I knew they were going to die that day

I was not yet a pilot, but when my father lifted off in the Piper Archer with my mother and younger brother on board and quickly disappeared into the low overcast, my mind filled with dread: I knew they were going to die on this flight, and soon.

My parents and brother had flown up from Texas to Minnesota in the rented Archer to visit with my family. After a great, although short, visit, they planned to leave early on a Saturday to be sure they were all ready for work on Monday. On their departure day, however, dawn brought low visibility in mist, and low clouds. Nonetheless, we trekked to the Rochester Municipal Airport to consult with the oracles at the Flight Service Station (yes, we had back then in addition to full tower and radar services, National Weather Service and FSS offices on the field, with their doors opening onto the GA ramp). Much of the discussion between my dad and the FSS briefer was gibberish to me, but I recall hearing the phrase, “VFR not recommended.” I also recall the briefer talking optimistically about the weather soon clearing to good VFR, and about how weather was already clear “just a little ways south in Iowa.”

Hunter Heath II
The author took one last photo of his father and waited anxiously.

Despite the briefer’s cautions, but maybe because of his optimistic additional remarks, Dad decided to load up and “take a look.” I knew enough to realize that he did not have an instrument rating, and the sky looked awfully bad to me. My wife and I helped load the airplane, and dawdled talking to my folks, perhaps subconsciously trying to delay their takeoff. Finally, Dad said they had to get going; I took one last photo of him at the controls of the Archer, they closed the door, and started up. We waited on the ramp as the Archer taxied out for the runup. We watched anxiously as they took off and within 30 seconds disappeared into the cloud deck.

It is hard to describe the desperate feeling that overtook me at that moment. When I looked at my wife, clearly she was feeling a similar anguish about the risk my father was taking by flying into what I later could name as IFR conditions. We waited on the ramp for a time, listening hard until the engine sounds died away. Then we walked slowly to our car, and drove home in silence.

When we got home, my wife busied herself in the kitchen, and I sat morosely by the phone with the television tuned to the local station most likely to break in with the news of the crash. Truly, I expected either to hear on the news or by a telephone call that my folks had perished that day. An hour went by, then another, and another, and I finally got up to deal with household tasks. Only in the late afternoon did the phone finally ring.

To my delight and astonishment, the voice on the phone was my father’s, calling from home in Lubbock, Texas. He related the morning’s events thusly: they flew into cloud far sooner than he expected, so he immediately went on instruments, and instructed my brother—not a pilot but an experienced and engaged passenger—to start looking for holes in the cloud deck. Dad managed to get on top without losing control, then turned on course toward Iowa. After some time, my brother called out that he could see an airport below through thin clouds, so Dad pulled the power, circled down below the now-higher bases, and landed at the unattended airport my brother had seen. My mother and brother were rattled by the experience and glad to be on the ground, someplace in Iowa. Dad found a pay telephone, perhaps on a classic small-airport shack—and called the operator.

When he explained that they had landed because of weather and needed to find a place to stay, she said that the owner of the local Ford dealership was a pilot and she provided his number. Indeed, that gentleman did as pilots do—he said, “Keep yourselves dry, and I’ll be right there!” Shortly, the auto dealer showed up and took them to a motel, then to lunch, where much talk of aviation went on. Back at the motel, settled in for the day, the weather lifted, and after phone calls to FSS, they decided to repack and head for home, arriving uneventfully much sooner than I would have expected.

Dad said that he’d had considerable time flying on instruments during his training (re-training, really; he’d earned pilot’s license in the early 1940s, but flew little after that until starting back in the early 1970s and getting a completely new PPL). He credited that training with saving their bacon, and was motivated by the “VFR into IFR” experience to begin training for the Instrument Rating. I’m not sure he actually earned the rating, though, and by the late ‘70s, health issues intervened and he died in 1979.

Dad’s death at 61 was a major event in my life; my compensation was to work harder than ever. My work productivity in that following year was the greatest of my career, although I was not very happy. Something was missing.

Aviation had been important to me almost from infancy (Mom said my first word was “airplane-o”), and I had been an avid aero modeler until hormonal awakening, girls, and motor vehicles took control of my mind and time. But through medical training, military service, and launching a research career, years went by without my thinking of becoming a pilot. My wife used to say, however, that, “Heath’s wheels always turn onto the airport road.”

