Piecing it together after a flight goes awry

Log Entry July 13, 2008: AF no-show, divert to 52A for WX, alternator failure.

The words are few, just a couple notes in the logbook to help describe the events of a day that started with promise and ended with a belly full of carnitas and an airplane stranded on the ground. But sometimes even a few words can describe a meaningful adventure.

With just over two years of airmanship under my belt, I sought every opportunity to build time and experience – and to help justify to my wife why I had bought that darn airplane. An aggressive schedule of instrument certification and several long cross-country trips had pushed me across the threshold of 250 hours required to be an Angel Flight pilot, so that became the next opportunity to expand my logbook.

“Patchy clouds this morning, and then a strong chance of afternoon thunderstorms across the region.”

Meteorologists across the Southeast can record this statement on July 1 and replay it every day until September, when the hurricane warnings start. But on this day, the statement held up. With the uncertainty in the afternoon forecast, I would not have chosen this day to fly just for fun, but, with an Angel Flight passenger waiting, I judged the mission doable.

“If I can get to St. Simons Island by 10 am and pick up the patient, we’ll be back in Atlanta by 12:30 or 1 pm at the latest. That should give me plenty of time before the storms hit.” My wife rolled her eyes and nodded, her silent way of saying yes, just go fly and have fun. And be safe.

Angel Flight passenger
Angel Flight patients are usually happy passengers.

Angel Flight patients are very appreciative of our volunteer pilot service, and are happy to travel in the relative comfort of a small airplane and avoid an hours-long trip by bus or car. And I have never met one who expressed any fear at all of flying; they are so preoccupied with their health condition that any flight anxiety fades into the background. It’s no joke – they’ve got bigger fish to fry.

But on this day, when I arrived at the Golden Isles FBO, my passenger was nowhere to be found. I called her number… no answer. I nibbled on FBO popcorn for a few minutes. I called the Angel Flight coordinator to see if she had reached out to cancel the trip, but they had heard nothing.

All the while, the benign puffy clouds that had been sentinels in the morning were joining together into ever-larger platoons and forming a united front, preparing for an afternoon assault on the region. With a final call to the Angel Flight coordinator, we agreed that the patient was a no-show and it was time to head home.

It was well past my 10:30 target time when I lifted off to do battle with the storms. But I had equipped my little 1976 Warrior II (call sign “Jugs”) with a yoke-mounted MFD, so with XM Weather feeding me a constant stream of NEXRAD data, I began to pick my way home through the buildups.

Even with little actual weather-flying experience, I knew the importance of staying visual in these conditions. Making headway through southeast Georgia, the ride was smooth as I picked my way through the cloud canyons that grew around me. But as I got closer to Macon, my eyeballs and the NEXRAD display both shouted the same thing. That towering gray monster in front of me – and the big blob of yellow/red/pink on the screen – said it was time for Plan B.

Off to my right, and 6,000 feet below, sat the little airport at Madison, Georgia. It was still in the clear, but the wall of water was approaching from the west. I could hear the voice of my primary instructor, Melissa, in my head: “Let’s have some fun with an emergency descent. Pull throttle, 45-degree bank angle, don’t bust Vne, get her down.” Which I did, and my heart danced a giddy little jig as I taxied toward the FBO, shut down the engines, and hustled inside just a minute before the deluge hit.

As a former ski instructor, scuba divemaster and karate instructor, I know from experience that we learn in increments, that we add bits and pieces to a solid foundation to develop the skills that we practice. In karate there is a saying: “When the student is ready, the master will teach.” What I have found is that this often means, “What the master has taught, the student finally understands when forced to use it!”

My diversion and rapid landing, then, was one example of how something I had learned in a safe training environment became highly useful in reality. It would not be the only example before my airplane was finally pushed back into its tie-down spot at home.

The storm passed fairly quickly, and fair skies followed. With the pavement still wet and the clean smell of rain in the air, I hopped into my trusty Warrior to finish the journey. It was now well past noon, and my stomach rumbled in anticipation of that warm cheeseburger back in Atlanta.

A quick preflight, a few shots of prime and a loud “clear prop!” into the empty ramp area ended with the soft rumble of that little engine. Except that now, my eye caught the blinking red light on the panel indicating that my amps weren’t amping, or my volts were revolting. It’s not always clear in these older airplanes where the electrical systems have been stretched beyond the limits of their original design.

“Ah, this I understand!” I had learned the hard way about electrical problems in an airplane. In my first ever solo cross-country, pre-PPL, I had missed a similar warning light during the 30-minute cruise to Dalton for my prescribed landings. Stronger-than-expected crosswinds caused me to abort those landings so I headed home, only to see my GNS430 start to flicker and die, along with every other bit of electronics in the panel. I had just enough juice to place a plaintive call on 121.5, and a friendly airliner relayed the info back to Atlanta that I was NORDO and would be coming in silent. That was a chance to practice real pilotage, light-gun signals, and a no-flap landing, since my little trainer had electric flaps.

