In July of 2005 I finally had gained permission to pursue my life-long dream of learning to fly. After running some rosy numbers in my head – the subject for another story – I decided to train in style and purchased a brand new Piper Archer III, fully equipped with the Avidyne Entegra suite, two Garmin GNS430s and an S-Tec Fifty Five X autopilot. Heeding the advice of a good friend (“Take your time… don’t be in a hurry), I invested a year and some 100 hours in the process. A short time after receiving my license to learn, I decided to put it to good use and planned my first real-life cross country flight to visit with family at the end of the summer of 2006.
Fully proud of my license and confident of my newly acquired knowledge and 125-hour engine, I felt fully prepared for the 450nm trip that would take me from my home base at PDK to 5A1 in Norwalk, Ohio. For days I carefully reviewed weather patterns around my planned route of flight and charted my course through, what seemed to be, the safer route via KTYS and KDAY.
After some delay in getting to the airport for our planned early morning departure to avoid the typical midday buildups, my wife, my mother, and I loaded our bags and took off at around 10:30 am with clear skies and calm winds. Soon after reaching our planned altitude of 9,500 feet, I set the autopilot and looked forward to a nice lakeside dinner to celebrate my wife’s birthday that evening with my sister and her husband.
It was not to be.
Forty-five minutes after takeoff, the dreaded summer buildups began inching up at a fast pace but still below my flight path. As a correcting crab into an increasing easterly wind was now more noticeable, I considered my options carefully, debating whether to climb and deviate to the west or to prudently divert to KTYS and wait for the afternoon storm to blow through, to then continue our journey in the late afternoon.
Remembering my instructor’s mantra of “I would rather be on the ground wishing I was flying…” and after a few exchanges with the tower, I was cleared to land and taxied to the FBO. As expected, the faucet in the sky opened up as we were walking into the FBO as if rewarding my decision-making skills and giving me a sense of accomplishment for having acted promptly and safely.
It was now 12:30 PM. After checking the weather and NEXRAD images, I told my wife and mother to make themselves comfortable and expect to depart by 4 pm. The time came and went but the rain and clouds prevailed. A local pilot later told me that the build-ups were typical for the area and that many unsuspecting pilots had been stranded for days under such conditions. He suggested we get a hotel room for the night and try again in the very early morning. I reluctantly agreed with his assessment and decided to make the best of the situation and have a private dinner with my wife to celebrate her birthday.
Early the next morning, after checking the weather, I set our ETD for 9:00 am and made our way to the airport. One glance at the covered sky was enough to accept that 9:00 am had not been early enough. Nevertheless, the optimist in me pushed forward to the airport and again, went through the ritual of checking the weather every ten minutes as if, by some magical powers, the picture would suddenly turn CAVU. I certainly was on the ground, wishing I was flying but I was not getting any comfort second-guessing my decision-making of the prior day. If I had known that I’d be stuck in KTYS, I would have climbed and modified my course to the west, I said to myself. I was not a happy pilot having to spend a second night in a Spartan motel with nothing more fancy than a delivery pizza.
This time I was determined to beat the cloud build-ups. We were ready by 4:30 am and out the door by 5 am. By 5:30 am I had completed the preflight and filed to be wheels-up by 6:30 am. After an agonizing wait for some local cover on top of the airport to clear, we were able to take off at 11:30 am. Some cumulus could be seen on the horizon but with enough separation to allow us to depart. Our climb to our cruise altitude of 9,500 feet was mildly challenging with maneuvering around small build-ups, but it was nothing different from what I had become familiar during my training in the Atlanta practice area. Soon, a thin overcast began forming beneath our position as I confirmed again that the forecast at destination called for light winds and clear skies… life was good.
We settled in for our 320 nm, three hour flight to 5A1. The Archer III holds enough fuel to keep us in the air for four hours. However, I had resolved to be a safe pilot and set my personal limit to three hours flying time. The right range for this leg.
The cloud cover seemed thicker and higher as we passed east of the London VOR. Once again I checked the destination forecast in my MFD and was reassured of clear skies. The winds aloft had picked up 15 knots, reducing our ground speed to the point of putting into question our three-hour flying time to the destination. A glance at my moving map gave me KDAY as an alternate, but I didn’t bother checking its weather conditions and instead, seeking better wind conditions and added insurance, I decided to request a climb to 11,500 feet. A quick look at the winds aloft reading confirmed a reduction of five knots and a slightly better wind angle.
We had been aloft for a little over two hours as we approached the York VOR. It was decision-making time. Should I continue to my destination 160 nm away or initiate my diversion to my alternate, 80 nm away, NW off course? At my current rate, it would take us 1:30 hours to reach our destination or about 55 minutes to reach Dayton as we would be turning more into the wind. For reasons that I now attribute to clouded judgment, I became overly obsessed with meeting my personal time limit and neglected to verify the weather at KDAY before committing to the diversion.
I requested my alternate and soon after it became evident that the cloud tops were rising to meet us. The fight to stay on top had started, first to a climb to 12,000 that soon turned into 13,000. Turning eastbound was now not an option as we were dodging build-ups while frantically searching for the magical hole in the clouds to descend.
“Are you instrument rated,” the controller asked, sensing my anxiety.
“No sir,” I responded while obsessively looking at my fuel gauges.
The controller was doing his best to keep traffic away from me. A small jet went by on top of our position, close enough for me to make out the pilot’s face.
My anxiety was beginning to show in the cockpit too. I explained to my wife that I was concerned about the fuel situation and that I was also looking for a hole in the clouds that would allow me to spiral down to a safe landing. My wife took a look at the gauges and saw a better picture. She assured me we had plenty of fuel to loiter for another hour if needed. Somewhat hesitant, I took her assessment as fact and paused to regroup my thoughts. That’s when I noticed my mother in the back seat doing her best impression of Moses, parting the clouds with her extended arms in a circular motion while summoning all the saints in her Catholic catalogue.
“THERE… AT 3 O’CLOCK!” screamed my wife, pointing to a beautiful hole with a view all the way to the ground.
“I see it,” I said, and announced my intentions to the controller, who cleared us for descent at our discretion. Without hesitation, I pushed on the control wheel while cutting power and establishing a left, circling descent. With an eye on my primary instruments, controlling my attitude and airspeed, we managed to reach the bottom of the clouds at 5,000 feet MSL and slightly northwest of the field. A couple of vectors later, we landed safely and taxied to the FBO. The fuel truck arrived and topped the tanks… Sure enough, I had 15 gallons remaining in the left tank and 10 gallons remaining in the right tank.
After a couple of hours on the ground to let the nerves regroup, we were ready to take off to our destination. Contrary to the forecast, there was a total overcast from KDAY to 5A1 at 4,000 feet. A southerly wind had also picked up considerably. The sun was coming down as I approached 5A1 and announced my intentions to land straight in on RWY 10.
After seven clicks to activate the runway lights, I started my descent with one notch of flaps and a slight crab into the wind. The directional control was spot on and I was maintaining centerline of this narrow runway. I applied a second notch of flaps at 500 AGL and a final notch at 100… that’s when I felt a strong downward push. As I flew below the tree line south of the runway, I could no longer hold directional control and started drifting. I heard my instructor calmly but firmly say in my head… GO AROUND!
Immediately I applied full power, regained directional control and, upon reaching pattern altitude, I started my turn to left downwind. I was maintaining full power but something didn’t feel right. I paused for a second and looked down to see the flap handle fully raised. I slowly took out two notches and reduced power to enter left base for a second try with only one notch of flaps and more speed. After a little floating, the Archer kissed the runway.
Back in my sister’s house, I reflected on the day’s events and felt a reassuring sense of accomplishment. In spite of the cascade of missed cues and mistakes, I learned more in those two legs than in my many hours of basic training.
One week later I was back in PDK starting my instrument training.
Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected]