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: firstname.lastname@example.org
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.
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.
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.