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In February 1983 I bought an aerobatic 1975 Decathlon in perfect condition. It was in Las Vegas, Nevada and I flew the airplane back to my home in Atlanta, Georgia. The first two days of ferrying the airplane home was fun but not noteworthy. On the third day, the plan was to fly from  St. Landry Parish, Louisiana to Jackson, Mississippi for a fuel stop, then on to Marietta, Georgia for the night. However, it was not to be as the weather soon became THE  issue of the day.

The weather was forecast to be no lower than 1,600 ft. overcast and four miles of visibility from Louisiana to Jackson. From there, the weather was forecast to be much better. We took off in the Decathlon and climbed up to the base of the clouds, which turned out to be about 1,200 ft. AGL. The visibility was at least three miles so we pressed on, counting on the forecast to be correct.

low visibility

The visibility was at least 3 miles so we pressed on.

Approximately 30 minutes later, we were flying at 1,000 ft. AGL with visibility a little less than three miles.  I said to my passenger, “I’m sure this is just a momentary deviation in the weather and soon it will be back up to 1,600 feet and four miles visibility.” A few minutes later we were at 800 ft. to avoid the base of the clouds, and then we were down to 600 ft.  I decided we should turn around and land, as obviously the weatherman was wrong again.

By the time I turned around we were down to 300 ft. AGL and no direction appeared to be a good path.

Remember, I was a very experienced instrument pilot, but this airplane only had a large G-meter and engine instruments—but no other instrumentation for flying in IMC (GPS did not exist). I had a paper map and a whiskey compass! I begged for a way out, but weather was deteriorating in all directions. I needed an airport… fast.

Low visibility in haze

Visibility was decreasing and there did not appear to be a good path in any direction.

All of a sudden, a giant water tower appeared in front of me. I was now at 200 ft. AGL and quickly turned around the water tower to find my position. Woodville, Mississippi was written on the side of the water tower. Yes, at least now I knew where I was. A plan developed in my head: I just needed to find an airport, draw a course line from the Woodville, Mississippi water tower to that airport, and I would be saved from potential catastrophe. I was flying circles, literally, around the water tower. I got out my VFR paper map and hunted for Woodville on that map, but I could not find it.

I had now made at least six circles around the water tower. I passed the map back to my passenger and asked her if she could find Woodville. Another six circles around the water tower and she threw the map at me and said she could not find it either. I folded the map up to focus on where we were, and there it is: Woodville, Mississippi staring at me. I drew a very careful line (while flying at 100 ft. AGL) from Woodville to the Natchez Airport, which was the closest airport I could find. On the next circle, I rolled out on the heading of 360 degrees. I figured I was 15 nautical miles from Natchez.

I was now at 200 ft. AGL or less. I looked for indications on the map for anything that would confirm that I was headed in the right direction. I saw what we call an antenna farm, a collection of antennas. I figured if I was on the right course, I should see all of them out to my left. My eyes were aching as I keep searching for the antennas. All of a sudden I saw an antenna off my right side, then two more on the left. Fear rose in my throat as I realized I was in the middle of the antenna farm.

The good outcome of this momentary fear was that I knew my exact location. I corrected my course 2 degrees to the left and looked at my clock for the time that was left to the airport. I was still less than 200 ft. above the ground with visibility less than a mile. I called final approach on the common frequency and asked for weather information. A voice replied, stating that there is a “very low ceiling and estimated visibility of 1/4 to 1/2 mile.” I had slowed to approach speed and kept hoping  for a view of any landing spot at all.

Suddenly, there it was—the numbers 36 on a piece of pavement right in front of me! A few seconds later, I was stopping on that beautiful runway.

Low approach in Pilatus

I was desperately searching for the runway in the low visibility and it finally appeared!

Thank you Lord!  I promised I would never again put all my trust in a weather forecast with no backup plan.

I shut down in front of the small FBO that appeared out of the fog. The attendant came out and said, “Welcome to Natchez.” We were the only airplane to land that day. The scheduled commuter airline canceled all three of its flights due to the low ceiling and visibility.

Dan Stukas
Latest posts by Dan Stukas (see all)
24 replies
  1. jon marcus
    jon marcus says:

    I was an instrument/private pilot for many years. While I’m happy this worked out, this story is precisely the reason I no longer fly. Why would I ever want to risk my like in a small plane again?
    I love flying but when I go its on an airliner. GA is and has always been dangerous.

    • Kris Maynard
      Kris Maynard says:

      That is not a fair assessment Jon and I think a vast generalization. Obviously there is inherit risks but as good pilots, we are charged with mitigating that risk through excellent planning, training, maintenance, etc. As in most cases, this was a case of poor judgment by the PIC by his own admission. It was a mistake to depart that day in an aircraft that was not IFR capable, I certainly would not have. Indeed there is calculated risk in GA flying like there is in anything we do in life but while it may (and should) limit our choices on a given bad weather day, I am not hanging up my wings. I am grateful this turned out well and I always lean a bit more about risk mitigation when I read stories like these.

    • Robert Stambaugh
      Robert Stambaugh says:

      GA flying isn’t inherently dangerous but it is terribly unfortgiving of pilot errors. I’m a CFI/CFII and an Air Force Test PIlot School grad but I intentionally lmit my flying to Day VFR over non-mountainous territory. I can say with all sincerity that I’m safer in my GA flying than I am driving in my car. Nothing is 100% safe and I enjoy my time in the air much more than my time on the freeway.

  2. Rich R
    Rich R says:

    Thx for recounting your day.

    After one too many days “massaging” low level (VR routes) mins thru mountains, my rules to live by VFR are marginal viz or marginal ceilings, but not both, certainly no layer below a marginal ceiling, flat land vs mountains is night/day different, but definitely none of the above at night.

    There’s a world of difference between a uniform 1200′ overcast with nothing but 10 mi viz below and a 2500′ overcast with random scattered layers of fuzz balls in 3 mi viz.

  3. Regina Chandler
    Regina Chandler says:

    I’ve had enough of my own “never again!” experiences. Thanks for sharing this story that I can just say “never!” to without having to experience it.

  4. Greg
    Greg says:

    While the outcome was successful, he could have easily killed himself and his passenger at the antenna farm and probably a few more cell towers he never saw. I’m sure there were countless fields he could have land in at anytime. My training tells me first not to continue into deteriorating conditions and if you can find an open field get on the ground. How are you trained in this situation. This is a teachable moment.

    • Christopher Rush
      Christopher Rush says:

      Remember this was also 1983 and not 2023. There were no cell towers then and no GPS. I agree that departing into IMC lite conditions (1600′ ceilings and 4 nm vis) wasn’t the best idea, but he did have a plan at the time. But we know about best laid plans. I’m sure now the pilot would have started to locate a suitable airport once the ceilings dropped to less than 1000′

  5. Mike Sheetz
    Mike Sheetz says:

    Regardless of PIC experience, if the aircraft is not equipped to handle deteriorating weather then the personal limitations need to be adjusted to align with conditions. The PIC learned his lesson, a valuable one at that. I would guess that “get-there-itis” was in play!

  6. Rayford
    Rayford says:

    In about the same time period, early 80’s, my wife and I departed STL in a Warrior to fly to OKC and DAL. First day out we checked in by phone and my wife’s mother had had a heart attack down in Key Largo FL. We planned a divert. Turned SE along I-10. There was a front in front of us that was supposed to be into mid FL by the time we got to Panama City. Details are becoming fuzzy now but just like this story the forecast was wrong. Ceilings were going down and ahead there were whisps of clouds in the Pine trees. Down low, no VOR lock, I turned 180 and we were in a hole. I too saw a water tower and headed for it. Starting a right hand turn for the observer to read the name I saw a red light, huge, go past the left wing. My wife was a superior, CAP Observer and GPS, Girl Positioning System. She put her finger on the Sectional and I headed for Fairhope, AL across the bay east of Mobile. There was now lightening and a CB over Mobile. Outflow was coming unimpeded over the bay out of the west at Fairhope. Fairhope was a 18/36 as I remember and we were headed 18. Airport on the nose and I see a white tail light and then a Bonanza on final in front of us. Flaps, Idle, and I gave him some room. I could tell by his right wing on the runway what the wind was. Shortly after the downwind main touched the ground I heard this voice on the radio, “Sure is nice to be on the ground isn’t it?” We spent two days in a motel and returned to STL and drove to FL now on Emergency Leave. That was when I decided to get my instrument rating.

  7. Captain Doug Morris
    Captain Doug Morris says:

    Dan. Glad you are still with us after that encounter! I am unsure if I would venture into a low-cloud deck with fair visibility and no instrumentation. But you kept your cool and turned back. Well done! Being an ex-weatherman and author of two aviation weather books, I am reluctant to condemn the weatherman. LOL. Frequently, forecasts are misunderstood. As my retort goes, “No one ever remembers when the weatherman is right.” Again, I am glad to read you arrived safely. We all have all weather stories. I also scared myself scud running, but fate was also on my side.

  8. JCK
    JCK says:

    My aviation mentor once told me the best accuracy a weather forecaster can ever achieve when trying to predict the future is 50/50 – they’re either right or they’re wrong. That one has stuck with me!

