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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 protected]

I earned my ticket in October of 2006 at the age of 35. A few months later, in July of 2007, a pilot friend of the family heard I was a new pilot and invited me along to Oshkosh. Even though I had just met Steve, I thought it was an awesome opportunity so of course I said yes. It was my first real flying trip, and it was to Oshkosh (my first time)! I was excited, to say the least. All my training was still fresh in my mind, so I felt like I would make a good co-pilot, and also would learn a lot from this guy who has his own plane. His plan was to fly there and back in the same day. I had a whole 11 hours PIC and not much cross country experience. I didn’t know what I didn’t know.

I met Steve at his hangar for our 7:30 am departure. We departed in his 1970 Cessna172 from the Detroit area (PTK). We headed directly toward Oshkosh, planning to fly over Lake Michigan. I was concerned about visibility and horizon issues over the lake, but felt I wasn’t experienced enough to say anything, and besides, that was an hour away at this point. Steve told me that he wasn’t instrument rated, and I cracked half a smile when he mentioned that, “The plane doesn’t know it’s over water.” His comment was the first of many eye-openers for me. I remember the day was overcast with scattered rain showers over all of Michigan and Wisconsin.

EAA Airventure

Headed to Oshkosh! What could possibly go wrong?

We headed direct to Fond du Lac and flew a west-northwest heading of about 290 degrees at 2,500′ because Steve likes to stay low and enjoy the view. This was in direct opposition to my training, that there is safety in altitude, but Steve blew me off when I mentioned a higher altitude. Steve also thought my idea of flight following was a bad one. He was starting to make me feel like a safety freak. The first half of our flight was uneventful. We did encounter occasional rain showers but ceilings were somewhere above us. (Not hard to do at 1,500′ agl.) After about an hour, we started a climb to gain some altitude for the crossing. (So Steve’s not totally crazy?) We reached the shoreline of Lake Michigan, and looking out over the lake, all we could see was solid haze and clouds.

The forward visibility was nil and there was no horizon to be seen – everything was a gray blob. Steve was not concerned about this, but, without an IFR flight plan, I insisted we turn south and follow the shore of Lake Michigan around to Chicago. Steve reluctantly agreed and as we flew south along the shoreline, storms were popping up everywhere. We got some weather information about a storm heading our way from flight watch, so we stopped at Andrews University (C20) to wait for an approaching thunderstorm to pass. After about an hour, we took off and continued our journey.

The rest of the trip was met with rain showers and dodging thunderstorms but fortunately the ceilings were high enough and we were always good VFR. We spotted many heavy rain showers as we made our way. (Many thanks to the great controllers throughout Wisconsin who helped us pick our way through.) Eventually we made it to Fond du Lac! It was about 11 am by now, and we parked the plane and filled out our fuel card and attached it to the prop. We hopped on the shuttle bus and headed to the fun!

Our day at Oshkosh was fantastic. The storm clouds finally parted and it was hot and sunny. We saw as much as we could have, and around 5 pm we started back to the airport for a departure. The shuttle bus took quite a while, and, when we reached our airplane, we found it was never fueled. Before we could get fueled, another rainstorm rolled in. It wasn’t until after 8 pm when we finally fueled up and departed for home, with clear skies and a beautiful setting sun at our backs.

We headed eastbound over Lake Michigan, which was a mutual decision — the last storm had departed the area and the skies were clear and beautiful. We climbed up to 7,500′. There were some scattered clouds way down below but we were in severe clear. At the show, I had bought a Garmin 496 with Nexrad weather (after the morning flight, I had to have it.) We were watching it paint plenty of weather ahead of us, over mid-Michigan. Initially we were thinking of staying high and maybe flying over the weather all the way to Detroit, or we felt we could pick our way around the weather. While we were humming along discussing our options, we never gave any thought to daylight, but the sun was quickly dipping down and would soon leave us in the dark. If we had considered the time change, we would have realized that it was really working against us, having left at 8 pm Central Time which was 9 pm Eastern Time, and we would be flying in the dark for most of our trip.

It kept getting a bit darker every minute, which didn’t seem to bother either one of us until it happened: instant, complete, total darkness over Lake Michigan. It was like the lights were turned off and we were caught by surprise. I know that sounds silly; that it got dark and it surprised us, but with our location, over probably the midpoint of Lake Michigan, we had no lights or horizon to reference out of the windows. Steve was flying and after a brief discussion we decided to start a descent to make sure we would be below the upcoming clouds that we knew were out there before reaching them.

Lake Michigan at night

Over the lake, at night, with clouds. Not a good place to be VFR.

Sometime during our descent, I realized we were making a shallow right turn and at that moment we were heading southwest, back toward the middle of the lake instead of toward the eastern shoreline. One look at Steve and I instantly realized he was nervous and disoriented. A sick feeling came into my gut. I asked him about our heading and he was confused. Right away, I knew I could not count on him to bring this flight to a safe conclusion, and internally I visualized we were writing the beginning of an NTSB report. I decided right then and there that I would break the accident chain and take charge of the situation. I asked Steve if I could take the plane, and he said sure. We couldn’t see anything out the window. It was pitch black.

I decided we needed to get on the ground as soon as possible and get ourselves together. I contacted Muskegon approach and asked for vectors for landing. I descend to 2,500′ MSL to ensure we would be below any clouds and trudged along. I told myself to make a video game out of the situation and used the artificial horizon, altimeter and the GPS to keep us on course to MKG and maintain my altitude. Fortunately it was easy to do as there was no turbulence. In fact, it was eerily smooth. I kept thinking about my wife and child at home and was determined to keep it together even though the windows were filled with blackness and I knew the water was below us.

The controller told us there were thunderstorms east of Muskegon, but we should be able to beat them to the airport. The minutes went by slowly and then finally it happened — lights came into view. The pressure instantly lifted as we began to make out the shore lights. We brought it in safely to Muskegon. Of course, on short final the landing light blew out to top off our night! We landed with few minutes to spare as the thunderstorm rolled over the airport and the rain started when we tied down the plane. We waited in the FBO for at least an hour, but the storm wouldn’t budge so we called for a hotel room and stayed the night.

We finally got to bed around midnight. I was exhausted, but I didn’t get any sleep. On this trip, I was lulled into a sense of safety because I was with an “experienced” pilot. I thought he would personify everything I had learned in training to be a pilot. I’m sure Steve’s no dummy, but I don’t fly like he does. At the time, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I’ve done a lot of flying since then and I’m always trying to learn more. I’m almost ready for my Instrument written test. I learned a lot on that trip, and I’ve made several long cross country trips since then. Funny, I haven’t seen or spoken to Steve since.

Frank Christopher
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18 replies
  1. DC
    DC says:

    Thanks for sharing! That’s pretty terrifying. I think it’s great how you decided to take control of the situation and be the PIC.

    Whenever I take a trip as a passenger, even with well-trusted, more experienced friends I still get my own weather briefing.

  2. Chris Tarbell
    Chris Tarbell says:

    Excelent read. I can see how being a new-bee flying with an experienced pilot can present a problem like that. Glad everything worked out ok!

  3. ken
    ken says:

    One of the best things my instructor did when I was working on my PPL was make me take-off and fly out over the gulf of mexico at night. He showed me that even though I was VFR legal, it would be a very dangerous thing to do without adequate instrument training and expierence.

    Another comment: Later when I got my instrument rating, about the hardest thing for me to master was flying the plane while communicating with ATC. I therefore resolved early in my instrument training that I would get a flight following every time I flew as PIC. This helped me learn to communicate effectively much faster than I would have otherwise.

  4. Frank Christopher
    Frank Christopher says:

    Great comments, thanks for enjoying my article. Indeed, flying over water at night is never really VFR. That never came up in my training! A pilot certificate really is a “license to learn”!

  5. John Swallow
    John Swallow says:

    Frank: What a story to share. And what a learning experience. I told my son when he was learning to fly that you’re allowed to make every mistake in the book once; just don’t make a habit of repeating them. The two of you learned a valuable lesson from an initial mistake and kudos have to go to both of you; to you, for having the insight to realize that the flight was in imminent danger and to your pilot, for having the humility to realize that he was in trouble and agreeing to hand over control.

    I hope your subsequent flying has not been as “interesting”… (;>0)


  6. Duane
    Duane says:

    Frank – Interesting and very thought provoking story. Very good that you thought to offer to take over as PIC with an unnerved pilot in the left seat. The tendency to defer to the more experienced pilot is understandable, but not always the correct thing to do.

    One time I was flying right seat with a friend and co-worker on a business trip. I had recently gotten back into aviation after a 30 year hiatus, so my flight skills were not top notch. My friend’s college-age daughter and a friend of hers were in the rear seats of the Bonanza A36, as they’d come along to experience the night life in “music city” (Austin, TX). After our overnight stay was completed the following afternoon, with low broken clouds having finally lifted to barely-VMC ceilings, we launched for the return trip. Neither the PIC nor I were IFR rated.

    Not long after the climb-out began from Austin-Bergstrom, we were suddenly maneuvering in the steep and narrow cloud canyons looking for a clear path to blue. Neither I, nor apparently, my much more experienced friend (with over 1,000 flight hours in his logbook) seemed to realize that he was already “illegal”, since “VFR over the top” requires a IFR-rated PIC when carrying passengers. My knuckles started to whiten as we twisted and turned to stay out of the clouds. After a moment or so, I suggested, in as calm a voice as I could muster, that perhaps this would be a good time to engage his autopilot in case we entered cloud.

    He declined.

    Then I started to ponder what I would do if/when he entered a cloud.

    Eventually our zig-zag flight path, spent looking for daylight, finally paid off … before we actually entered any clouds (though we came close several times!). We were able to find a cruising altitude between two solid cloud layers .. though at one point we had to climb to 12,500 ft MSL to clear the lower layer. Eventually we reached clear skies on our westward flight path. But I never forgot that feeling of helplessness that I had as we were dodging clouds and knowing that we had no business being there, especially with those two kids in the back.

    I also found myself wondering at what point I might have INSISTED that my more experienced VFR-only friend engage his autopilot to at least keep the wings level.


    1 – If you’re a licensed pilot, do not rely on another licensed pilot to be the sole weather analyst and go-no go decision maker when it’s YOUR butt on the airplane seat (re: ditto DC’s response above)

    2 – Before any two-pilot flight begins, discuss with the planned PIC the conditions or scenarios under which it might be necessary to either turn over controls (re: Frank’s scenario) or at least share the decision-making (re: autopilot engagement, in my scenario). After all, ANYBODY can get disoriented or lose confidence or get in over their head – we’re all humans, and two heads are better than one. So talk about it before going wheels-up and resolve any “what if” decisions that might come up whenever there are two qualified pilots on the flight deck. The formal name for this understanding is “crew resource management”.

    • Frank Christopher
      Frank Christopher says:

      Things like this make it easier to see how small planes end up on the news. It’s so easy to go off script if you will, and end up in tricky situations. I try to fly very conservatively so as to avoid any…

    • Steven
      Steven says:

      ‘Neither I, nor apparently, my much more experienced friend (with over 1,000 flight hours in his logbook) seemed to realize that he was already “illegal”, since “VFR over the top” requires a IFR-rated PIC when carrying passengers.’

      I can’t find any regulation that requires that for a part 91 operation. Can you point me in the right direction?

      • Duane
        Duane says:

        Steven – actually, you are correct, and my statement above was not correct. The IFR-rated pilot and aircraft requirement is for commercial ops, not Part 91.

        This one falls under the category of “legal but stupid”.

  7. rick
    rick says:

    Great Story. I have seen pilots with many hours make mistakes.

    I have a private SEL license with an Instrument rating. anytime I am flying in the left seat with another pilot in the right seat – I always ask them to speak up if they notice me doing anything stupid or if they have any suggestions on the task at hand. I also typically hand over the flying to them once on course for several reasons
    1) it quickly lets me asses their skill level so I know how much to rely on them as well as getting their head in the game.
    2) it allows me to spend some time programming(g1000, ipad tasks, checking destination freq, pattern alt. etc.
    3) I can monitor closest airports, weather conditions, look for traffic and communicate with ATC.

    when I don’t have another pilot in the right seat I use the autopilot more often – even if not armed, it is ready to take over straight and level flight if needed.

  8. Cary Alburn
    Cary Alburn says:

    Pilots’ skill levels are as varying as the stars in the sky, so just because a pilot has his/her own airplane or has X hours in his/her logbook doesn’t necessarily equate to skill. I’ve known excellent low time pilots and crappy high time pilots. I’ve known owners who baby their airplanes and others who beat the daylights out of them.

    Thanks for sharing your story–you’re not the first to be lulled into a sense of complacency by someone who was thought to be better by experience. Been there, done that, scared the bejeebers out of me–never again. Bet it doesn’t happen to you again, either, right?

  9. Richard Warner
    Richard Warner says:

    The moral of this story is know the guy you go flying with. As for old Steve, I hope the reason you haven’t seen or spoken to him since this flight isn’t because he punched a hole in mother earth, especially with some poor unsuspecting soul.

  10. Joel Godston
    Joel Godston says:

    You said it ALL Frank….After 55 plus years of flying with some ‘interesting’ flying to and from AirVenture… in the Air Force flying B-47’s etc…Air National Guard flying F-86H’s, etc,…and then flying a Cessna 182 for 10 plus years… Excellent comments from those who have comments…Thanks!

  11. Keith
    Keith says:

    Amazing story, and one I think we can all relate to in one way or another. You can also be lulled into a false sense of security if the person in the right seat is an experienced CFI. A CFI I had once almost killed us both while we were doing spin training, inadvertently entering a steep dive and greatly exceeding Vne. We sheepishly joked about it and promptly landed. But, that was the last flight I ever took with him; never heard from him again.


    Nice piece – I am thankful for the info ! Does anyone know if my company would be able to get ahold of a template PA PGCB-PAPHD-PNWL copy to use ?

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