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.”
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.”