I did visit many airports to ogle the parked airplanes and watch operations, but only after Dad’s death did I start to think seriously about flying. My wife was tolerant of my starting ground school, and I think suspected where this would lead. Ground school was terrific, and I fell in love with the idea of flying. Having found an excellent instructor, I approached my wife with some trepidation and asked if she would object if I took flying lessons. She paused about three heartbeats, and replied, “If you sell the motorcycle, I’ll never say a word about your flying.” Sold!

Thus began the great adventure of earning my PPL and instrument rating, owning airplanes, making countless new friends, and becoming deeply involved with the EAA. Aviation became and remains a life passion. My wife’s unwavering support has been critical. But how does this relate to my father’s “VFR into IFR” mistake?

First, that experience made me understand how one’s non-pilot family can be affected by fear of what may happen in flight.  I took my training very seriously, and tried to fly by the rules of physics and the laws of the land. Risk management has been paramount in my flying; that hasn’t prevented me from having great adventures, but I’ve never run out of fuel, flown inadvertently into IFR conditions, or made many of the other possibly fatal mistakes of airmen.

Second, I have tried to make my wife as comfortable as possible with flying. She took nine hours of flight training, and was ready to solo, but decided to stop at that point, satisfied that she understood what I was doing, and that I was going to be a studious and careful airman.

Finally, that experience and my “real weather” IFR experiences convinced me to remain a VFR recreational pilot. Gaining and retaining true Richard Collins-approved proficiency as an instrument pilot would have been a big challenge, given my career demands. I didn’t want to be another doctor who augered in. Now I fly only for fun—I’ve become a “sunny Sunday” pilot, and am happy with that.

So, that’s my story.  It took my father’s heart-stopping mistake, and later his premature death, to bring me fully to aviation. When I fly my old Aeronca Chief now, I often feel Dad beside me, encouraging and reminding and smiling. As the ads say, “Priceless.”

33 Comments

  • Thanks for the story. Your comment about being a “sunny Sunday” pilot has helped me make a decision about getting my IFR rating. I have started the training, but like you feel that I will not be able to keep the proficiency needed to be safe. This helped me decide to quit the training and spend the time and money doing the sunny Sunday flying.

    • Wayne,
      Don’t get me wrong: I believe strongly that getting an instrument rating makes one a better and more capable pilot. Learning “the system,” gaining confidence in flying on the gauges, and flying more precisely are all good outcomes. Even if you intend to be a VFR pilot forever, earning the instrument rating is still worthwhile. I am not sorry I got the rating.

  • Hunter,

    This is a very great story. Even knowing the positive outcome, your photo of your dad is very haunting, given what could have happened.

    Clear Skies.

  • Great job, I enjoyed reading this. No matter the skill level, pilots need to be reminded that there will always be a scenario in which you must take no for an answer.

  • I enjoyed your story very much. Like you I have committed to VFR flying only and stick to the rules that keep me safe. Besides, the shop is warm and dry on those rainy days!
    Have fun and fly safe!

  • Hunter, I am a 22 year old student pilot who lost his father (also a pilot) when he was only 61 as well. Your story really hit home for me, I know exactly how you felt. I too was inspired by my fathers death to push even harder to become a pilot, thank you for sharing your story.

    • Hey Adam, hope all is well. This story hit home for me too. My dad died when he was 61, and also was a great pilot. I was a student pilot when he was sick. I really wanted to get my ppl before he died, but it took a little longer. He would give me great encouragement while was training, and corkey words of advice like ‘the airplane does not know the wind is blowing’. My dad passed away about two months before my check ride. On the afternoon the dpe handed me my very own pilot certification, I said thank you and told him I had to excuse myself for a minute. I walked out of the building with my eyes filling with tears, because in a lot of ways this was for my dad. I know he helped me with that check ride and the training.

  • Thank you for this wonderful and superbely written story. It made me think about my own flying. Like you, I also prefer the sunny days. It is a good thing to know your limits – especially as a pilot. Some of my pilot friends sometimes try to convince me of the benefits of an IFR rating. But the more I think about it, the clearer It seems to me: IFR in a single engine piston with a single pilot involves too many risks for me to take. After all, the best thing about flying is looking out of the window and watching the world from above.

