VFR to IFR in a flash on a solo cross-country

I was recently going through some of my “archives” (OK, boxes of crap) in my garage rafters and came across an article written by Flying magazine’s Gordon “Bax” Baxter way back in March of 1978. When I came across it, I was curious as to why I might have saved the article, but it took only the first paragraph to bring back the memory as to why I did.

Gordon’s article was about his experience “back, way back” when he took a cross-country from Texas to New York and, on the way back, got into a little trouble scud-running north of Knoxville and came out of the low deck in a spin. He recovered, of course, but the experience obviously haunted him forever more.

I had soloed on January 18, 1977, at sleepy Brown Field, located in far south San Diego, right on the border with Mexico and a pattern violation away from the Tijuana International Airport. My old man (I was a third-generation aviator in the making at that point) insisted I get a solid grasp of Bernoulli’s Principle before I started any formal “motorized” flight training, so I went and got my glider rating first—also at Brown Field. Growing up flying, I had unknown hours practicing map reading, watching how to endlessly mess with throttle, mixture, and prop settings, gaining an appreciation of spatial awareness (later situational awareness) looking out the windows, holding a heading and altitude for what seemed like years on end, and coming to terms with the inevitability of Murphy’s Law as well as the meaning of sleeping on the ground, beneath the wing, at lonely airports waiting for anyone to arrive to (fill in the blank here) and get airborne again. As a result, straight and simple stick flying was a welcome addition at that point in my young life!

Alexander by airplane
A 550-mile cross-country over the mountains and desert of Southern California—what could go wrong?

I would have to check my logbook for the exact date, but about three months later I was ready for my solo cross-country. The plan was to fly from Brown Field (SDM) straight north to Victorville (VCV), fuel up, and then depart southeast for Yuma (YUM) for another splash of gas before heading straight west for home. That meant I’d have some mountain flying to do and would have to shoot the Grapevine gap across the San Bernardino Mountain range—no biggie on a CAVU VFR day, right? I

’d be desert flying over to Yuma, and for half of the trip back to Brown, so no worries there. However, I’d have to have some altitude for the final leg to clear the Jacumba Mountains and the downslope into San Diego from there. I reckoned 6500 ft. oughta do it, as the highest elevation along that stretch was just over 4000. The triangular route would cover about 550 miles and would take me pretty much all day, what with fuel stops and doing it in a mighty Cessna 150.

So, on that bright morning, I completed my pre-flight, made sure the tanks were topped off (and the caps were on tight), situated my maps and such on the pax seat and powered her up. The first leg up to VCV was uneventful, with two minor exceptions. The first was experiencing my first-ever clear air icing. Sure, I had read about it, but never actually saw it (I live in San Diego, remember?). I only noticed when the engine started running rough, and a quick application of carb heat solved that problem—except I then looked out on the wing and saw some fuzzy ice forming along the leading edge and under the wing. So, having plenty of altitude, I just dropped a grand and everything was fine. Until I looked ahead of me and saw a 747 crossing my path, co-altitude. He was on a long approach to LAX and I wasn’t talking to anybody (those were the days, eh, lads!?!), so I guess I wasn’t too surprised. Besides, he was about three miles ahead of me and I’d clear him without any issues (I even prepared for potential wake turbulence—what a sharp student, huh?!).

After a top-off at VCV, I was airborne again, tuna sandwich in hand, bound for Yuma. I had some fun and got down low (nope, not sayin’…) and crossed the Salton Sea before passing over the sand dunes. Needless to say, I was only mildly aware of any VR routes along my journey, so any A-4s or Rhinos could have had me for lunch, I ‘spose. Years later I would fly a few of those same routes, only in a Tomcat, and would flash back on that trip vividly…

Yuma was easy and I was off for my final leg home by mid-afternoon. I was mostly IFR—the Freeway kind—all the way back, but as I approached the mountains, I could see some gray above and behind them. As I got closer, it got darker. I had Borrego on the nose, so I knew I could always divert there, but have you ever been to Borrego (with no cash)? Yikes! So, I pressed on, figuring there might be a ceiling and I could just fly beneath it across the range. Once past Jacumba, however, my situation degraded rapidly.

I can no longer recall if I was aware of an incoming system and thought I could beat it, or it developed quicker than forecast and “caught me” or what. But in a flash, I went from VFR to IFR as if someone had flicked a switch. My first reaction was to see if I would “pop-out” the back, like all of us did/would/still do. But after about 15-20 seconds, my thoughts turned to bugging out.

Owens Valley
When you’re low over Owen’s Valley and the clouds are hiding the mountains, what do you do?

Because I’d had some experience flying IFR as a copilot growing up, the immediate situation did not freak me out, as I trusted my instruments. But when I went to execute my standard 180 turn, somehow, I let the airplane get away from me and we started into a slow left-hand spiral. Like Gordon did all those years ago, I took my hands off the wheel, spent about 5 seconds in disbelief and borderline fear, and then snapped out of it and got back to work. I reduced power a bit, started bringing the column back to level off and rolled to wings level. The entire time, my head was in the cockpit, so it took no small amount of relaxing a bit to realize I’d popped out the bottom of the cloud layer… in Owen’s Valley. Beneath the ridgelines. With no clear sky in sight. And perhaps 400 ft. AGL. Now—what to do…

My first inclination was to simply follow the highway back east and break out enroute to Borrego. However, something inside me tipped my attitude hat forward and I said to myself, “Let’s go for it!” So westward it would be, climbing to a safe altitude in IFR conditions and “see what happens.” In my mind, worst case scenario (should I not be able to speak to someone) was to simply fly west for an hour—probably right over downtown San Diego and Lindbergh Field—on out to sea and then perform a slow descent down to sea level (or hopefully a level just above contact with the actual Pacific). I would then turn around and head for home. Pretty bold… pretty stupid.

Fortunately, I was spared such a dramatic, headline-making outcome when I was over the El Cajon area, near Gillespie Field (SEE), and spotted a hole in the clouds below me. I tipped that little Cessna over on its wing and dove through that baby like a Stuka! Once back in the clear, I could see Brown Field in the distance and pointed her for home. And that’s when the upper part of my brain returned, and the shakes set in. I managed a rather inglorious landing at an otherwise inactive home base and taxied up to the tie down.

No one was around to talk to, and so I just sat on the left main tire for awhile, soaking it all in. Was it one of my nine lives? Perhaps. Did I learn from the errors of my judgement? Too soon to tell at the time (there would be other incidents of bad headwork and tomfoolery to come), but I am still here today as I write this, so… Would I always remember it? See the answer to question two above. But as I read Gordon Baxter’s piece—which sounded even more harrowing than my own experience—I had the briefest of sensations that maybe, just maybe, while I was sitting on that left main, pondering my good fortune, Gordo was sitting on the right main, nodding accordingly…

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: editor@airfactsjournal.com.

5 Comments

  • I airport hop on my long distance cross country flights VFR. What i mean by that is i use them just in case i do, and have, encountered IFR weather. Once i overflew an airport i should have landed at, due to the weather conditions going IFR. As i attempted to do a 180 turn, the clouds enveloped said airport. I now had no choice but to soldier on to the next airport along my route of flight. I got down on the deck as low as i dared go. Followed an access road, found the next airport, and landed it in pouring rain. Won’t make that mistake again. Hopefully…..

  • Just beyond Pine Valley in east San Diego County, along Highway 8 and south x southeast, lies a very small valley that’s around a location called “Boulder Oaks” on today’s maps. My logbook indicates I called it Owen’s Valley at that time, so I’d need to research further as to why. That said, I certainly understand the confusion with the more “famous” air test and UFO-sighting geographic hot spot of Owens Valley up near Lone Pine. If this had happened there I’d obviously have been in much bigger trouble!

  • Pete, okay now I understand. I thought how in the world you ended up 350 miles away from San Diego! I live in the Indian Wells Valley just south of the Owens Valley. I was born and raised here. I’m a retired civilian from NAWC China Lake. My dad was a private pilot when I was a kid. We flew out of Inyokern. Fun times for sure. My dad is 87 and I’m 62 we still miss flying. Thank you for your response!

  • Pete, okay now I understand. I thought how in the world you ended up 350 miles away from San Diego! I live in the Indian Wells Valley just south of the Owens Valley. I was born and raised here. I’m a retired civilian from NAWC China Lake. My dad was a private pilot when I was a kid. We flew out of Inyokern. Fun times for sure. My dad is 87 and I’m 62 we still miss flying. Thank you for your response!

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