I had worn a bright red shirt that morning, a prideful spring in my step as I considered the solo endorsement in my logbook and the flight ahead of me. But even though the flight ended fine, I decided that there was little place for cockiness in a cockpit… karma is a bitch… and I banished red from my pilot wardrobe. Still, I earned another layer of experience that would be useful down the line.

Thunderstorm cloud
When Mother Nature decides to build a wall of storms, your options quickly become limited.

As I sat there in Madison, engine happily running on all cylinders, but the battery slowly being drained of life, a quick decision was in order. I could try to make a run for it, and hope that the battery would last long enough to get me home. But getting home meant not only returning to a towered field where radio communications are important, but also flying into the Mode C veil around Atlanta. I had no idea how long my battery would last, or if my transponder would still be working. And since I didn’t relish the thought of a call from the FAA, a Plan C formed in my head.

Time to call Ed.

Ed was, still is, my flying consiglieri. We had been working together in a technology start-up for a year before I knew that he lived in the little town of Winder, about 50 miles east of Atlanta. But he commuted nearly every day in his trusty 1963 Cessna 172, a plane he affectionately dubbed “1-Ugly” after the truncated version of its tail number. Not ashamed to say it, 1-Ugly did live up to her moniker, but she was “the little airplane that could” and he made the trek into the city most days by air, unless the weather was just too profoundly horrible, in which case he drove into town in his beater airport car (which was only marginally safer!).

When I quizzed Ed about his flying commute and explained my interest in piloting, the next step was obvious. We arranged for a “long lunch” one early spring day so I could get a taste of life at 3,000 feet. I also got a taste of bile in my throat from that bumpy thermal afternoon, but my enthusiasm only grew, and soon the full set of Jeppesen Private Pilot flight manuals sat on my desk and I had lesson plans booked. I was infected by the pilot bug.

A few months later and sporting a new PPL certificate in my wallet, I drafted Ed for many adventures, first in 1-Ugly, and then in Jugs. (It was Ed who christened Jugs… not long after she came into my life, she required a bit of cylinder work.) We wore down the pavement at nearly every airport with a restaurant. We flew an hour just for the privilege of buying, and then using, the cheapest dinosaur juice possible. We made the pilgrimage to Moontown, Alabama, to experience the bliss of landing on a turf field as smooth as a fairway, and to really learn about adverse-yaw in an Aeronca Champ.

And one day, we both flew from Atlanta down to Dothan, Alabama, for the Cessnas-2-Oshkosh formation flight training. I had no plans to join them for the OSH arrival, but I did want to get some experience with formation flight and they were happy to oblige. They needed to fill the training roster in order to have two flights of three. So I learned formation takeoffs, how to maintain spacing in the #2 and #3 positions at a 45 degree angle from #1’s strut, how to use throttle to speed up and slips to slow down, how to switch positions behind the lead; in short, I learned how to keep my cool in close proximity to other airplanes

Sitting there at the Madison airport with an electrical gremlin running around in my panel, Plan C formed in my head. Winder is not far from Madison – ten minutes by air, thirty by car – maybe Ed would like to help me out.

In the half-hour drive it took for him to fetch me, another storm cell popped up, so we headed over to the local Mexican restaurant for lunch. And since the day was becoming a total rainout, we washed our carnitas down with a beer or two. Over chips and salsa we fleshed out the details of the plan.

He drove me home to Atlanta that afternoon. But two days later, he picked me up in 1-Ugly, we flew to Madison to retrieve Jugs, and we cruised back into town as a flight of two, with my transponder turned off and my radio on ship-to-ship. Tower even offered us a formation landing, but we decided that was a bit too aggressive so we split up and I landed in trail.

During that short trip back, I marveled at how many different puzzle pieces had fallen into place to make this adventure possible, how all the separate elements of training had come together into a unified whole. An emergency descent allowed escape from a storm. A prior electrical failure had taught me how to handle that situation. And a fun jaunt to learn formation flight became very useful when I had to nurse an ailing airplane back home.

As I pushed Jugs back into her slip and walked over to my car, I got that jaunt in my step again, that certain feeling that I had crossed at least one more threshold and was further down the path toward becoming a real pilot.

But I still won’t wear red in the cockpit!

3 Comments

  • Awesome story, Jeff. Real emergencies only makes us better pilots. I’ve never had a real one, and I don’t look forward for one as well.
    And you have also a great talent for writing. I really enjoyed reading it.
    Blues skies, always !

    Wagner
    Houston, TX

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