The rain was hitting the windshield so hard it sounded like a machine gun. If it would have done any good, I would have been straining to look out. Why bother? I knew the only thing visible was a reverse waterfall washing from the lower part of the windscreen to the top. Out the side windows I’d only see the clag I had been in for the last 4 hours and 20 minutes – if it wasn’t dark. But it was. Pitch black.
Night. Rain. Extremely high surface winds. Low visibility. Mountains. Less gas then I would have liked. Now I couldn’t get the lights to the runway at Martin Campbell Field (1A3) to come on. “This is how people kill themselves in small planes,” I thought to myself as I passed the final approach fix and decided to go missed. “I know I am going to get out of this OK. But how?” I thought back to the start of the trip, The Hunter and The Door.
The day – Monday after Thanksgiving 2016 – had started innocently enough. I had rigorously planned one of my favorite trips from Chicago to Miami and back again with stops in Orlando and Tampa. I would break 1,000 hours on this voyage and I was looking forward to the milestone.
The weather looked good when I checked Sunday night. A storm across the central plains would wait for me to get to the sunshine, and then promised to slide past my route in plenty of time for the Thursday trip home. Ceilings were expected to be above 15,000 feet early in the day and while the winds were brisk down low, up high it looked like four hours to the fuel stop and then another 2:45 into Orlando. The surface winds would be high – 30 knots out of the southeast – but LaGrange GA (KLGC) has a good approach to Runway 13 and I was very familiar with the field. Florida weather at sunset would be the normal for late fall – beautiful, light breezes out of the east, clear skies.
With a planned departure of 7:30 am Central, I was looking forward to a fantastic day – lots of flying leading to wings, beers and Monday Night Football sitting outside in shorts at one of my favorite dive bars.
The airplane was ready to rock. Sixty hours ago the turbo was rebuilt and the mechanic went over everything else with a fine tooth comb. I love my Cessna TR182 as much as a human can care for a machine.
The pilot felt great, too. Oh, sure, the holiday weekend and our Scottish guests had taken a few winks from my slumber; Combine that with the 5K Turkey Trot and the two hours of touch football (we won 98 to 77) and my legs were a little weary. But, in all, I was ready to go and super proficient, having flown a lot of IMC in the previous seven weeks.
The first wrinkle showed up late Sunday when I picked up my email. An excellent new prospect had requested a quick telephone meeting with her senior vice president at 8:00 on Monday morning. My contact billed it as a brief get-to-know-you kind of thing before the exec would sign the contract. She was guessing less than 20 minutes. I didn’t want to, but I replied I could do it. I figured I’d still be airborne before 9:30 am.
But the “brief” meeting ended up taking two hours as the get-to-know-you was more like a colonoscopy than a blood pressure check. I had to do a full product demonstration and discuss our history, people we both knew, my shoe and hat size and family lineage. Sigh.
I did a quick recheck of the weather. Not much had changed en route but Chicago was now IFR with 700 foot skies and the wind gusting out of the east southeast to 25 knots. Visibility was down to two miles and it was raining off and on.
I scrambled to stuff my luggage in the trunk, kissed my wife and headed to the airport. Arriving at the hangar I realized I had forgotten the computer projector I had promised to bring. Darn it! I turned around and ran back, got the projector and retraced my steps.
Now the best I could hope for was a start nearly three hours after my plan. It was time to face them: The Hunter and The Door.
Fate is The Hunter is the title of Ernie Gann’s classic memoir. The thesis is that flying carries an unpredictable risk and that even when you do everything right, the Grim Reaper might still call your number. It is a flier’s reminder that Fate, the “designated adversary, always remains inhuman, frequently marches in mystery, and rarely takes prisoners.”
I sat quietly in my car at the airport for a few minutes and thought about what the delay would mean. The storm would be closer, the night sooner, the pilot wearier at the end. None of these were of more than a passing concern, yet I felt restless, uncertain, with a definite free-floating anxiety of indeterminate origin. Was I giving fate an unfair advantage? The Hunter felt restless, nearby, threatening.
So I considered The Door.
It is of standard size, white, with six raised panels and a combination lock. It leads from my garage into the kitchen of our home. My job as a pilot is to never do anything that seriously threatens my ability to walk back through that door. While The Hunter may have more in store for me than I can handle, I must never tempt it through poor decisions, complacency, or errors in execution. The pain and anguish I would cause to those who live there should I not return is too much for me to bear. But I force myself – whenever the least uncertain – to visualize the impact of my demise on all who I love most. I think about where they would be when they got the news. How the word would propagate through our family tree, to our friends, to those who count on me.
I have canceled many trips because of The Door. Because I felt certain I was taking no undue risks, I would not cancel this one in spite of the eerie premonitions.
