The fronts march to a rhythm around here. So, I knew it in advance. It wasn’t that my sixth sense had somehow kicked in, but rather the knowledge gleaned from a thorough weather briefing. It wasn’t a pretty picture, either, but typical for the season: another low-pressure system was making its way through the Carolinas and into the Northeast corridor with enough attendant weather to bring low IMC to most of the Northeast itself. I had a flight in the morning to Salisbury, MD, then to Richmond, VA, and then back home to Chester County, PA—all forecast to be at or near minimums, or possibly even below. This posed a real problem.
I had done my instrument rating in sunny Denver, Colorado. ‘Nary a cloud did we ever encounter throughout all the air work we had done. Hood time was the rule. Truth be told, I was quite rusty to boot, and I immediately thought of a part time instructor at Chester County Airport where we kept the plane, with plenty of solid weather experience. His name was Steve.
I called him and asked if I could hire him for the day, and he was excited to have some real-life IFR weather flying back in a single-engine aircraft. He was current and so was the aircraft, a Piper Archer. The only caveat was that he had to be home for dinner on that particular evening. Apparently, his wife was pretty insistent. I knew we wouldn’t hold him up, what with just some papers and documents for my boss to sign. Regardless of all the details and the weather, I slept like a baby that night.
As dawn lit up the skies, it was plain to see that the weather was on top of the mailboxes, as it was once put. We needed to be in Salisbury, out on the Delmarva peninsula, early for our meeting.
“It’s about 300 ft. and a mile or so visibility,” he said, handing out some coffee for us. “Not bad, so far.” Based on the size of coffee cup, I was glad for the short, initial flight. I was immediately glad to have him onboard for my inadequacies.
He put me in the left seat, and I asked, “are you really alright flying to minimums from the right seat?”
He laughed, saying “I think so.” Then, he had a more serious question for me.
“Can you transition right to the gauges on rotation,” he asked, “because it’s really low here.”
I felt that I could and told him so. And that’s the way it went.
We went IMC shortly after breaking ground, and almost immediately after that popped out of the lower clouds into an out-and-out clear amphitheater of clouds with a grey dome. We remained between layers until we ran into rain just north of Salisbury and shot the full approach—no radar, no vectors—into the terminal, which had remained 300 feet and a mile visibility.
While the paper signing mélange got underway, we went to Flight Service there on the field. Things were really touchy in Richmond, which was calling out a measured ceiling of 200 ft. and half a mile visibility in fog and rain. We lucked out, as there was no convective weather anywhere too close to our route of flight. We did not get lucky at that particular time back at home base: a phone call to the FBO was not answered, AWOS was not yet on the scene, so we had no idea what conditions really were back at Chester County (MQS).
We took off for Richmond and after a time went IMC again, but it was mostly light chop. As soon as able we got Richmond ATIS—things seemed pretty static, staying glued to 200 and a half. We hit moderate rain on the descent, which continued through the rest of the approach. I had only had a mind’s eye guess at the old IFR boogeyman, minimums. When we were fully established, I was glad we had hired Steve, as I would not have dared to go below 800 feet and a mile. I was legitimately afraid to “get the certificate wet.” I had only about 500 hours of total time.
At the middle marker, Steve called out minimums, and there in front of us was the approach lighting system in all its regalia, featuring bright approach lights, and runway threshold lighting (REILs). Truly a piece of cake, provided you didn’t have dodgy weather, turbulence or stepdown fixes with which to contend. Strangely, what I really ended up learning was yet to unfold.
On climb out departing Richmond, we got a special bonus: there in the west was the sun, shining between layers, and a patch of blue overhead, playing hide-and-seek with us. It was magnificent to witness.
Finally, within proximity to Modena VORTAC, Steve said he would call Chester County’s FBO on Unicom. An answer came back almost immediately.
Strangely, the helper asked us what we were doing today. Steve told him we were about to shoot the ILS 29 into Chester County, and asked about weather. The distance from the old FBO to the runway could not have been more than 200 yards, at the most.
“Well,” the young man said, “I’m looking out of the hangar, and I can’t even see the runway or the taxiway from here.”
Steve told him to “look again,” to which he got the same reply. When Steve told this lineman he was going to try the approach, the young man fairly ran outside to listen for us to pass overhead.
We shot a perfect approach and at minimums Steve asked me: “Do you have ground when you look straight down?” I responded in the negative. He pressed on, busting minimums.
“I know this approach very well. We can go a little lower.”
“Airspeed is 65 knots, Steve.”
“We’re ok, we’re ok…” he said. He continued lower and lower.
“Airspeed is 60 knots. Full needle deflection. STEVE, YOU’RE GONNA KILL US ALL!” I screamed.
To my utter shock, at this point, Steve suddenly lifted his hands off the controls, saying: “YOUR airplane.”
Still in shock, and with an airplane trimmed nose up, I went to full power and immediately added a lot of forward pressure to the yoke, along with right rudder to center the ball. That’s when vertigo got me. I felt as though the airplane were rolling. The instruments looked all wrong.
“Instruments, fly your instruments!” echoed my father’s voice in my head. So, I did.
When I caught my breath, I told the controller we were on a missed approach.
“Declare your intentions,” said the voice.
“What is the weather at Reading, now?”
He said: “Near minimums.”
“We’re going to Reading,” I told him.
“125.45 for Reading Approach, and good luck, sir.”
I did a passable approach at Reading, the ILS to Runway 36. Right after we landed, they closed the field.
Over the years, I have played and replayed this scenario in my mind. Recall the lineman who took off, running? “I thought you were going to take out the radio tower. You passed right over me. Low, real low,” he told me later. He didn’t see us, but he sure heard us.
I soon received some much-needed instrument proficiency skills, and never again let anyone in my aircraft bust the regs so blatantly. I even found a fellow pilot who loved to go up in the murk and shoot approaches. As for Steve, I never saw him again.
Editor’s Note: This article is from 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@example.com.
Commercial Pilot, single and multi-engine, instrument, flight instructor, and instrument flight instructor. Author, “The Cancer Link,” photojournalist.