It was a humid early September evening after a hot day. In Minnesota, that means when it cools off in the evening, the clouds come up, and the thunderstorms start. I hadn’t considered what would be happening later in the evening.
Our club had a 1959 Cessna 172 that I chose to fly to an EAA meeting at a local airport (KLVN). The club is based at KFCM, so this was about a 15-minute flight. It was still VFR when I left at about 6:15 pm, but I could see some clouds to the south. The flight down was easy. After leaving tower frequency, I switched to Unicom and, about five minutes later, I called my position reports as I landed on the single runway.
The meeting was in a hangar about midfield. There were several of us who flew in. The meeting was to visit a Velocity RG one of the club members was building, which was about ready to fly. My plane was about two years from being done, so I found this meeting very interesting: I learned about registration, final inspection and all the last minute things that need to be done on a plane before the first flight.
My interest led me to stay pretty late. One of the other members who flew in said, “I need to go before it gets IFR.” I thought I’d look outside and see what things were like. It was dark out, and there was light drizzle. “Hmmm…” I thought, “what are the clouds like?” I listened to AWOS, and the clouds were reported at 2300 feet. Things seemed OK still, so I went back in the hangar to ask some more questions, so I would be prepared for my inspection when the time came.
I helped put away chairs and thanked our host. I offered to help with anything else he needed, since I was the last one there. He thanked me for the help cleaning up, and I went off to the plane.
It was starting to rain a little bit harder. More than a drizzle, but nothing that made me think I would be in trouble. AWOS was reporting 1600 feet, so I would be legal flying back. I could get ATIS from KFCM while on the ground at KLVN, and KFCM was reporting a 6000 foot ceiling. It seemed the clouds were going up as I needed to go west.
I fired up the Cessna and taxied to the active runway. I had an uneventful runup. I turned on all the lights, including the strobes that the club had recently added to the plane. I called on Unicom to take the active, and planned to depart to the west.
Pushing the throttle forward, the windscreen cleared of droplets and the runway was clear to see. I was off the runway in about 800 ft and was climbing comfortably. Upon reaching 2100 feet (about 1200 AGL), I thought I would level off and set up for a call to FCM tower.
Just as I switched frequencies, things got real dark, except for the once-a-second flashes from the strobes. The flashes revealed that I was in a solid cloud! I looked down, and it was black or white. I looked ahead – and black or white. I could see white when the strobes flashed and black the rest of the time. Even the landing light wasn’t penetrating this cloud.
I am instrument rated, but not current. I know the right thing to do in IFR conditions, but I wasn’t mentally prepared for this situation. After about 30 seconds, I thought to call approach, admit I am stupid, and have them help get me out of this.
I was mostly locked in on the analog attitude indicator, and probably gripping the yoke for all it was worth. When I turned my focus to the radio to enter the approach frequency I had memorized, I turned one of the digits. When I checked back, I was in about a 10 degree bank. I leveled it out, and changed another digit, then I was in another 10 degree bank.
I had one more digit to go, but I didn’t think I could change it. I looked at the altimeter and I was at about 2200 feet. I thought maybe I could descend a hundred feet and I would be OK. I knew the area, and thought that 1000ft AGL was the minimum safe altitude, so I gave myself that margin. If I didn’t pop out at 1800 feet, I would do that third digit, and call approach.
I pulled some power off and pushed the yoke forward, trying to keep the VSI in the 200-300 fpm descent rate with the wings level. At about 1950 ft, I could see lights below me. I got to 1900 and could see ahead just fine, and the cloud deck was sloping upwards.
Off to the northeast I could see the beacon for KFCM. I switched the radio, picked up the latest ATIS, switched to tower frequency and called in asking for clearance to land. They offered me the long runway, and I rolled it on.
I got everything put away after landing. I carefully drove home, and thought about how lucky I was. Had I not been IFR rated, had the terrain been bad, had I not popped out when I did… I am lucky to be a pilot, and I am a lucky pilot as well.