I pulled the plane out of the hangar, loaded my luggage and taxied over quickly to the fuel pumps. We don’t have self-serve at Clow (1C5) and they don’t sell much gas to anybody but students, so I wasn’t surprised when the pump was off, even though it was an hour and 45 minutes after they should’ve opened. I walked quickly the 200 yards to the FBO, yanked on The Door and found it locked. I wasn’t sure exactly what I was going to do. Then The Door opened.
It was the co-owner of A and M Aviation, Jolan Harvilchuck. “I didn’t expect to see anyone today,” she said. “Do you need gas?”
I answered in the affirmative and told her that I’d be glad to fill it up if she could unlock the pump and get me on my way. It took her a few minutes to gather herself and meet me there while I checked the weather again on my iPhone and waited impatiently, the ladder in position, the aircraft grounded and the hose stretched to reach.
After she sumped the big tank, she handed me the nozzle and I climbed up to put the fuel in my pilot side. Once I pulled the trigger gas started flowing for just a moment, came to a drizzle and stopped.
“Is the pump on?” I hollered at Jolan, who had retreated back inside her car.
She jumped out. “Darn,” she didn’t say but I won’t repeat what she did. “It looks like we’re out. They were supposed to come yesterday, but they didn’t show up. Since the weather was going to be so bad I didn’t even call them. I’m sorry, I didn’t know we were that low. Are you going to be OK?”
I looked at the sky. The ATIS at nearby Lewis (KLOT) was 700 overcast, three miles of visibility, light rain. I had 23 gallons on board, plenty to get there. But a clearance and full approach would take at least 30 minutes. I called Chicago Approach and asked for a Special VFR.
“We don’t issue special VFRs,” said the person who answered Chicago TRACON after they had consulted with a supervisor. “But the boss said that if you want we will watch you and you can fly over there as long as you can stay under the clouds and have a mile visibility. It’s all class G under 700 foot so it’s up to you.”
“Can you let the controller know I might need a pop up?” I asked. A pop up IFR will be granted by the controller on the spot if you get into trouble. “And can you get me a squawk code in case I need it?” I added.
I did a preflight, checking everything again, and then climbed into the aircraft. Before starting the engine I thought again about fate and home. Was I sure? I was and I turned the key.
I set up my GPS for vectors to final for the RNAV 20 at Lewis, and then set up my iPad with ForeFlight to the GPS-B back into Clow – just in case. My multifunction had the traffic on one side and the Lewis approach plate on the other; iPad one on the co-pilot yoke was split with synthetic vision with obstacles and the glass cockpit view on the left and the Clow approach on the right. iPad two on my lap had a zoomed in view of the Lewis approach.
I plugged in the squawk and carefully set up my radios: Com 1 on Clow CTAF with the flip flop on Lewis CTAF; Com 2 with Chicago Departure active and Lewis ATIS in reserve. I monitored Lewis CTAF and Chicago Departure, so there were three radios feeding my headset. No one was talking.
I announced my intentions to the ether although I knew it was unlikely there would be anyone around who needed to hear it. I took off and ran the scud. In reality, the clouds were 800 feet AGL and the visibility was two miles in moderate rain. I climbed to the bases until the view got wispy and then dropped down 20 feet. I angled to the final approach course, accepted it easily and came in for a landing with 30 knots gusting from my left, a 22-knot crosswind component. But, with the runway a hundred feet wide it was not a problem and in fact I somehow nailed it right on the center stripe as soft as a puppy’s kiss. Congratulating myself, I mistakenly thought that would be the toughest wind I would face all day.
Just as I got to the self-serve, the rain started coming down in buckets. I wrestled the umbrella from the aircraft and stepped out into the wind that seemed to be getting fiercer by the minute. Struggling to fill both tanks while keeping the water out of the go juice, I saw the airport manager drive by slowly, a quizzical look on his face. He’s strictly VFR-only in his piloting and more than once he has marveled at my willingness to fly when he considers it suicidal, like a 15-knot wind. I knew he would have something to say so before he came back from driving the last runway, I tidied up the hose and darted into the Porta-Potty.
Closing the lid I got my first laugh of the day. Some wag had stuck a sign designed for a swimming pool on the cover: “NO DIVING” it admonished.
I put a 15-minute timer on my watch to give any water the chance to settle at the bottom of the tanks and sat down. I pulled out my iPhone and searched for the Southwest Airlines app. But I didn’t open it. I have a hard and fast rule that anytime I am next to the plane, if I am looking for an alternate transportation method I will take it. If there is enough question that I am considering how else I will get there that close to departure, I will get there some way other than my airplane.
Instead I used those 15 minutes to call the Flight Briefer. There was an AIRMET for turbulence over the mountains and SIGMETs for thunderstorms 180 miles west of my course. Interestingly, there were no warnings of icing and the winds aloft forecast had not changed at all.
The weather was flyable, no question.
After another pre-flight, with a thorough check to make sure no water had gotten into the tanks, I taxied out, got a clearance and departed.
It always amazes me how much easier it is to take off in a high wind than land. The launch was without incident but the clouds had lowered and by 400 feet there was a blanket covering me. At the time I didn’t know that I would not see the ground again for a long, long time.
Well, you might have guessed what happened next. There was ice at 10, tops at 22 so my plan for 15,000 became a reality of 9. The forecast headwinds of 22 were actually 65. I looked despairingly at the groundspeed and at one point it fell to 80 knots while the true was 163! YIKES!
I knew there was no way that I was going to be able to make my planned fuel stop south of Atlanta. I started looking through ForeFlight to see where I could go. I selected three potential alternates. After crossing into Tennessee, the wind abated a little, my ground speed crept up to 110, so I settled on Gwinett County (KLZU) Georgia, northeast of Atlanta. They have an east-northeast runway which yielded a crosswind of 16 knots, a control tower and I have been there five other times.
But as I crossed the Georgia line and approached the last wall of the Smokies, all heck broke loose. The turbulence picked up dramatically, the ground speed dropped precipitously and suddenly LZU was out of comfortable reach. I moved smoothly to my second alternate, just off my left wing. Why chance it? I got a clearance to the initial approach fix and headed that way. I scrambled to set up the instruments for the approach just as the iPad on the yoke ran out of battery and went blank.
I called the ATIS for 1A3 in Copperhill, Tennessee. Ceiling 4,000, wind 19 gusting to 35 from 140, 60 degrees off runway heading. I’m not fond of 30-knot crosswinds but I travel a lot to Kansas, so it wouldn’t be the first time and beat the heck out of running out of gas.
However, this airport is in the mountains and the runway is but 75 feet wide and 3,500 foot long. I suspected it might be a touch different than the flatlands so I decided to carry an extra 15 knots to the surface. I’ve landed in a simulator many times with crosswinds greater than 50 knots. But this was for real and I was on edge.
After circling the race track, clouds were expected to break out at 4000 feet AGL, but they were a thousand feet late. Visibility was good underneath and the rain had stopped. When I broke out, I still couldn’t see the runway or a beacon. I always worry about not being able to get the lights turned on and I had been calling for them repeatedly. It seemed like for the first time, that concern was going to be real. I called on the Unicom to see if anyone would answer but no one did.
That’s when I realized I was getting close to not making it back to The Door. My fuel was showing one hour and 15 minutes remaining.
I called up Atlanta center and told them I was going missed, that I couldn’t get the lights on.
“I wondered if you had the NOTAM that Campbell is closed at night,” replied the controller. “I thought you had called them ‘cause sometimes they’ll wait.” Big mistake! I get NOTAMs on the iPad and when it went black I forgot to look at iPad two.
Then the dreaded: “Say intentions.”
I intended to avoid The Hunter. I intended to make it through The Door. Knowing my third alternate was also in the mountains and had a single runway southwest, I asked for advice.
Because of the surface winds, the controller suggested I continue south to Lawrenceville (KLZU), which by now was 70 miles away. But in that direction I was getting a ground speed of 80 knots. Not gonna work.
My other option was behind me in Athens, Tennessee (KMMI) only 25 downwind miles away. I made a quick decision to turn around and take the tailwind so that I could drop the power setting and try to conserve as much fuel is possible.
As I headed back at 6,000 feet, the clouds suddenly gave way and I was in the clear. I could see the beacon when I was still 15 miles out.
Carefully reviewing the situation, I went through a complete briefing of the field. The wind was not as brisk, yielding a 28-knot crosswind. While I doubt I would notice the difference, I felt a surge of confidence. I decided the safest thing was to fly a full procedure, even though it would eat into my rule of never landing with less than 1 hour of gas.
But it seemed The Hunter was determined to have the last laugh. Once again I completed the procedure turn and the ground speed dropped to 75 knots. I methodically, then frantically, pressed the transmitter button to get the lights to come on. They refused to illuminate. I carefully reviewed the airport chart and knew the beacon was just to the east of the field. I would fly a perfect approach and land in the dark if I had to; no way was I going to a fourth alternate. I had but 53 minutes of fuel remaining and I was determined to walk through The Door.
