An old story that happened yesterday

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.

nav/com
COM 1 failed – no problem. Surely COM 2 won’t quit too?

“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.

clouds
It’s marginal VFR, but the forecast looks good. Is it good enough for a NORDO flight?

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.

hole in clouds
A hole in the clouds, but can you get on top?

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.

14 Comments

  • On a rescue run last year we flew a couple hours north of Minneapolis on a cold, clear day. Even though we were motivated, and moving quickly, we still got out a few minutes later than anticipated. On the way back, the initially clear sky to the sun had a bit of haze in front of it. We flew towards what ended up being a wall of low visibility, SFC-FL100+.

    Initially visibility was still serviceable, 6 mi. or so, so we dropped down a couple thousand feet where the visibility was better. At some point, it started to snow. I was over halfway home (on a 2 hr trip), but I still should have deviated and parked it at one of the airports that was nearby. At some point I acquired the state highway that ran right past my airport. How did I know? The same way you did: I could read the signs on it.

    As I continued, in contact with ATC the whole way, they advised that the airport I was going to was closed to VFR traffic, as visibility was now 2 mi., but might clear in a few minutes. They advised me to remain clear of the delta. It was about now that I recalled the procedure for Special VFR, but also that my instructor had told me that if I ever needed to ask for it, I was already in plenty of trouble. In trouble, but also with a way out.

    As I was requesting Special VFR, visibility at the airport went up to 3 mi., just -barely- legal for VFR traffic. My wife pointed out the airport on the left as the runway lights fired up at full intensity, and I switched to tower just in time to get cleared in direct.

    Photos from the ground show the prop blast clearing a track behind the airplane, and telling me that there was way too much snow for me to have been flying in.

    As you said: I got lucky, I learned something, and I’m never going to do it again. The conversation with my instructor wasn’t comfortable, but not as bad as being up there, wishing I was down here.

  • A story well told. I too have been “owned” for three years by a Skylane RG. I tell people I have learned more about flying in the past three years than all the years before. Isn’t it amazing how you can sometimes talk yourself into doing something unwise with an airplane? Someone once called it the “inner knucklehead”. I think as pilots our first priority has to be controlling that inner knucklehead. It is always better to be on the ground wishing you were flying than it is to be flying and wishing you were on the ground.

    • “inner knucklehead” – I like that, says it well.

      I’ve had a knucklehead moment, as I think all pilots have had at one time or another whether they’re honest enough to admit it or not.

      I’ve had 2 actually, although not nearly as severe or dramatic as Mark’s. Neither time were my passengers, or anyone else, aware at all, but in retrospect I knew and I certainly learned from both.

      Thanks to Mark for being humble enough to share his so we can all learn from his experience.

  • The late (and IMO, great) Russell Ackoff was fond of pointing out that people can’t learn anything by doing things right, only by making mistakes from which the error of their ways can be discerned and repaired. From the tone of your narrative, it appears you haven’t yet figured out what you did wrong or why you chose to do it in the first place or the extent to which you represented a hazard to yourself and others while so engaged. It also appears that you’re unaware of the body of knowledge surrounding risks and methods of risk mitigation in aviation, a condition that is often fatal to the unaware.

    To start on the path to remediation, I’d suggest you start by pretending to be a wise and knowledgable flight instructor and a pilot (not your student) comes to you with the tale you described in your article and asks “What did I do wrong, and what should I have done instead and why? Write out your sage advice in as much detail as possible with emphasis on what should have been done to deal with the conditions of the flights and why those actions would have been a better choice. Only by digging into the details of the hazardous conditions and making a sincere effort to understand and avoid similar situations in the future will you become a safer and better pilot!

    • Dear Mr. Bumsted:

      Thank you so much for your comments and the other comments to this post. I sincerely appreciate everyone’s time and thoughts.

      I felt compelled to respond to you specifically because I agree with the tenor of your comments and have always heeded it. I also want to put on the record some other facts about this flight.

      I agree that it is critical to constantly evaluate your performance after every single journey. I have always done that.

      I can say with pride out of approximately 215 legs I have two flights I marked as perfect: planning, preflight, communication, takeoff, climb, cruise, descent, approach, landing, taxi at both ends and tie down. Both were IFR flights, one included an approach to minimums in Bloomington IL (BMI).

      Every other flight there was something to work on.

      On this flight there were significant lessons. For brevity, they were not spelled out explicitly.

