After eight days on the ground working on behalf of a national non-profit emergency services group running one of their Points of Distribution sites in Wilmington, North Carolina, I was ready for some air time. Lucky for me, one of the final air missions of Hurricane Florence was on the books for the following day and they were in need of a mission pilot (MP), with the mission observer (MO) and airborne photographer (AP) slots already filled. I was excited to get an air mission as this meant I’d have both ground and air missions in the books for one event. Had I taken that staff job they offered me, I’d have had the hat trick. But flying was what I really wanted to do so off to the airport I went.
I’d never flown an AP mission before, nor had I taken the AP class to be a photographer, something my mentor in this organization had pointedly reminded me of upon my arrival at the airport. It is not required for the pilot to also be an AP, but suggested. So after promising I’d take his AP class at some unspecified time in the future, we proceeded to get ready for the mission. This consisted mainly of looking at the weather and wondering when it would get better.
At 200 overcast and one mile visibility, things were not looking promising for what is a VFR mission. The weather was forecast to improve by mid-morning, up to marginal VFR. I thought that would be fine as we really didn’t need much in the way of ceilings since our mission is a low and slow one anyway, and the visibility was forecast to be much better as soon as the morning fog burned off.
Our MO, with whom I’d never flown or even met, expressed some hesitation about “scud running” and I took his comments seriously. I don’t like people who are part of my crew to feel uncomfortable with what we are doing so I took a moment to pull him aside and quietly ask him what specifically made him uncomfortable. After a bit of conversation, he discovered that I was a current and qualified instrument pilot. I discovered from our conversation that maybe I should have actually given him a bit of info about myself before I asked him to put his life in my hands. With the knowledge that we’d simply climb above any issues, call ATC, and get a pop up clearance to get home, he felt much better about the mission.
The weather didn’t really cooperate and our 10 a.m. weather window became noon. Mission base was getting antsy as the customer actually wanted us over target at high tide, about 9:45 a.m. If we waited too long, the entire mission would be scrubbed and I’d not get my chance to log an air mission to complement my ground mission. Normally I’m a very conservative flier, but I have to admit that I was ready to go just to get this mission underway.
Knowing I was abnormally ready to go (a different form of get-home-itis but just as bad) I made sure to involve the full crew in the decision to stay or go. We decided that the weather was better over our target than where we were so we’d launch IFR and then we’d cancel en route as we got to the reported better weather. The weather was forecast to improve at our base so when we returned, we’d be returning to VFR conditions. With solid outs in case of an emergency we were all comfortable with our plan, and our flight release officer concurred. We were a go.
Preflight having long since been completed, we hopped in and taxied out. Run up, clearance, and departure were in quick and well-practiced succession. Even though some of us had never flown together before, our organization’s required crew training paid off as we each knew our roles. We popped into the clouds at 1000 feet, and out at 2000 feet. Just a thin layer at this point and much improved over what we’d had all morning. ATC wanted bases and tops reports from us and we were happy to oblige, updating the weather forecast with our better than called for reality. Finally into the sunshine, we settled in for the trip down to the target area, with only one instance of popping back into the clouds to mar the otherwise blue sky trip towards Wilmington.
Arriving at our first target, the undercast was breaking up as forecast, and we notified ATC of our intentions, cancelled IFR, and asked to stay with them VFR for an extra set of eyes. Up to this point, I had been the aircraft commander. My MO, via talking to mission base on our proprietary radios, was routinely relaying information and was therefore sometimes the one taking control via his messages. Now that we were over the target, control of the mission transferred to the back seater who was holding the camera.
It was an interesting transfer of control back and forth, requiring clear and concise communication amongst the crew, which sounds easy but isn’t in actual practice. When I’m on Com 1 talking to ATC, Com 2 is on 121.5 (Guard! Or Chewbacca noises at random intervals) the MO is on Com 3 (yes we have three COMs) back to mission base, and a disembodied voice is in my head from the backseat giving directions via the intercom, communications can get a bit hectic.
Add in the fact that I liberally use the pilot isolate button on the G1000 panel so I could clearly hear ATC, and then sometimes forgot to turn it off so that my intercom conversations were a solo act, and you have a situation where communications can get missed.
