Clouds with sun
14 min read

I woke with a start in an unfamiliar bed. Did I feel a hand on my shoulder, shaking me from sleep? I looked and no one was there. Must have been a dream.

By habit, I turned to the window to see the weather I would fly. Still dark, nothing revealed about the coming day, I strained to hear if the wind was moving the chimes on the deck below.


The forecast was for thunderstorms to roll into Bloomington, Illinois, by 8 am, an hour after my scheduled departure for a flight to Bucyrus, Ohio (17G). I had a business meeting there at 10:30 Eastern. Since 500 hours’ experience, I had stopped having fitful nights before flight, ceased waking to check the conditions. Now nearly 1000 hours of time was in my logbook and I was surprised my eyes had opened so early with no obvious sign the storm was imminent.

I reached for my iPhone as the grandfather clock sounded the half hour five minutes late. It was 4:35 am.

Astonished, I saw that, in fact, the dangerous weather would get to the airport before I could leave if I stuck to my plans. I would need to get moving now, and I wouldn’t have time to visit her before heading to KBMI. Just as well: she hadn’t noticed I was there yesterday and the nurses thought there could be several weeks left. I thought briefly of cancelling the trip – no one would mind and how easy it would be to roll over, go back to sleep, spend another day in waiting.

But if she knew, she would have told me to go to work and this thought spurred me to action. I don’t recall her taking a sick day for anything less than surgery.

I gathered my belongings quickly, showered and ironed my shirt. My dad came down from upstairs, from their room, and said goodbye as I packed the crew car. He has flown with me more than anyone else and while he knew there was no need for words of caution apparently he couldn’t resist.

“Be careful,” he said slowly in his gravelly voice, earnest sincerity draping him like the untied robe over his pajamas. “I couldn’t stand to lose you, too.” He handed me the thermos of coffee he had filled and looked away, knowing he had crossed the line.

Failing to give my standard riposte to such a sendoff would lend a weight to the moment that neither of us could stand, so I rewarded us with it.

“I’ll tell the pilot!” I replied quickly.

Lightning in night sky.

When lightning is the only thing illuminating the sky, it’s not a good sign.

Both the tower and sky were black as I approached the field. Only the automated weather exposed that the conditions had worsened to a few at 100 feet, overcast at 900, three miles of visibility. Just minutes before, the report was scattered at 5,000, 10 miles. The wind was picking up and I could see occasional sparks of lightning to the west.

I felt a pang of real fear. Of all the challenges in flying, I dislike night IFR departures the most, especially into low ceilings. I calmed myself with the reminder that 400 feet at night is my minimum. Lower than that and I would wait for the sunrise or scratch the trip. I rehearsed the procedure in my mind and kept breathing.

I completed the first part of the pre-flight ritual, the external checks. The female lineman, a student at the local college, watched my routine respectfully, but then provided an unexpected deviation when she suddenly attacked me with a warm hug as I reached for the door and said goodbye.

“Take care,” she said through clenched teeth. I told her I would.

“No, I really mean it!” she insisted, not letting go. “You’ve been through a lot.”

“Piece of cake,” I replied in objective truth but in contradiction to what I felt. “I’ll see you tomorrow.”

There are many curiosities in life and one I have yet to explain is this: Why is there a legion of the greatest people on earth around small airplanes?

I held a flashlight in my teeth in the shadowy cockpit as I completed the next phase of the liturgy. It begins with checking that the doors are locked and ends when the engine leaps to life.

I saw the glow begin in the tower ten minutes early so I called for my clearance. It was read to me around a yawn.

“I think Delta is delayed this morning,” he added sleepily. “Can you give me the bases and tops on your way out? The automated has been dropping pretty quick and I can’t see a thing.”

“Wilco,” as my heart skipped a beat.

Ready for taxi, I asked for a full length departure on runway 20 even though a quarter of it was what I really needed. When the clouds are low, I like to clean up the aircraft just out of ground effect and make sure all is perfect before plunging into the murk. I was happy to have the 14-knot headwind and 8,000 feet of concrete to make it all easy, even a late abort.