      They were:

      1.) New personal minimum: NORDO should never be attempted in marginal conditions. Period.
      2.) While I have successfully guarded against external pressures in the past, the internal pressure I tried to describe was something different and unexpected. I talked myself into doing something stupid for really no other reason then ego.
      3.) Test your back up equipment in flight. My handheld I had tested at airports and on local flights but not in cruise. The connection to the external antenna was improper and not working.
      4.) Don’t fixate. Also edited out of the piece was that when trying to find current weather on the intermittent radio, I strayed near Gary (GYY) class D airspace. When the stress hits the fan, remember to scan.
      5.) It is possible to work out a plan with ATC in this situation. I could have telephoned South Bend Approach or the Chicago FSDO and worked out a way to get the aircraft to Rochelle with partial radio on a ferry premit. I don’t know for sure how they would have handled it but I could have tried that. It never occurred to me.

      I would also like to mention for the record that while I am very low time at 504.3 hours when this happened, I was and am instrument current and proficient. Just the week before this flight I had passed my Flight Review with flying (heh) colors.

      Also, my aircraft is extremely well equipped. It has active traffic and a fantastic auto pilot I know well. I was completely capable of doing a 180 to safety by hand or by autopilot. On this flight I was in cloud two times without a clearance for a total time of less than 30 seconds. I was reaching for the heading bug when the hole opened.

      I also have a MFD with a current obstruction database that I was closely monitoring, and I never went below 500 feet AGL.

      At the risk of sounding like I am minimizing my errors – which I most certainly don’t want to do – striking an obstruction or a mid air collision with an aircraft not operating with a transponder near Chicago Class B were the hazards I invited through my errors.

      The fact that they were possible, however unlikely, because of my faults caused me to write the article and reflect for a significant time on how I allowed it to happen. I discussed the incident with my chief flight instructor the day it happened, 5 pilots at Rochelle, and my avionics tech who is a pilot and instructor for two hours on the car ride to Clow.

      I am hopeful that what my version of the Old Story reveals is that what Dan L. called the “inner knucklehead” and I called the antagonist is a powerful pressure point. I can’t believe I let him fly the plane by allowing the thoughts of “a real pilot could make this flight” sway me.

      I am a real pilot, although a very green one. I won’t stand that question again.

      As it turned out, the problem was caused by my PS Engineering Audio Panel. An internal short was intermittently knocking out the radios. I have flown the plane round trip to Philadelphia and Atlanta by way of Murphreesboro, TN since. Hopefully, the problem will stay fixed.

      Now if I can just get the oil pressure gauge to stop leaking….

      Again, many thanks.

      Sincerely,

      Mark Fay

  • Mark:

    It is good that you’re debriefing your flights and looking for ways to make future flights more secure. Such practices will serve you well as you gain experience and flight time. There is that old saying – “Sharpening the blade of skill on the stone of experience.”

    Safety in aviation largely revolves around the notion of risk, how best to mitigate it starting with risk awareness across the three major domains: (1) the flight environment including all the infrastructure and administrative support mechanisms; (2) the airworthiness, capabilities and features of the aircraft; and, of course, (3) the readiness and preparedness of the pilot. The pilot’s task in planning and conducting flights is to identify all the risks across all three domains prior to the flight and then to select and implement mitigation strategies. Identified risks, run through a process of unemotional assessment/evaluation and paired with appropriate mitigation strategies, lead to risk management or risk control.

    In many instances, risk mitigation involves simply avoiding potentially hazardous conditions rather than engaging and conquering with skill and daring. It is good to know how to engage and conquer should conditions absolutely require it, but it is usually better to simply avoid the risk in the first place. Take fuel as an example. It is good to know how to top the tanks in a high wing plane, the power settings that minimize fuel consumption enroute, to carefully plan for best glide airspeed while looking for a landing spot in case of fuel exhaustion, and all such things, but it is far better to simply carry ample fuel supplies and land at intermediate airports to refuel so that such heroics are unnecessary. Many accident reports have been published where the pilot flew past several airports only to run out of fuel a few miles short of the intended destination – not good and mostly avoidable if only different mitigation strategies had been selected!

    It is easy to get lost in all the rhetoric about risk management currently found in aviation literature. There are lots of articles and books on the subject. To bring the topic into focus in terms of the point I’m trying to make, consider a recent accident that occurred near Topeka, Kansas involving a young family of four who perished. The pilot had about the same level of previous flight time as you and had been progressing up the aviation ladder in acquiring ratings for instruments and multi-engine aircraft. Their flight on Easter Sunday was from Scott City in western Kansas to Topeka for a family gathering. The instrument flight plan had a destination of Topeka’s Phillip Billard Municipal Airport close to the downtown area. Weather conditions at the destination were right at minimums and variable. The initial approach was missed, and in the process of going around to set up a second approach to a different runway, control was lost, perhaps through spatial disorientation, and the aircraft and it’s occupants ended up at the end of a debris field at the bottom of a smoking hole – a tragic end to what should have been (and what could have been) a routine flight. You can read about the accident at this link to the NTSB accident report:

    http://dms.ntsb.gov/aviation/AccidentReports/wmyctdagwvgcnlyzze3tlw451/L10282013120000.pdf

    I would urge you to print out the report, settle in an comfortable chair with your favorite adult beverage, visualize yourself in the left seat of that aircraft, on that flight, on that day and under those conditions.