  • Really liked your story. After 20 years as an A&P I finally received my pilots license. With no plans as a career pilot, I enjoy fair weather flying as well. I’ve seen first hand what can happen even with the best of pilots making bad choices. I too have quit riding motorcycles after riding since 4 years old. You get to make your own airplane mistakes, someone else will make your motorcycle mistake for you. I’ve seen that first hand as well. Happy flying!

  • I want to thank each of you for the kind comments about my article. John reminds us now and then that the number of comments is no measure of an article’s goodness or its reach. But as an author, I testify that such warm and thoughtful comments mean a great deal to the writer, and motivate him to work on the next story. And to the commenters: let’s hear from you, too, if you haven’t already written for this fine journal. I have never met an airman who did not have a number of great stories just waiting to be shared.

  • A doctor that isn’t IFR rated and flies a Chief? My kind of doc! I was a Champ flyer for years and flew a Chief while my plane was down for recovering. Good for you for enjoying REAL flying. Yeah, I know I just made all the aspiring airline pilots mad. 🙂

  • Wonderful story. VFR to IFR was in a boomer thermal in an SGS 1-26D, in Hawaii.I was so focused at working the weak to moderate lift wfom burning Sugaecane fields just east of Dillingham Airport on Oahu, that I didn’t notice how close to the base of rapidly building Cumulus clouds I was flying. At about 4,000 AGL, the inside of the glider started to get darker, just as the Variometer needle pinned in a 3,500FPM climb. the moment before things went black, it thought, “crosscheck instruments with the ground, and don’t take your eyes off of them”. I pointed the nose 40 degrees down, deployed full spoilers, and dive brakes,and I was still climbing at 2,500FPM, but was now just below redline. I heard (felt would be more like it), the voice of my decades dead father tell me which is the Ocean, point the aircraft that way. The mountains were to my right, the Ocean was to my left, so I brought the aircraft’s nose, to only ten degrees negative, and headed for the ocean. The airspeed dropped by 30 MPH, while the vario needle was solidly against the pin. What seemed like a minute later, I flew out of the cloud, about five miles offshore, and at 12,700MSL. I dropped to ten thousand, as I had no Oxygen, but flew over Ka’ala ridge, and played up there for several hours. THANKS DAD.

  • Mr. Heath,

    What a great idea you had to give your wife flight lessons. I think that is an excellent idea and you’ve inspired me to interest my wife in the same. Getting up to the solo is an excellent stopping point as the student can safely land at that time. It would help with cockpit resource management as well. Thank you again for sharing this story, it was a great read.

    Sincerely,

    Sean

  • My Dad is a 1953 Embry Riddle grad who encouraged me to polish IFR skills on those sunny Sundays so they’re ready for those less than sunny days. I grew up flying with Dad and in the 90’s we both owned taildraggers(Stinson 108’s) making VFR flying a blast.
    I fully understand the mindset of single pilot/single engine as too risky for weekend pilots. However, with about the same amount of time spent polishing your x-wind wheel landing skills, your IFR skills & risk management strategies can stay sharp too. The latter offers greatly more utility of aircraft use and fun too.
    I’ve been doing single pilot/ single engine IFR flying for 20+ years and had the good fortune to have a CFII mentor. The big change for single pilot IFR ops in recent years is the iPad & Apps like Foreflight, and real time weather(XM) in the cockpit. These items aren’t particularly pricey (Foreflight lowers your chart expense compared to paper) but give pilots easy information access to manage risk. XM weather info allows pilots to avoid IFR conditions that exceed your skill level, or totally stay out of any IFR exposure. If you are flying VFR cross country without cockpit weather then you’re crossing your fingers all the way.
    I enjoy local flying as much as the next guy, and regularly do short/soft field ops. But safely using your airplane for transportation changes everything.

    • Scott,

      No offence meant here, but single engine IFR flying is not for everyone, and if you remove flying in the soup and running out of fuel then more than 90% of GA accidents disappear. My wife flies with me and she asked me not to pursue an instrument rating for just that reason. (She has also taken flying lessons)

      You mentioned earlier that IFR is much easier now with the electronic tools available. I would argue the same is true for VFR pilots as there are many online tools that give you a more complete picture of the weather, over a greater or shorter distance, and for up to 7-days out. There are also tools for your smart phone as well. Crossing your fingers? I don’t think so if you plan your trip properly from the start.

