tower gave us an immediate, “Cleared to land three right,” just as a brilliant three-pronged lightning bolt simultaneously hit the hills on the north, east and west sides of Lunken. A spectacular greeting card and a warning that Thor was still out there.
As we descended below MDA, the tower operator said in an encouraging voice, “I see your light. Keep it coming. Keep it coming. You’re doing great.” He was throwing us a lifeline and reeling us in. I loved it.
Then I made a big mistake by shifting from the crab method to the slip method for crosswind landings, which was my normal crosswind technique. We were crossing the Ohio River a few seconds from the threshold. The bucking 172 rapidly drifted right of the runway despite all of the aileron and rudder I could muster while keeping the airspeed and altitude of the 172 within bounds.
“I can’t hold the runway,” I said to David. I started thinking “go-round.” To his ultimate credit, David said in his usual calm way, “I’ve got it.” This was not the time for him to talk me through a severe crosswind landing. We needed to land if at all possible.
He crabbed us radically back over the runway as we crossed the threshold and flared. Our ground speed was so slow I could have trotted beside the airplane. At the last possible instant before touchdown, he paralleled the nose with the runway and added a hefty amount of left aileron and right rudder. Love those high-wing airplanes. Before the plane could start drifting, David danced the left main on to the runway, then the right followed by the nose wheel. We slowed to taxi speed in a couple of seconds, and he said, “Your airplane.”
I felt like screaming, “That was the best landing I have ever seen!”
The wind fought me every inch of the way to the hangar as the rain pelted and lightning flashed. After shutting down with the nose close to the hangar door to take advantage of the lee, I kept the controls cranked in and the brakes on. David jumped out, got drenched chalking the mains, hurried into the hangar and raised the door. Only after he pulled us into the hangar and rolled the hangar down did I stop “flying the airplane.”
As my feet touched the hangar floor, my legs began to shake. I had to hold on to the wing strut. I had not felt fear during the flight, but in the safety of the hangar, the realization of what we had flown through sank in. I found a chair, sat down and drank water until I stopped shaking. It was a night from hell with many lessons learned. High on the list: Unreasonably pushing the envelope carries great risk. Precautionary landings are good things.