    What went wrong? Well, lots of things, and leaving aside the question of the adequacy and thoroughness of transition training for the aircraft, consider that just a scant 9 miles away is another airport, Forbes Field, that has an ILS approach to a 12,000 foot runway, where the weather was above minimums, and unlike Billard Municipal, no obstructions. It would have been a simple matter to avoid the hazards of an approach to minimums at an airport with multiple obstruction hazards in an airplane with which the pilot had very little familarity. An autopilot-coupled ILS approach at Forbes Field should have been routine and much more likely to end well than the ill-fated choice that was made.

    Flight planning should start with questions such as “What am I trying to accomplish? And Why? And What’s the best way of accomplishing the objectives?” Safety in aviation is characterized as the absence of unmitigated risks. While it is not possible to do away with every single hazard, most of the ones that lead to accidents like the one mentioned above are knowable and manageable before the flight ever leaves the ground. If one can figure out what happened after the fact, why not make it a standard practice to know about obvious hazards ahead of time and avoid the risks?

    Let me close by burdening you with some shopworn but reliable cliches:

    First, never get in a hurry with an airplane (thanks, Aldo)! Take the time to think it through and consider the options and possible consequences. (It’s a way of keeping your antagonist/ego from ever boarding the aircraft.)

    Second, be aware that pilots who crash in bad weather are typically buried in the sunshine three days later. Go at another time or pick another route. Weather systems move and unlike Federal Express, no one absolutely positively has to be anywhere tomorrow.

    Third, recognize that the most important flight you’ll make this year, the one that you want to be sure everything goes according to plan where you bring all your accumulated skills and experience to bear to assure an uneventful outcome – is the next one! It truly doesn’t matter how many flights you’ve successfully completed in the past, how many hours in your logbook or your years of experience. The only flight that matters in terms of your survival is the next one that you conduct.

    Gravity always wins!

  • I’ve been in the habit for years of de-briefing every one of my flights, even local landing practice or sight-seeing flights. When the DE who gave me my private checkride coming up on 41 years ago said, “Now you have a license to learn,” I took it to heart–and I often use that phrase with freshly minted private pilots. But the fact is that you can’t learn unless you analyze what you did right and what you did wrong on virtually every flight. For myself, with umpty ump hours and years under my belt, I still consider myself a student with much to learn.

    I think most of us who’ve been flying for any length of time have similar “old stories”, which we don’t want or have vowed not to repeat. One of mine was an actual zero/zero take-off from Casper, WY–it’s one thing to practice that under the hood with a CFII in the right seat (and I also had my students do that, too), but it’s another thing altogether to do it for real. I have not done another real one, and I will not ever do one again. License to learn.

    We could sit for hours and retell our stories, but the point is to learn from each of them. If you did well, learn from that. If you made a lot of judgmental or stick & rudder mistakes, learn from that. If you forgot to do things, or you did things twice unnecessarily, learn from that. Don’t beat yourself up because of your mistakes, but learn from them, and don’t repeat them. Don’t be too proud of your really good flights, but learn from them, also. License to learn.

    And continue to do what you did here–share your good and not so good flights with others, so that they can also learn. As is often said, we can’t possibly live long enough to make all of the possible mistakes, so it’s valuable to learn from others. License to learn.

    Thanks for your story.

    Cary

  • Wonderful article! This is the type of info that are supposed
    to be shared across the internet. Shame on the search engines for not positioning this publish higher!
    Come on over and visit my website . Thank you =)

    • Hi and Thanks For Asking:

      As it turned out the problem was two fold:

      The push to talk switch on the yoke was intermittently sticking (that blocked the radio traffic);
      and
      the PMA7000 audio panel had a bad circuit board that only impacted certain frequencies.

      They repaired for $240 plus shipping, great service no problem since then.

  • Wow, Mr Fay – beautifully written, enjoyed every word, and a big fat lesson to all of us Aviators to boot!
    Please write more, on any aviation subject you choose (not just scary stuff).
    Fly Safe M8
    Boleropilot
    Oz Drifter Pilot

  • I am low time learning as I go. There is a wealth of knowledge in reading about others experiences also reading the manuals for the avionics (which are much more accessible now). Thanks for the sharing and humble attitude Mark.

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *