My passenger-side wing was pointed straight down at the mountainous terrain below us and, seated behind me, my good friend and her six-month pregnant daughter gasped in sheer terror. Just a moment before, we had been cruising in CAVU conditions while meandering along the windward ridgeline of the Presidential Range in the White Mountains of New Hampshire.
How did I find myself in this predicament? What was sequence of events that led to this impending peril? As with many Aeronautical Decision Making (ADM) stories, the moment of truth is easy to identify, but where the story begins is not always as clear. As I am the author, I would like to start at the beginning of the beginning with the hopes of entertaining the reader.
I have always wanted to fly. I remember, as a little boy, being mesmerized any time an airplane flew overhead. However, for a multitude of reasons, I never felt that learning to fly was a viable option. Please don’t take this as a complaint! Indeed, it is not. In fact, my life journey has been all that I hoped for—I married, raised a family, started and grew a small construction business, took care of aging parents, and so many other things. During these wonderful years, the pursuit of my infatuation with flight was postponed, but not forgotten.
In 2014, with children grown and on their own, I realized for the first time that I felt I had the free time (and funds!) required to pursue this dream of becoming a pilot. With perseverance, I passed my private pilot checkride and, as most who are reading this article know, a whole new world opened up to my wife and me. We bought a plane and the fun began. At the same time, so began subtle hints from good friends about looking forward to scenic flights :-)
As I considered these hints, I realized that I did not yet feel comfortable going up with anyone but my wife or other pilots. I knew that I would feel a keen responsibility for my passengers’ safety and I did not feel that I had enough experience to, by my standards, fulfill this obligation. So, I flew and flew and flew, just about every day for a quite a while. The time finally came when I was confident that I could handle the airplane in most conditions. After hundreds of takeoffs and landings, flights along the ridgelines, through the valleys, and visits to short grass strips, I felt ready!
I also felt ready with my ADM skillset. As I was taught, I maintained a personal minimums contract with myself during all this practice. I have to say that it was wonderfully satisfying to adjust my personal minimums as I gained confidence and skills. But I soon realized that I needed another set of guidelines in addition to hard and fast personal minimums, and I began to assemble a list of what I call “Steve’s rules to fly by.” These rules of mine are a compilation of all the little lessons I have learned that I believe help me fly better and more safely. I write them down and review them frequently.
Because we live in the heart of the White Mountains, a number of my “rules” address mountain flying concerns. One of them is that I will only take sightseeing flights with passengers on board if the weather is calm and clear—turbulence can ruin the most scenic flight. Furthermore, I have a corollary to this particular rule which is that, with sightseeing passengers on board, while at lower altitudes I will only fly on the windward side of ridges, pleasantly surfing the updrafts in the mild wind conditions.
With this all in mind, I circle back to my story. One summer evening, as my wife and I were having dinner with our neighbors/good friends, we made plans for a scenic flight the following day. The next morning dawned and ushered in the most perfect flying day one could imagine. We departed our local grass strip and meandered our way towards Mt. Washington, circling their house along the way. We toured the Mt. Washington valley and hotel, circled the ski area, and then headed north along the windward (western) side of the Presidential Range. The views down upon the Appalachian Trail and the Lake of the Clouds hut were incredible.
In the right seat sat a young man who would love to become a pilot at some point. This was his first small airplane flight and he was in seventh heaven. Behind sat his mother-in-law and his pregnant wife. It was his wife’s first ever flight in a small plane as well. We were cruising at maneuvering speed (another of my rules to fly by when close to the mountains) and the cockpit was alive with chatter about how amazing the experience was. My right seat asked if we could cross over the ridge to take a look at the famous Tuckerman’s Ravine. He was and is a mountain runner and hiker and said he would love to get an aerial view of that side of the mountains.
I thought for a moment: the air is perfectly clear, I have not felt even the slightest indication of any turbulence, the wind is light, and in fact I have flown over this ridge in similar conditions a number of times alone and with my wife. I replied “yes” and turned to cross the ridge on a 45-degree angle, aiming towards Tuckerman’s.
The walls of Tuckerman’s Ravine are nearly vertical and the view from the cockpit was spectacular. I started to point out the various ski routes and hiking trails. As we passed over the lip of the ravine, a wind vortex created by the steep gullies grabbed the plane and flipped it 90 degrees in the blink of an eye. It happened so quickly! Disoriented, I used my limited upset recovery skills and worked to correct the violent roll and to keep the nose down… thank the Lord that it worked. And equally thankfully, no one was injured. With profuse apologies and with my tail between my legs, I carefully guided the airplane home to a gentle and uneventful return to earth.
I have no defense for the choice I made this day. By making it, I broke a promise to myself (regardless of the outcome). In the breaking the promise to myself, I broke the unspoken promise I had made to my passengers to look after their safety as best I could.
I am happy to report that my passengers have forgiven me. Furthermore, I have forgiven myself and learned a valuable lesson. Every one of my rules to fly by have been made for a good reason, and for that exact reason it is most important I abide by them. My answer to my right seat’s request should have been, “Sure, we can do that. I don’t want to fly directly over the ridge today, but we’ll fly to the north end of the range and climb as we do. We’ll skirt the north end of the range and fly south at an altitude that should avoid any potential turbulence.” This plan of action would have taken an extra 20 minutes of flight time and I had plenty of fuel. There would have been an added benefit as well: more sightseeing for my friends! Win, win.
Be smart, fly safe, and follow your own “rules to fly by.”
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 protected].