I relaxed completely when the Delta jet announced they were ready to go and I moved aside without complaint. They reported a 550-foot overcast as I waited for the wake turbulence to subside. I was golden. So many of the things you worry about in life never come to pass.

Like a priest before the altar, I chanted the final flow from memory, touching each control: Gas on Both, Undercarriage Down and Locked, Mixture Full Rich, Propeller High Speed, Seat Belts Tight, Switches Correct, Trim Set For Takeoff, Auto Pilot Off, Flaps Set, Primer Locked, Timer Started.

Cleared to depart with ATIS Alpha, I swung onto the center stripe and made the mistake of studying the sky. The delay for the 737 had allowed the dawn to barely illuminate a black mass directly in my path that seemed potentially evil as well as foreboding, mysterious, unavoidable and unending. To my right, the storm was nigh, and a few large drops of water splattered on the windshield. I could feel the wind gusts through the yoke.

But the StormScope and the WSI weather were clear and I had faith enough to bring the power to full and recite the final incantations as the roll began: Engine sounds good; Manifold Pressure just under the red line; RPM Pegged, Fuel Flow, Oil Pressure, Vacuum all in the green; engine monitor looks perfect; air speed alive, tracking the center line, heels on the floor. I raced toward the gloaming.

The plane leapt off the ground 10 knots over normal rotation using no flaps to minimize low level attitude changes and wanting no doubt that the wheels would next touch in Ohio.

Holding the nose down I raised the gear, adding the habitual touch of back pressure countering the drag a Cessna high wing has on initiation of retraction. I repeated my previous invocation and the answers I received were sufficient. I committed to rising far above the earth.

Once stabilized in nearly level flight, I established a climb, trimmed for 85 knots, clicked the heading mode on the autopilot and prepared to add a minute adjustment of the trim wheel. It was not needed.

I slipped into the overcast and the plane began its distinctive cloud chorus, a hissing monk-like chant, whispers through a metallic megaphone. I used to fear this spooky melody that thrums my strut-braced Cessna in cloud; at this moment I was comforted.

Almost immediately, tower gave me to departure who promptly asked me to turn 090, 110 degrees left, and I did. Still in IMC and just wings level, I was cleared to the Peotone (EON) VOR, a 062 degree course. I twisted the heading bug again, set the OBS, punched the NAV mode and kept climbing.

Sun over clouds

When you break out of the cloud deck, the sun can be blinding.

Suddenly at 2700 feet, I was out of the cloud, but I still couldn’t see. A white light, blinding in intensity stabbed my eyes and I yelped in pain. The sun and I had simultaneously escaped the thick low overcast and I was pointed right at it. I groped for a pair of sunglasses and pulled down the visor.

With the protection in place, it was clear I did not want to continue on my current course. Large columns of cumulonimbus were aggressively poking up from the level below directly ahead and had the angry, boiling appearance that guarantees spilling your coffee and threatens spilling your gyros.

I requested a right deviation and then level at 11,000 feet I saw that I would be easily passing between two large build ups and that beyond those I would be OK. I busied myself with my cruise flight checklist that I complete nearly continuously: navigation, weather, planning, fuel status and engine management. For now only the engine needed attention.

My fingers, delicate as a safecracker, adjusted the manifold pressure, propeller pitch and fuel air mixture seeking the perfect combination.

Yesterday these same hands were of a penitent, caressing a string of small beads seeking a different kind of mysterious perfection.

Satisfied for a second, I cycled through the engine monitor, scanned the panel again, the well-worn routine of cruise. All was fine for now, and, as I relaxed for a beat, I looked up and passed through the gate.

Heaven. It looked like heaven. Underneath were pillow like clouds billowing harmlessly from a flat stratus layer that obscured all that was below. I could imagine reclining on them for eternity. Above me the cloud layer was broken and in those holes were shafts of brilliant light from above. In the far distance between the layers was an infinity of deep blue happiness, peace, and joy. I was awestruck. I scrambled to take a picture, poured a cup of coffee and rejoiced.

Forty minutes later I was just south of Fort Wayne and near the Indiana state line. The clouds were gone and the airport lay before me just 35 minutes away.

