Runway lights
21 min read

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

Gann knew The Hunter well.

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.

They agreed.

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.

Clouds above airport tower

When the windsock looks frozen, it means hard work on landing.

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.

1A3 airport

Not the easiest airport to find at night… without runway lights.

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.

Runway lights

A beautiful sight after a long time in the soup.

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.

Mark Fay
Latest posts by Mark Fay (see all)
23 replies
  1. Low Wings
    Low Wings says:

    Mark — a harrowing tale to be sure, and from your description it appears you handled the challenges in fine fashion dealing with each development as it appeared. It is the mark of a capable and proficient pilot and, best of all, you survived and you get to use the airplane again! But I have to ask, “if you knew then what you know now, would you conduct the flight in the same manner? Is there anything that you would change and if so, what and why?

    I would hazard a guess that most pilots who fly in those conditions have similar stories to recite. I know that I do, each one burned indelibly into my mind, and each one bestowing additional knowledge, understanding and wisdom. If you fly long enough your collection of stories will expand and sooner or later you’ll get to the realization that there are numerous ways that the forces of nature can and will kill you and destroy your airplane, without apologies, remorse or appeal, and the only strategy that has a chance of succeeding long term is risk avoidance and risk mitigation. That doesn’t mean you stay on the ground or cower in fear, only that you don’t unnecessarily expose yourself and your airplane to the lethal risks, i.e., the ones that have a proven track record of destroying airplanes and occupants that lie outside the boundaries of good practice.

    There are always alternatives that yield risk avoidance and risk mitigation such as different time frames, different altitudes, different routes, different fuel loads, different airports and the realization and acceptance of the notion that you don’t have to be anywhere at a certain date/time as exemplified by the old truism “Pilots who crash in bad weather are often buried three days later in the sunshine! Why make it hard when you can make it simple?

  2. Don Woodbridge
    Don Woodbridge says:


    Great story and well written. I remember a similar situation VFR at night fumbling around trying to get the runway lights to come on with the “3 clicks” — only to discover after a few minutes that the switch was set to the wrong radio.

    Pilots who learned to fly in calmer areas of the country will probably pale at your acceptance of crosswinds near the “demonstrated” ability of your airplane, but having learned to fly 30 miles south of the Cessna plant on a north/south runway with prevailing West/East winds commonly gusting to 40Kts, I did that many times.

    Still, it seems like there were a lot of compounding risks in your possible accident chain to accept for a pleasure flight. You handled them all well, but it might have taken just one more… I’m glad for you that your engine ran smoothly, that all of the many components that deliver electricity to your panel continued to function, that your gyros all worked properly throughout the flight, and that fate decided to look elsewhere that night.

  3. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    I almost started adding up all the delays, corrections, weather items, closed FBO’s, headwinds, and wrong frequencies that were listed. Thankfully, even though things were not smooth, you and your aircraft were up to the challenge. Rather than test your skills and equipment further, I suggest you limit your exposure by putting a personal limit on the span of time from your planned departure till you actually departure. Good job never the less! Thanks for sharing!!!

  4. Andy Kopetzky
    Andy Kopetzky says:

    I am a fairly recently certificated private pilot and it smacks of ‘the chain’. Too many things that are not right including an outrageous x-wind landing. Mark, please be vigilant-we want you to continue to walk thru the door unscathed. Don’t hurry your flights.

  5. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    The paragraph beginning with “This was not romantic at all” made me laugh out loud. That was my only humorous reaction to a very tense story. I must echo the thoughts of others that you took one risk after another in challenging weather for a simple pleasure trip to Florida. The phrase “get-there-itis” comes to mind. Had something critical gone wrong, would the risk/benefit ratio appear in retrospect to have been reasonable? I don’t think so.

  6. Mark Fay
    Mark Fay says:

    Thank you all for your comments.

    I am going to wait a few more days before discussing my thinking here before, during and after this flight. I encourage any one to add their two cents.

    Not to try to fan the flames here but I still don’t think I took any unreasonable risks and would make almost all the same decisions in a similar situation. This flight sounds harder then it was but it happened exactly as described.

  7. Ian M
    Ian M says:

    Thanks for sharing Mark. No judgement here on your decision making or willingness to execute a similar flight again. My only comment is this – single engine, over the mountains, at night and in weather leaves one with few outs should The Hunter show up.

  8. Mark Fay
    Mark Fay says:

    Thanks again for all of your comments!

    The purpose of this article was to share the risk management strategy that I have developed that has worked well for me in the context of a flight with strange overtones. It is exactly as described.

    The eerie nature of the unsettled feeling I had that stopped north of Atlanta and the absolute jaw dropper from the TV in Orlando to me was what made the flight interesting. Tomorrow is the 6 month’s anniversary of this flight and when I think of it, that is what I remember. Fate is indeed the Hunter – in all walks of life, but in aviation most assuredly.

    I agree the margins on this flight were thin but they were acceptable. There are two mistakes I made which I would do differently:

    1.) Would not have missed the NOTAM that Campbell was closed at night
    2.) Would have stopped earlier for fuel to avoid violating my 1 hour rule. Had I been parsimonious about this I could have made it by flying a visual to KMMI; so, I can almost give myself a pass on that one. BTW, my plane carries an extra 8 gallons of useable fuel or 45 minutes at slow cruise when the fuel totalizer is at 0. When the wing tips were modified 10 years ago the internal tanks each got an additional 4 gallons. I never changed the totalizer for an extra margin of safety. Running out of gas is inexcusable.

    This is the first time I have ever landed when the totalizer was less than 1 hour.

    As a result, I am making one change: For future flights at night or in mountains I am increasing fuel remaining on the totalizer at landing .5 hours.

    This was not a pleasure flight. 90% of all of my flights are for business. The other 10% is training/fun. I was on a tight schedule – not too tight to cancel if I had to (nothing ever that important) – but four Florida cities in three days when leaving from Chicago is a tight schedule. You can see in the article that there were several times I carefully checked the weather and seriously considered the situation and made the decision to continue. I stand by every one of them. I was never within 140 miles of a thunderstorm; I was only in ice for a minute before I asked for a descent and got it.

    While the risk goes way up, I do not believe it is too risky to fly over the Smoky or Adirondack mountains at night in the clouds, in turbulence and in rain. But not the Rockies.

    If I thought the engine was going to stop I would not fly at all; I have redundant back up equipment for navigation and communication (two ipads, iphone, two handhelds, lifesaver gyro). Unless the engine stops I have contingencies. That is why fuel margins are paramount!

    The biggest risk I accepted was to land in a high crosswind – but that was the gust component. A gusting wind moves clockwise so it becomes more of a headwind. Crosswinds used to scare me so bad so I practiced them many times. Maybe for another time, but in a tough crosswind I have two distinct stages: a.) Get it to the runway b.) Land I still don’t like them but I do not fear them.

    This article would have been much better if it were shorter and only focused on the eerie part of the story. I think we all read so many accident narratives that every somewhat tough flight starts to sound like an NTSB report summary. I regret I spent too much time playing back every detail that took away from the main point: If you want to fly, recognize and accept there may come a time when Fate calls your number but by God do EVERYTHING you possibly can – training, proficiency, maintenance, redundancies, weather knowledge, wariness – to walk back through the door.

    • Duane Mader
      Duane Mader says:

      I’ll add my name to those who think you are a very good writer and tying in my favorite aviation writer and aviation book just made this better. I fly for a living. I do not think you were way out on a limb with risk taking, I do think you were challenged and sometimes flying is just plain hard work. You are more of your own corporate pilot than a private pilot which is why some here are saying you should just have bagged it.
      Love the noir mood of the article, have also noticed the ambiance of solitary nighttime airports. For all the skills used and challenges met, flying has no cheerleaders, the best you can hope for is a sense of personal accomplishment and a beer and a nice meal for a reward.
      As for personal time in duty limitations, someone once told me to make it simple: be done by 10 pm. That’s much better than the convoluted rules of 135 which don’t take into account a person’s bio clock.
      There’s no rule regarding cross wind limitations but of course if you dork it up you will, after the fact, be “careless and reckless”.
      I have landed far in excess of demonstrated x-wind by using the same technique I would wheel land a tail dragger in a strong x-wind. I give up if I run out of rudder or don’t feel in control.
      Thanks for writing this, again, well done.

  9. Lindsey Whiteway
    Lindsey Whiteway says:

    Ernie Gann has nothing on you as a writer. You are clearaly gifted in that department. You have an enviable well-equipped and maintained aircraft that is up to the challenges your encountered.
    Others have tiptoed around the elephant in the room: excessive risk-taking attitude and behavior. Sounds like the “it can’t happen to me” hazzardous attitude. It can, and you seem to realize that it can, and that’s the main point of your article. Maybe a measure of the “macho” attitude, as well.
    You are not a novice pilot, but 1000 hours is not a whole lot to be taking on these risks. And why? I have a similarly equipped and maintained Beechcraft and 3300 hours on my instrument rating, but I respectfully disagree with almost every single one of your decisions.
    I am admittedly risk-averse, but you sound just the opposite: you seem to gravitate toward risk. Why? The only thing that comes to my mind is that you like excitement and the adrenaline rush, like an aerobatic pilot, sky-diver, or bungee jumper. Nothing wrong with that, but something to be aware of. Some might call it the behavior of an adrenaline junkie. Lots of those around.
    I am absoutely amazed that even upon further reflection that you did not think you took any undue risks. Really?????
    I’d prefer that you stick around to write more of your fabulous stories.

  10. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    I liked your article just the way you wrote it. The details added to the exercise you shared in evaluating your decisions. Flying is all about making decisions. Your flight was safe to the extent of your aircraft and your own capabilities. As you said, flying is itself a risk that we pilots take. I wonder if you would still feel good about the flight and your decisions if the outcome had been different. By putting in a few additional limits as you have makes the margins more favorable. It is good you evaluated your flight, and through sharing it you examined your decisions. We all should evaluate our flights like this. Generally we can find something in which we improve.

  11. Leo Doyle
    Leo Doyle says:

    Hi Mark,

    That was both a well written and engaging story, thanks for sharing.

    So I also live in Naperville, work in the software industry, and learned to fly at and still fly out of A&M at Clow, small world.

    I think you wrote once about your cost justification model for owning your aircraft, let me know if you would be open to meeting for lunch one day to discuss.


  12. Owen
    Owen says:

    Hi Mark.. Thank You !! – another brilliant, informative and enjoyable piece of writing from you..
    The scary thing is that it reminded me of the times when I too had reached out and tickled fates chin.. It has happened to me before that after an “armpit dampening” flight I promise myself that I will not do “XXXX” ever again.. “Dodged the bullet this time”…But we sometimes all get a bit complacent and this article was a solid reminder that complacency kills.
    As you and I have discussed before, the weather in and around my home town, Cape Town, can be capricious at best (we locals often joke about all 4 seasons in a single day.. but it genuinely sometimes happens.) and our weather guru’s use only tarot cards and crystal balls for their forecasts (wry grin). And with its lack of diversionary or emergency airfields, South Africa can be a challenging place to fly long distance.. and Johannesburg, (800NM away) where my kids and grandchildren live, is at about 4800 feet with temperatures regularly in the high 80’s – So the cards are stacked in favour of the hunter whenever I fly up to visit them…
    We all have that “inner voice”, and thanks to this story from you, I have decided to pay more attention to my little inner voice in the future.. So much can go wrong so quickly – but if fate is the hunter, reading this article from you has made, and will make, me a better and wiser “prey”.
    Thanks again for sharing your experience with us.. it was a valued and worthwhile read and improved my own chances of using the “door”
    (I love your aircraft choice as well, I feel the same way about my 182S.)
    Keep the wise and entertaining words coming.
    Blue Skies and CAVU

  13. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:


    Loved your comments! Indeed, you live in a somewhat different world than many of us in the eastern US. Fortunately for me I’ve had little experience with being “hunted” by fate in a GA aircraft. Otherwise having 1965 tornado take a house from over my head and looking at a menacing sky is about as close to my demise that I have come. The only thing that adventure shares with flying is that weather is often very powerful and can drastically change one’s immediate plans. Fly safe!

  14. Mark Fay
    Mark Fay says:

    Again, I would like to thank everyone here so very much for all of the great feedback. You are all much too kind to me.

    I have thought through and re read every word you all wrote and gained valuable insight.

    I am so lucky to be allowed to have my stories posted on Air Facts. It is such an incredible honor. Please, all of you if you have not written a story, do it today. The tradition of the publication all the way back to Mr. Leighton Collins is to allow real pilots to tell their stories in their own words with a minimum of editing. What a brilliant man, so far ahead of this time, creating this valuable resource – the first ‘Social Media’ for pilots. Cannot thank Sporty’s, Richard, John and Pat enough for their work in continuing the tradition.

    I think all the commenters meant well and I have internalized their feedback realizing that if you ask 5 pilots risk management questions you will get 7 answers. I do think I pushed too hard and should have paid more attention to my intuition. But while I don’t see how I would have made a different go decision, I should have made others in flight. In retrospect, I should have went East, to near Charlotte, and then turned south. Flying parallel to the ridges would have been smoother and with more of a tailwind, better.

    Also, 7 months later, I do think fatigue was a bigger factor. I was slow to decide on an alternate, then rushed and sloppy when I initially picked 1A3, and reluctant to deviate dramatically from my planned route by going east to get further from the storm. The weather was beautiful just 150 knots east of my course.

    The biggest thing for me is that I am going to learn more about the weather. I have purchased Mr. Collin’s Flying the Weather Map and will be studying it thoroughly.

    Had I known more, maybe I could have picked up that my plan to land south of Atlanta was not going to work because of the really unexpected high head winds. Landing at night in the mountains in a 28 knot crosswind is not something I would plan to do. The storm that was 180 miles west of me ended up spawning over a dozen nasty tornadoes and 38 in total through Iowa, Alabama and Southern Georgia. Five people were killed.

    The National Weather Service was very slow calling warnings. The first warning did not occur until 7 tornadoes were spotted; November tornadoes are rare, only a handful of storms in Iowa in the last 75 years. I was in the air when the first report came in; it was 300 miles away from me at the time and the only good answer was to keep going. Certainly the forecasts and the briefers knew NOTHING about how severe the storm was to become.

    It’s one of those things where I did everything “right” – checked the weather rigorously at each stage and evaluated the risk carefully on the information I had – and still, and still there was something out there no one knew about.

    I will not be pushing so hard, especially late into the night, in the future.

    Again, Many THANKS!

  15. Joe Foote
    Joe Foote says:

    A short story that will save lives. I know about the Hunter, and I always test my risk to ensure I get back through my door – but you have nicely intertwined these with a difficult mission, which brings richness and imperative to both! Well done and thank you. I am personally putting the following on my flight checklist ” Is the Hunter close?” and ” Can I still see my door?” Cheers

  16. Shane A Henry
    Shane A Henry says:

    It’s hard to imagine anyone knows or believes they know when their engine is to quit. So we should always plan for that contingency. While the probability is low, a catastrophic engine failure in a single engine plane is bad, but its deadly at night, imc with widespread low ceilings, or over hazardous terrain.

  17. Mark Fay
    Mark Fay says:

    Hi Shane:

    Completely agree!

    Here’s a great article:

    On the flip side, you can’t get much utility out of a single engine airplane if you refuse to fly at night, over terrain, or when there are widespread low ceilings. You didn’t mention water, but I would consider that, too and is my bigger bug a boo.

    It’s all part of a pilot’s individual risk management decision making.

    I know this flight was not something I will repeat, pushing too hard late at night to go over 1,000 miles. I still just have a license to learn, and I have a lot of learning left to do.

    And I will think twice about night AND over terrain or night AND low ceilings.

    But I will continue to fly at night, just not late at night.

    I will continue to fly over widespread low ceilings, but will insist on 1.5 hours of gas when I land.

    And, I will continue to fly over terrain, ditto on 1.5 hours of gas.

    Just not more that one of them at a time: )


    • Lenny
      Lenny says:

      Really enjoyed reading about that flight, thanks for you’re honesty about the risk management. I landed at Clow a couple weeks ago and was surprised to see a coyote on the runway. Jolan in my opinion is an ambassador to GA , as you are. We flew a c-172 from klou to see friends in Naperville. What a wonderful place to live!

  18. Jesse Johansen
    Jesse Johansen says:

    There is a huge difference between get-there-itis and the careful evaluation of all the aspects of a flight with safety and the “door” and keeping a close eye on the “hunter” as your top priority. I think Mark clearly falls in the latter mindset and he was always within the ability of his plane and personal abilities according to his story. Getting close to your “line in the sand” is what improves your abilty as long as you don’t cross it and as long as the line is drawn correctly. Mistakes and unforcast events happen, but if you drew your line correctly you will still be on the right side of the beach when they do. Even if your close. Mark did fine and is clearly not a risk taker or an adrenaline junky or suffering from get-there-itis as some have suggested.

  19. Jesse Johansen
    Jesse Johansen says:

    Nice story by the way Mark. Your a good writer and a good pilot. Other pilots could benefit from your diligent, conservative, and methodical approach to flying and your constant reflection during the progress of your flight to make sure you weren’t crossing your line, which line you seem to have well placed.

  20. Jeff Gilmore
    Jeff Gilmore says:

    Mark, you’re a heckuva good writer, I’ve enjoyed all of your articles to date. Please keep it up, your articles are entertaining and informative, at least to me.

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