I was in the middle of my flight training journey in Greenville, South Carolina, in May of 2018, with only a few months of experience. Training options fell to afternoons after work, evenings, and weekends. Given the pop-up showers and other fast-moving weather that ply the Southeast that time of year, I had become used to looking at radar and weather apps many times a day. Typically it paid to check Sky Vector and sometimes place a call to or take one from my young instructor friend, Walker. One of us would occasionally say “not gonna work today.”
This flight was a typical compromise where there was enough weather in the vicinity that we made the prudent choice to stay local. Walker pointed out some systems to the west and that it was not advisable to stray from the area. We are lucky in so many ways flying out of downtown Greenville (GMU), in part because going to another airport with a long runway is just six nautical miles south. Donaldson Field (GYH) doesn’t have the benefit of radar, but it is towered and also has a generous 8,000 feet to land on. We are also fortunate to have mountains nearby, toward the Blue Ridge range, for sightseeing and flying challenges.
In our case we took in the dull overcast and occasional red cells on our weather apps and began pre-flight and run-up procedures. All but two of my training flights had been in 18 X-ray, a Piper Warrior II that I had grown to love and trust. After calling ground and reading back the instructions, we taxied to the top of the north-south runway and were cleared for takeoff on Runway 19, which pointed us right at the GYH. Not long after rotation we saw the familiar layout, reported Donaldson in sight, then switched over to their frequency to make the call.
A minute later, we were setting up for our first touch and go and getting into the rhythm that makes or breaks students in the pattern: climb out, check heading, reach 500 AGL, bend left coordinated and crisp. Continue climbing at Vx get to traffic pattern altitude 45 degrees out from the thousand footers, swing downwind—stabilize. Nudge speed and altitude, then try to relax for 15 seconds. Get set up for the landing—reach the thousands, drop throttle, pull flaps, pitch for level deceleration, then feel the drop. Left again, pull the handle for a second set of flaps, head on a swivel looking at the touchdown point. Try to turn final in a way that accounts for wind so that you’re not off the centerline, not high, not low, never ever slow. Line up, chop power, and let it glide in. Hold the nose down, roundout and then wait for the airplane to tell you it’s settling. Only once it starts talking, let the flare build then stroke back and hope for a greaser. Lather, rinse, repeat.
By the time we had half a dozen or so of these, both Walker and I decided it was time to call it a day. “Go ahead and let them know this will be our last one,” he said.
I keyed the mic: “This will be our last one before departing to GMU.”
“Oh you guys trying to beat the storm back?”
“Uh, repeat that about what storm?”
“Yeah there are reports of, uh, some activity coming off of Paris Mountain.”
Walker didn’t hesitate: “Tell them we’re going back right now.”
“Departing to GMU,” was my last call at Donaldson.
We banked north and both of us saw what had been developing while we were engrossed in our pattern work. There was a beast sitting on top of Paris Mountain and it seemed intent on eating airplanes. GMU was in front of us at around one thousand feet of elevation. Paris Mountain was only four nautical miles north, extending another thousand feet above that. The beast stood a few thousand feet over Paris—close and imposing. Black like that thing in the Mickey Mouse movie, it had camped out on top of the local foothill while we were running the pattern. Now it was ready to head toward town.
My impression of what had been happening shifted and I became aware. We switched to Greenville tower frequency and there were stressful calls with an urgency and stressful tone that were unusual for my home airport. As we headed north to enter a right downwind on the west side of runway 1-19, I could see landing lights bright against the blackness of a storm getting bounced around, winking up and down while being tossed sideways. The closer we got the more eerie the scene became—calm but with a strange fluttering in the airframe.
We were about to reach the thousand footers to set up our right downwind for runway 19 when I recognized what was about to happen. “Your airplane,” I told Walker. I released as he took the controls and then it started. We were bounced and shoved around with force that came easily to the impending storm.
Walker was in action and things got busy as soon as we began the turn to base. Wind from the west grabbed our upturned wing and began to fling us with considerable velocity eastward, toward a ridge on the other side of highway I-385 that had a large water tower on it. Greenville Tower requested that we make a short approach. “Negative,” Walker said before they could finish. “Give me one notch of flaps” he called at some point. His mind, feet, and hands were already busy keeping us airborne. Tower asked something else: “Tell ‘em no,” he said.
Walker keyed the mic: “Request runway 28.” He had detected the shift in the wind as we blew past the centerline of 19 with strange nonlinear visions of the water tower out the window at odd angles along the ridge. East of the field and high, with a right turn we were lined up on 28.
Walker pitched down and added the rest of the flaps. The view of the field is still fresh in my mind as being very clear and exhilarating to look at. The Warrior has a great way of helicoptering in and with a stiff headwind we dropped like a rock. Walker laid down a respectable landing and as soon as it started it was over.
When we taxied to the ramp, the owner of the flight school was outside and shook both of our hands. “You guys had a ride.” Within 15 minutes it was calm and clear again and I was on my way home.
People at the office the next morning were asking, “Did you see that storm last night?”