With the headwind, I had plenty of time. I tried to call Atlanta to tell them I would cancel on the ground. When they didn’t answer I thought through what could possibly be wrong and then I found it. With all the bouncing around my fingers had put the audio panel on COMM 3. I was transmitting on the wrong radio! Quickly switching over and clicking seven times on the yoke I saw the most beautiful thing you can ever see at times like this: a runway completely lit up. Somehow it looked like a Door to me.
I decided not to get the weather again. I really didn’t care. I had to land no matter what and this runway was 6500 feet long by 100 feet wide.
On short final, the wind lifted up my left wing to a 20 degree position so I dropped the nose and slammed the ailerons left. The aircraft straightened out and I got it to the runway. Just as I was about to land, another gust hit me and shoved the nose hard to the right. I wrestled it to the ground only 10 degrees off runway heading. The left wheel touched and a second later the right came down followed almost simultaneously by the nose. The airplane lurched around and then calmly strolled down the runway, as I rolled the yoke to the stops on the left and started tap dancing on the brakes. Looking out the windscreen, I was 10 feet right of the center line. Far from perfect but I’ll take it.
I taxied up to the self-serve and exited the airplane. I looked around, thankful to be safely on the ground.
There’s usually a romance surrounding a deserted airport at night. Sometimes when I am traveling I will drive to the field after dark just to experience the moment.
The lights from the buildings, runway and taxiways provide a glow creating a snug bubble around the field that you can’t see past. It seems like home since you have the combination and are trusted to enter the pilot’s lounge alone. Often the crew car keys are hanging on a hook next to a map of the closest restaurant. There’s always a coffee pot if you want a cup as you use their computer to check the weather, file a flight plan or pick up email. Out the window the beacon sweeps past like the steady heartbeat of a happy, contented marriage. The sense of adventure from your arrival is palpable and your impending departure stirs a faint buzz as you put your feet up for just a minute in the soft leather of the La-z-Boy.
I ran to the FBO door anxious to be out of the rain and wind. For the second time that day I found it locked. Lacking any other option I relieved myself in the grass, got my lunch that was now my dinner out of the plane and slumped against the building dejectedly.
This wasn’t romantic at all. This was more like an imagined interlude with a New Orleans hooker. Sure, there was plenty of excitement but things had already gotten a little rough and the money on the dresser was only half used up. You just hoped there wasn’t a surprise coming you knew you wouldn’t like.
The wind picked up, and I could feel the storm approaching. The air was tinged with the smell of wildfires 45 miles away and I sensed it as The Hunter’s breath. Was there a jackal in the night baring its teeth, toying with me? For the first time I doubted the decisions I had made. For sure it had been a tough flight, but I didn’t think I had taken any unreasonable risks, had tried to do something I hadn’t done before. Still, there WAS something I couldn’t put my finger on.
Another careful check of the weather and I was on my way to Orlando. The departure was bumpy but otherwise uneventful. I got pounded by the turbulence over the mountains and it seemed to take forever to get past Atlanta. Like so often happens when the weather is bad, it stopped all of a sudden. The overcast became broken, then scattered, then gone. Crossing the Georgia-Florida line the lights on the ground cheerfully winked at me and the turbulence subsided to nothing. After another hundred miles, the headwind had become a tailwind and I was racing to Orlando calm, serene and feeling good knowing while Monday Night Football was over and the wing place closed, a pizza and beer would be my reward.
Passing the colorful Ferris wheel on a vectors to final approach, I realized that all my worries, my illogical concerns and anxiety had stopped long ago, just north of Atlanta. I put that puzzler aside and landed uneventfully.
And now a real romance with an airport at night. I was the last one in to Orlando Executive (KORL) and the Tower controller gave me a friendly send off: “Have a great evening! Welcome to Orlando!” The soft glow from the Sheltair FBO and the smell, sound and feeling of the breezes through the palm trees entertained me as I waited for the Uber driver. Peace on earth, joy for the experience, love of flight colored these sweet, sweet moments, a soft pastel painted in strokes from a fun day made challenging for sure but, in spite of my concerns, was really never in doubt and well within my equipment and skill.
The serenity left me instantly as I entered the hotel lobby. The large screen TV tuned to the news was reporting the loss of the Brazilian soccer team in a crash near Medellín, Colombia.
Night. Rain. Extremely high surface winds. Low visibility. Mountains. Less gas then they would have liked. The parallels with my flight were eerie.
More so when I realized the crash had occurred while I was just north of Atlanta, just about when my anxiety subsided. Is that possible? Could The Hunter have been near me but went south to seek his prey when an easier victim presented themselves? Seventy-one people would never again walk through their doors.
I stumbled over my luggage and actually fell down as the clerk asked if I was all right. I was.
I evaded The Hunter. I would walk through The Door.