  9. Loren Swanson
    Loren Swanson says:

    I believe the answer to all of this comes in “Personal Minimums” that remain in effect. Decide ahead of time what kind of minimums you are comfortable with for that particular trip, and as soon as that minimum is reached, have a plan that go into effect automatically. It’s so easy to go for “just a little more.” As soon as that minimum is violated the trouble begins. Eventually the “just a little more” will be too far!

  10. Hank Kuhlman
    Hank Kuhlman says:

    Been there. Luck and skill and a level head prevailed. Lessons learned for sure but sometimes the sky falls all around. Staying out of the clouds without instruments save two lives. Down to basics- find position and compute a heading. Good job.

  11. Steve Jensen
    Steve Jensen says:

    Safer than a “guestimated” personal minimum, I stedfastly use the MSA in each VFR Sectional chart sector along my route. Perhaps “too conservative” for many, -however legal- , and may not reach my destination on time,but I am still alive and breathing after 65 years of GA flying.
    “I’d rather be on the ground wishing were flying, than flying wishing I were on the ground…”

  12. Mark Scardino
    Mark Scardino says:

    Water tower! I recall getting my Private at the McGuire AFB Aero Club, and launching about a month later, flying a T-41 (really a C172) to Maxwell AFB in Montgomery AL. Found my first fuel stop ok, but then I got lost trying to find my next fuel stop in north Georgia. Had my wife and 6 month old daughter onboard.

    Saw a small town so I descend down to read the water tower, NO NAME! Nothing, not even the high school name! I wasn’t very competent on VOR back then but I didn’t waste time and transmitted on 121.5 for help. A FSS answered, asked where my last known location was. He suggested to tune in Tocca VOR (now Foothills) and fly to it as it was on the field or nearby, don’t recall. Airport was on top of a ridge and boom, there it was. Fun times!

  13. James Hicks
    James Hicks says:

    Natchez (HEZ)–my home town. First solo there in a 172 on 3/23/62. There is an “IFR” (I Follow Roads) route from Woodville, US Highway 61, and probably safe at 200 feet AGL except for the possibility of transmission lines. Until the VOR was built they had an NDB approach that the Southern Airways DC-3’s used. Until I started instrument training, I never understood why we would hear those rumbling radials pass over the airport on the outbound leg then disappear for a few minutes before seeing the lights break out on final. Now 51 years (and 3300+ hours) later and half a continent away I still remember the first little white frame terminal and the DC-3’s right engine left turning during their ~5 minute stops there.

  14. Henry Kahrs
    Henry Kahrs says:

    Dan, Not sure about others but I seem to feel like I’m right there with sweaty palms and all as I read your story. Glad that worked out and (we) made it back in one piece. At least your panic was contained and you were able to think and act.

  15. Suresh Kumar Bista
    Suresh Kumar Bista says:

    On the Hawker Siddley HS-748 (AVRO), once you select the climb and cruise power, power levers may not be touched. Fuel Cocks (fuel levers) in connection with the power levers maintain a constant speed. There is a ‘Fuel Trimmer’. Electrical switches for both engines. This increases or decreases the fuel flow slightly to increase or decrease the TGT as required. For take of and landing with the possibility of a go-around, the ‘fuel trimmer’ is set around 70 to 80 % depending on the OAT.
    After take-off, power levers are reduced to maintain 14200 rpm. Then climb/cruise power is requested. Pilot monitoring will adjust the power levers and select around 45 to 50 % on the ‘fuel trimmer’ to get TGT of 740-760 Celsius.
    One day I was flying with a newly released type rated FO. I asked for climb power. I saw him go into action. After a minute, I noticed the loud engine noise and very high engine torque. I looked down at the fuel trimmer, it was set to around 95 %. I was upset and advised him that this was not how we trained you. I showed him again how to do it. Fine. I was the PM in the next sector. On our third sector, I was the PF again. I asked for climb and cruise power. I saw him go to work. I intercepted radial 115 degrees to fly this new destination. I entered cloud and rain and was IMC. Unfortunately, I heard the most frightening audio call-outs. “terrain terrain..pull up”. Lasted for around 15 seconds. I stretched my neck out see down below and was horrified to see tops of trees through the rain and cloud. It was a mountainous terrain. I looked at my VSI. That showed around 150 to 200 feet per minute climb. I noticed that ‘fuel trimmer’ was set to zero instead of 45 – 50 %. I pushed both switches to 100 %. Torque increased, climb rate increased. GPWS stopped shouting at me. This was THE most scariest moments of life in flying. I told myself, DO NOT TRUST anyone who is flying with you. Always check check check. That FO left and joined another airline. He was a FO for sixteen years before he quit flying.
    I learnt something great from that incident. Lucky me.


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