As we descended into the target at about 1000 feet msl, avoiding clouds and towers, and looking not only at the target but surrounding areas for damage and washed out roads and dams (we saw both) we switched over to our back seat driver.
“Give me 20 degrees left”
“20 left, Roger”
“Keep the turn coming left. Keep coming. Stop turn. Pick up the wing to give me a shot.”
“Make the next pass a bit wider than the last one. 1/2 mile wider, same track.”
“Ok, give me a slip so I can get a clear shot.”
At every target we had towers that were at least tall enough to be interesting and usually we had some higher than our altitude and within a few miles of our location. When you are making loops around a target, always looking back towards the target, it is easy to miss the 2000 ft. tower that is the other direction from where you are looking. I tasked the MO to keep a constant eye on any tower we identified as a possible conflict and to annoy me by constantly updating me on its location regardless of whether I wanted him to or not. That sounds silly, but you’d be surprised how people will withhold information just because it seems like you might be busy. “Keep talking till I’m annoyed with you, then talk some more” is an oddly effective order.
The flying was fun. More enjoyable than I thought it would be. It was the normal turns around a point we all learned as private pilots, with random slips in the middle of the turn, and random 270 degree turns thrown in to reverse the angle for a different shot. All the while trying to hold airspeed and altitude to FAA test standards. Why to test standards? Many reasons but first, two other qualified people are in the cockpit with you and being off altitude or airspeed will come up in the debrief. All I want to hear in the debrief is, “Nice job.” Plus we all know the pilot’s prayer, “Please God, don’t let me screw this up.”
We worked our first two targets and then proceeded about 50 miles to our third and last target, a power plant surrounded by lots of water.
It looked to be in good shape with no dam breaks or washed out roads on the immediate site. There was a washed out dam just a mile away but there was already heavy equipment onsite repairing the blow out. Things looked pretty benign so we proceeded with our mission. Again we verbally switched command to the back seat and I flew dutifully as directed.
“Make this next pass a bit closer. The last was too far away.”
“Keep the turn coming. Further. Stop turn!”
“For this next pass, make the pass straight, then make a turn over those [exhaust] stacks then make a left turn.”
As I proceeded to fly as directed, I took us right over the short stacks right on airspeed and altitude. I was feeling pretty good about myself and really enjoying the flying. We were almost three hours into the mission and we had about two more passes and we’d be done and head home. Assuming I didn’t bounce the landing, I could add a challenging but successful air mission to my logbook. I was feeling good.
Suddenly the plane slammed upwards and the right wing shot up in the air putting us into about a 25-30 degree bank. The nose pitched up as well, maybe 10 degrees up. It felt like the biggest summer thermal I’d ever ridden, probably about +2.5 Gs. I exclaimed the famous last words most pilots say: “Oh S***!” I didn’t enter any control corrections as I didn’t know why we were heading upwards and I’ve yet to hear of an airplane crashing earthward by going up. No sense in adding additional airframe stress by trying to fight whatever it was.
We were heading upwards and the plane was banked and pitched but not banking further, a relatively stable situation. I had time to look around, look back inside and quickly scan the instruments, and then look around outside again. Then as suddenly as we’d entered the thermal, we were out of it. I leveled the plane and came back down to altitude, only then realizing what had happened.
The power plant, despite all the water, was quite functional. The bank of short exhaust stacks we’d used as a visual reference point were happily pumping out heated, and very clear, air. This heated air was shooting as a hot stream straight up to my unsuspecting airplane roughly 1000 feet above, giving us a free ride up to a new altitude.
Now back in the smooth air away from the plant, I mentioned, with some black humor to the crew, that we would not be taking that particular route around this plant again. Everyone agreed and we made a few more passes, with a wary eye on towers and now exhaust stacks. My right seater, a sailplane pilot, told stories of how back in the day they used to ride thermals over power plants to get free lift. But since 9/11 that it was most decidedly frowned upon. I reflected that riding that thermal would be a good source of lift, and, if I’d done it on purpose, it wouldn’t have even been that big of a deal. But coming on a completely calm day, out of the blue, it wasn’t something I’d want to repeat.
We returned uneventfully to base and I did manage to get us on the ground with a squeaker. We chalked the mission up as a success, each departing for our normal lives but eager for another mission on another day.