“Pucker Factor,” for those unfamiliar with the term, is loosely defined as how tight a grip your butt gets on the seat in times of stress. Every pilot has a few Pucker Factor stories. My CFI probably has a couple dozen with my name on them. This is my story as to how, in a single flight, I emptied half of a 30-pound bag of luck and stuffed 50 pounds of experience into the empty space.
I was a student pilot with probably about 35 to 40 hours under my belt. I’d completed the mandatory benchmarks for my private license and was practicing to hone my skills for the checkride. I was fairly confident as a pilot, but still very aware that I didn’t know what I didn’t know. On this particular day, I had the plane checked out for some solo practice.
During preflight I kept an eye on the weather. Delaware (KDLZ) was clear, but there were some heavy clouds forming about 15 miles south in Columbus. Weather is funny here in central Ohio. Quite often we’ll get low ceilings or rain showers all around, with a little flyable patch of VFR sunshine in a 10-mile radius centered right over KDLZ. This is what I had this particular day, so decided to go for it.
I wasn’t going far, just to the practice area north of the airfield to do some steep turns (my nemesis) and ground reference maneuvers. About 15 minutes into the flight I was facing south toward the airfield and… I couldn’t see it. A pop-up storm had completely engulfed KDLZ. I started to get the impression I was stuck inside the pickle jar. I got a firm yet gentle grip on my seat.
These storms usually don’t last long, so I yanked and banked my way through a couple more steep turns while I considered my options. I heard other traffic coming to land at Delaware, so I figured the weather was flyable, if marginal. The storm was not going away, and as time passed, I was getting a tighter grip on the seat. Delaware isn’t a particularly busy airport, but there were still a few planes coming in. After the third or fourth pilot announced intent to land, I called him and explained my situation, and asked about the conditions and whether he thought I could make it. He came back with one of the smartest things I’d ever heard anyone say: “I can’t answer that for you.”
Thus reminded of my responsibility for my own safety, I took a firmer grip on the chair with my cheeks and reassessed the current state of affairs. There was a front off to the west, approximately tracing between Urbana and Bellefontaine, and up toward Kenton (I74, KEDJ, and I95 for those of you checking the map). My home airport, KDLZ, was still obscured to the south, and I had clear skies with a few scattered clouds to the northeast. I had plenty of fuel, gauges were in the green, and, other than the threat of an unpredictable pop-up storm, the weather was pretty good. I pulled out the map, took a bearing, and headed toward Marion (KMNN). It wasn’t the closest option, and probably a little outside the bounds of my solo endorsement, but I’d been there before and would rather go a little further to get to a somewhat familiar airport rather than seek any port in a storm.
Marion isn’t that far away, but by the time I got there I was tired, frazzled, and been flying under pucker factor about 10-15 minutes past the time I was due back at Delaware. I dialed up KMNN on the radio and got my wind and altimeter from the ATIS. Two missed approaches later, I was finally on the ground. Third time’s a charm. It was one of those rare instances where I was happier to be on the ground than in the air.
I didn’t see a soul in Marion as I pulled into the tie-down area. I shut down ol’ 34E and started digging through my flight bag for my cell phone. I’d already missed two calls from the FBO, so I called back and explained the situation and my location to the flight instructor on station. Ironically enough, his name is Storm.
Storm was relieved to learn I was safe and the aircraft was reusable. He told me the rain had cleared over Delaware and the way looked clear for me to get back. I had about an hour and a half before that front from the west came in. I wasted no time hopping back into the Snarge Barge and firing that sucker up. By now the pucker factor had let up a bit, but I was still apprehensive about the return flight.
Weather from the west was moving in but still at least 10 miles off. I had to dodge a few low scattered clouds en route and several times huge heavy drops of rain pattered off my windshield. I switched comms back to Delaware CTAF, checked weather, and announced my intent to enter the 45 downwind for Runway 10. I was nearly home and the end of the ordeal was in sight. I turned base for 10 and called my position over CTAF when I heard: “Delaware Traffic, this is Experimental 1234, taking Runway 28 and departing to the north, Delaware.”
Pucker factor locked onto my seat like a bear trap.
“Delaware Traffic, this is Cessna 34E, on left base for 10. I’m going to abort the landing and join traffic for 28.”
The Experimental called: “Hey Delaware inbound, I can just pull off on the taxiway and let you land.”
“Thank you, sir.” This small courtesy was an immense relief. I’d had enough flying for one day, so thanks again Experimental 1234, whoever you are.
Storm and I got the plane back into the hangar before the front from the west arrived. He assured me under the circumstances, diverting to Marion was a good call. For all the anguish, I probably learned more about making judgment calls on that one flight than I had on any other.
I was two hours late getting home and my entirely unsympathetic wife made me sleep on the couch.