A pilot’s discretion clearance to 2,500 allowed a slow descent on a comfortable cushion of air with nary a gust nor bump. I dropped the gear two miles from the field to pull myself down to the pattern altitude of 1,800 feet as I entered on the crosswind to 22. Lining up for final, I missed the approach a little bit as a 10-knot crosswind at my back on base escaped my attention.

I was able to straighten the aircraft easily, never banking more than 30 degrees, and performed a satisfactory landing. I filled up the plane at the self-serve and talked briefly with the airport employee.

The crew car was down. An aging red Ford pickup I had reserved two weeks before had an undisclosed problem. In its place, the airport manager had kindly left me his brand-new, leather trimmed Hyundai four-door sedan for my short 3 1/2 mile drive to the long-time client.

“He said to drive it as much as you want,” said the attendant. The odometer showed 1,240 miles.

Ninety minutes after arrival, the meeting was coming to a very successful close. An additional sales opportunity for our newer products presented itself and additional time was requested.

Radar map

The weather is holding off; but what about the pilot?

The storm I had left in Illinois had dumped four inches of rain on KBMI in two hours with peak winds of nearly 50 mph. It was racing across Indiana threatening to reach 17G as well as Bolton Field (KTZR) near Columbus, my next stop. Knowing I could always drive the 100 miles for tomorrow’s session, I agreed to an extended stay, invited the team to lunch and arranged an early afternoon second meeting with a broader group.

I was glancing at the weather radar and the advancing storms when I noticed I had a voicemail and a text. I opened the text: “Mark, call me as soon as possible.” My heart sank. The meeting broke up and I walked to a quiet corner to listen to the voice mail. It was my brother, Pete.

“Call when you can. We have some news.” Gulping, I hit the Call Back button on the voice mail. Standing next to my client’s desk, I knew what to expect.

She had gone west, where all light ends.

I needed details.

“Dad and I had just gotten here,” Pete said haltingly. He was straining to continue.

“I told her she was the best and a single tear went down her cheek…” He stopped talking to gather himself before continuing.

“And then I noticed she wasn’t breathing.” His voice broke.

“And can you believe it? The Beatles’ ‘Let it Be’ was playing on the radio.” He choked.

“Mother Mary come to me…” I whispered.

The call ended with proof that the deepest of human emotions show themselves only in silence. Grief tumbled with love, awe and respect in the space that knew no words. A quick goodbye, then we hung up.

I had lunch and the second very successful product demonstration. I drove back to the airport.

The storm had stalled out and was still 45 miles away. ForeFlight showed Bolton Field 3,200 broken, winds nominal, 45 minutes old. Nearby fresh weather was showing winds variable from 150 to 270, 11 gusting to 19.

I relaxed quietly for a few minutes to decide my course as I always do. In aviation I have learned to make decisions long before they are required. Know your personal minimums; what you will and won’t do; draw clear lines across the sky and never cross them.

I had decided weeks before that I was prepared for this and I was safe to set aside the emotions. The weather was challenging but well within my equipment and skill. I was going to go and try for the perfect flight. If there was trouble, I had enough gas to make Boston.

With a 2,400 foot overcast at 17G, I wanted a clearance. I called the national number and after a long wait got the needed approval. I blasted off with wind on the nose, 16 gusting to 22. I hand-flew the entire way, just a 30-minute trip, weaving through clouds I could miss and bumping through those I couldn’t. I blew the perfect flight on lift off when I let the plane drift 10 degrees left of the runway heading. I quickly corrected and made two more mistakes: I failed to catch the NOTAM that the Bolton AWOS is disabled when the tower is open and I thought there was an instrument approach to 22.

Clouds with sun

A gift from above?

When I confessed to Columbus TRACON that I couldn’t find the weather and wanted the GPS to 22, he laughed.

“Broken, 2,900, Visibility 6 in light rain. Wind variable 160 to 240, 7 gusting to 19. And, we’d all like an instrument approach to 22. They don’t have one, though. You want the RNAV 4 or a visual?”

I asked for the visual and 3,000 got me under the clouds. Vectors to a right base and then I was on final.

The wind snapped me hard to the left – I was so sad she was gone. At 300 feet I was pushed right – so happy she was not alone in the end. I eased back to the center line and painted it on like I actually knew what I was doing.

The FBO helped me carry my bags to the car and get directions to the hotel. I followed the single file processional of heavy traffic through construction zones to the Marriott.

Picking up email, ironing my clothes for tomorrow, sipping a cup of Dad’s now lukewarm coffee from the thermos, all the normal things so reassuring on a day that felt like anything but.

I went to dinner and drank too much even though I knew she would have hated that.

Back at the hotel, I sat by the window as the storm rolled in. I resolved to stay awake and watch the light fade but the early morning start and the Jack Daniels conspired and I nodded off.

I woke with a start for the second time that day just before midnight, angry that I had missed the sunset. Looking out I could see rain drops tracing the glass, splitting in pieces, going in different directions like so many broken hearts.

I went to bed alone with salt on my cheeks and thought about flying through heaven’s clouds to a peaceful landing the day my mother died.

Mark Fay
Latest posts by Mark Fay (see all)
11 replies
  1. Dave Sandidge
    Dave Sandidge says:

    It doesn’t take a great deal of effort on each of our parts to feel your pain and completely understand… On a day which should have been joyous and satisfying, a part of your heart left your soul rendering the day aimless and unsettling. Thank God for the gift of time which gradually dulls the sharp edges and leaves us with the good memories. Keep flying, my brother. Do that which she knew would give you joy and fulfillment. That will be your gift to her.

  2. Richard
    Richard says:

    So very eloquently written. Could not help but feel the pain of that phone call. I lost my mother in 1990, and time does soften it, but then there will be something that makes the emotions swell again. Thank you for that “something”.

    Peace to you and your family.

  3. William Tackett
    William Tackett says:

    If a book anthology of “The Best of Air Facts” is ever published, your story should be in it. Your flying memoir resonated with me, as I’m sure it will with many pilots who have experienced the loss of loved ones. The serenity and beauty of the heavens we are able to glide through can add a dimension that transforms much of the pain into understanding. Thank you for the reminder.

  4. Duane
    Duane says:

    Thank you for sharing Mark. You always write so well about aviation and the human side of it, and this story is particularly moving.

    When you wrote of your brother remarking that “Let it be” was playing on the radio in the room as your mother passed, it brought me back in time, many decades ago, when that song was a fresh hit.

    I will never forget one night in particular, after visiting my ailing grandfather for the last time in his hospital room, just hours before he passed. After my brief visit (he was laboring heavily, just to breath, and was not conscious) I left my mother alone with him. I went down alone to the family car, in the dark, in the hospital parking lot … this was the first time in my life, as a teenager, that I had confronted the imminent death of a loved one. I was very melancholic thinking about my granddad’s struggle. Sitting there in the driver seat, I turned on the car radio and, yes, “Let it be” was playing … and it immediately broke me up in tears, yet also comforted me greatly.

    Reading your story brought that memory back to me again.

    As Bob Hope used to sing, “Thanks for the memories.”

    • Mark Fay
      Mark Fay says:

      Thank you so much. Your comments are far too kind to me but deeply appreciated.

      I really appreciate your thoughts and your story. There are for sure things we can’t possibly understand.

      I am still so dumbfounded by this day and can’t really make sense of it all:
      The unexpected wake up
      The fear of the unknown
      The chanting the plane sometimes does in cloud – so pronounced on this flight
      The bright light
      The Heaven clouds

      And, of course, the song, O the song.

      Albert Einstein said, ‘There are only two ways to live your life. One is as though nothing is a miracle. The other is as though everything is.’”

      You can guess which way I bend.

      Again, MANY MANY THANKS to everyone who commented on this story!

  5. Sharyn
    Sharyn says:

    You write beautifully with the smooth cadence of well-maintained aircraft and wonders of the human heart. Like you I marvel that, “There a legion of the greatest people on earth around small airplanes,” and you are surely one of them. Thank you.

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