      Here are two of the tools I use all the time
      http://www.nws.noaa.gov/mdl/forecast/graphics/MAV/
      http://graphical.weather.gov/sectors/eastgrtlakesWeek.php?expandweek=ON#tabs

      You mentioned that it doesn’t take any more time to keep IFR proficient then it does to keep tail-dragger proficient, but you failed to mention it costs more to properly equip and maintain your airplane, and it takes as much time and money to become IFR rated as it did to get your PPL in the first place. Add to that the increased likelihood that you will fly in the soup with an IFR rating and the risk-cost vs reward for IFR is not there unless you MUST fly on poor weather days, like a job.

      For me life is too short for that. If I had more funds and more time available I might take a different position.

      • Pete,

        We’ll have to agree to disagree on this one. The point of my note was that with today’s resources for the single pilot, managing the risks of IFR flight make it not just easier to manage – but much safer too.

        What makes IFR flying safer than VFR is 1) traffic separation services are mandatory with IFR, and just on a time available basis for VFR, 2) IFR requires a greater level of pilot awareness & somewhat sharper skills – making the pilot safer. That’s it.

        I am familiar with the accident stats, and for my 40+ years running out of gas always been the leader. What does that say about us as aviators? If you look at the #’s for IMC accidents you will find very few are IFR rated pilots who are current/proficient. Most of VFR in IMC affairs. This figure makes my point – IMC skills will keep you safer than disregarding them.

        Keeping an airplane right side up in the soup takes some practice, but I put it in the same category as running out of gas. If you pay a little attention you’ll be fine.

        I am fortunate to have the resources and a supportive wife. Yes it costs more to equip an airplane for IFR, but most VFR airplanes today have the same equipment (GNS430, iPad, & weather if you’re traveling). And with ADS-B coming as mandatory, this argument goes out the window.

        Lastly, for the last 20 years of IFR flying I typically log only an hour or two (at the most, usually less) in actual IFR conditions the entire flying season. This indicates my point of avoiding weather & IMC conditions. This is standard for all instrument pilots, so you must practice in VFR cuz there’s rarely IFR enough actual IMC weather to stay current.

        The key to all of this is development good decision making skills. That means staying flexible. Labor day Monday was an example.
        We planned an hour flight to Appleton, WI but the forecast weather was awful – storm cells, squall lines and worse were forecasted. So the evening before we decided to drive. On labor day morning there were no storms or convective activity anywhere in our area, and the briefer agreed IFR flight was OK. We launched IFR (it was 1000 & 6)and completed the 50 minute flight without going through a cloud or getting the airplane wet. There were some showers around, but we avoided them with XM weather. You couldn’t do this safely VFR (although some might try and make the news), but the IFR flight was pleasant and comfortable for me & my wife.

        I hope you can experience the above someday . . . it might change your view point.

        Regarding life being short, we avoided 6+ hours of holiday traffic on labor day for 1:50 of comfortable single engine flying. We relaxed at home labor day afternoon making life so more more pleasant than sitting in traffic.

        Scott

    • Scott:

      I couldn’t agree more with your comments. Getting an IFR rating just makes you a better pilot whether you ever plan to be in IMC or not. I plan to finish my IFR rating, stay a proficient as I can, and fly on the best weather days that I can. As you mentioned, going cross-country you are just rolling the dice without cockpit weather anyway and if you only get into some really light clouds, most all of us should be very capable of handling that.

      Thanks for the article too, I really appreciated it.

    • Scott,
      We are at apples vs. oranges here. I earned my instrument rating, was well-trained, and flew IFR for personal and business trips. That was then. Now, I am a retired old guy with no need to shoulder the expense of an airplane equipped for safe IFR travel. IFR flying was work, but now I fly for fun. If I decide to travel VFR, I will do it as safely as I did in years past, with the help of my portable GPS. I suggest that you not be dismissive of those pilots– many of whom are real airmen– who choose to walk away from the expense and hazards of IFR flying.

      • Scott, Ditto on everything you said. I am a 75 year senior and am happy as a clam flying VFR every chance I get. I have no business flying IFR and also no need to do so, even though I have several hundred hours in hard IFR many years ago. Those that think they are safer without regular IFR flying are kidding themselves. I am not just saying FAA current, but regular IFR with all aspects involved.

  • “And with ADS-B coming as mandatory, this argument goes out the window.”

    Not true, only ADS-B OUT is mandatory. ADS-B IN is not. You can also have enough instrumentation and training (BFR) to keep upright in the soup if you inadvertently find yourself in it, without having to maintain the IFR rating on your airplane. Again less expensive to equip and maintain a VFR airplane and a VFR rating. That will not change.

    Your other arguments are well noted.

    • You can always find a lower cost way to fly. The cost of maintaining IFR is not much more than staying VFR safe & current. The cost of IFR aircraft certification is about $10/month. The greater cost is letting your airplane sit and decay from lack of use.
      If the discussion focuses on cost only, you should go Greyhound. Not sure what the cost of ADS-B out is, but I think its significant. In my recent experience flying with ADS-B In, in a friend’s airplane I can see it’s making things safer.
      I recall in the 70’s when transponders were required, then mode C in the 80’s. Many people complained at the added expense – many just said they’d stay out of controlled airspace.
      Once you have a near miss with your wife on board, then you’ll be getting a transponder & ATC traffic advisories – or she won’t be flying with you. Typically she is more demanding than FAA, and for good reason – she wants you to be safe.

      • My current GA aircraft, a 1940 Taylorcraft, doesn’t have an electrical system. I have a BALL with her and never have had a close call, in the ten years that I have owned her. The same for all my ultralights, it all depends on what it takes to trip your trigger, I guess.

        • Not sure what you mean by close call, but I’m wife’s trigger trips when we must turn to avoid an apparent collision – 100 yards or less looks real close when turning to avoid traffic.
          Last year a J3 Cub filled up our windshield – I’m guessing we were less than 100′ apart. He never saw us. Many of our airplanes (i.e Taylorcraft) have substantial blind spot areas that block traffic sighting.
          On the other hand in recent years we notice there is a remarkably small number single engine GA airplanes on ATC channels indicating less flying activity. So the ‘Big Sky’ approach to traffic may still work . . . . until it doesn’t.

          • Morning Scott, what I meant by the expression “Trips your trigger”was not a close encounter, (and that J-3 incident sounds close, glad you guys ducked him), but what it takes for you to enjoy flying. I don’t need to bore holes through the sky, in the weather in a C-421 to feel comfortable with my piloting skills any more, VFR on top in my Taylorcraft with a handheld with a CDI is fine for me.
            Brie

  • OMG !

    I was afraid to read the article after seeing the title. Im so sorry about the loss of your dad.

    The real answer is like with a car- if your concerned- take the keys!

    Better mad at you then sorry you didn’t do something to stop them.

    Sometimes the observer is better equipped to make a correct decision then someone under pressure.

    Anyone reading this PLEASE-
    If in doubt take action to stop a bad decision before its a tragic one !!

    Our loved ones are far to important to let them go….

    Bless you all and safe happy flights wherever you go !!
    :-}

  • Hi Hunter,

    Thanks for sharing this experience with us. I still remember when you were a member of the SE Minnesota Flying Club out of Rochester, MN.

    Blessings and good wishes…

    Joe Connell

  • I’m glad your Dad got you into the pilot’s seat. My flying actually saved my Dad’s life. He had been a private pilot, but he hadn’t flown in years. I kept egging him into flying again since I had been flying for a few years myself. He went for his flight physical, and during the stress test, the doctors identified cardiac blockage. It turns out that he needed quadruple bypass. He was 67, and he lived another 12 years after the surgery. My mother said I saved his life–he would never have gone to the doctor otherwise. For me, just like for you, flying is personal.

  • Gonna keep adding the words of one of my heroes, Robert Buck, “Instrument Flying is weather flying”. If there’s clouds it means there’s weather. If I didn’t fly for a living I’d probably be a fair weather sport pilot because I couldn’t afford a plane that could handle weather and the kind of flying Collins used to do was too much work for me.

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