mooney on ramp
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This flight began with a fateful, but not unexpected phone call notifying family that Mom was close to the end of life. Preparations were quickly made to fly the Mooney from my home field of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (KLNS) down to Jacksonville, Florida (KJAX), along with my wife and son. A pit stop at North Myrtle Beach, South Carolina (KCRE) was planned, and after a weather briefing, I filed an IFR flight plan.  We were wheels up around 1:30pm.

mooney on ramp

Preparations were quickly made to fly the Mooney from my home field of Lancaster, Pennsylvania (KLNS) down to Jacksonville, Florida (KJAX).

It was early August and the forecast included a large region of hot, humid unstable air blanketing the east coast, along with expectations of thunderstorm development increasing in number and intensity as the afternoon progressed. The worst of it was expected to be well east of the Carolina mountains and continuing into central Florida. The entire air mass was almost stationary, with very light southwest winds aloft.

strike finder

The Mooney is well-equipped for weather avoidance as it is equipped with a sophisticated spheric lighting detector.

The Mooney is well-equipped for weather avoidance as it is equipped with both a sophisticated spheric lighting detector, and in more recent times, ADS-B information displayed on the iPad. I have flown trips between the northeast and southeastern states many times over the course of decades so the region is very familiar. Flying IFR at 6,000’ during the early portion of the trip to KCRE was unremarkable with only a few minor deviations around cumulus buildups over Maryland and Virginia.

As the flight progressed into southeastern Virginia, both onboard weather avoidance devices showed scattered rain and thunderstorms developing along the Atlantic coast, much of it within 20 miles from the respective beaches, beginning around Wilmington, North Carolina and extending down into north-central Florida. It was evident the North Myrtle Beach fuel stop needed to be replaced by an airport located further west. Whiteville, North Carolina (KCPC) looked like a good choice which was located about 50 miles northwest of Myrtle Beach. A new route direct to KCPC showed nothing threatening, except for one lone small rain cell located a comfortable distance to the southwest.

Approximately 50 to 60 miles from KCPC, I was still anticipating a visual arrival since airports in that region had been reporting VFR all afternoon. The lone shower to the southwest appeared larger and drifting slowly northeast. At the current groundspeed, I believed it shouldn’t be of much concern unless the cell began producing lightning. As we proceeded, clouds located between our position and the airport were coming into view. Nothing scary, but any hope for a side view of that nearby rain buildup was probably not going to happen.

Tuning in the AWOS, I heard an unpleasant surprise. KCPC was reporting IFR conditions with a 700’ ceiling and one mile visibility. That’s a surprise, but it explained the lower layers of clouds that were coming into view.

The next familiar airport further west was Florence, South Carolina (KFLO) which was 50 miles further inland. That was our “out” if the area of rain developed any lightning.

I requested a descent from 6,000’ down to 4,000’ and was denied due to traffic. Continued along at 6,000’ I advised ATC that the weather was received and requested the RNAV 24 approach. I was soon cleared to descend to 4,000’ and entered IMC during the descent while I located the approach chart to brief.

A long standing personal rule to is to always remain visual when in proximity to thunderstorms. Was this rule being broken? Not really. It’s only a rain shower, so no foul. A little voice inside my head then reminded me, “hey, you’re a CFI-I, no worries…get it done”.

rain shower

A long standing personal rule to is to always remain visual when in proximity to thunderstorms.

rnav 24

RNAV 24 at KCPC.

ATC then informed us we were number two for the approach and to maintain 4,000’. We’re now following a Saratoga. This necessitated slowing the airplane down to leave the vertical space to descend another 2,000’ to reach the initial approach fix (IAF) at 2,000′. I requested a descent to the IAF altitude of 2,000’ but was only cleared to 3,000’. The IAF was looming closer. I queried ATC about when to expect the approach clearance and was informed that the Saratoga had appeared to land but the pilot hadn’t contacted ATC  to close his IFR flight plan. I volunteered to leave frequency and contact Unicom to check, which ATC approved.

After a few attempts, Unicom finally answered with a yes, the Saratoga is at the gas pump. Unicom also confirmed the weather was still showing a 700’ ceiling with one mile of visibility. To say I was feeling rushed and getting behind the aircraft would be an understatement. The pesky little voice inside my head said, “this approach is doable, don’t worry about the shower, you’ll beat it there for sure…just keep the speed up.” We were directed to descend to 2,000’ and cleared for the RNAV 24 approach.

Fact: Mooneys can either go down, or slow down, but you can’t do both at the same time. I began a rapid descent from 3,000’ down to the 2,000’ for the IAF. The airspeed quickly increased to well above gear extension speed. Too many changes in speed and configuration had been occurring (with more ahead) for me to consider using the autopilot. I was more comfortable at this point hand-flying the approach as some old pilots (myself included) agree an autopilot can add another layer of complexity to IMC operations that could amplify any mistakes into distractions and confusion at the wrong time. Sometimes simpler is better.

I adjusted the descent rate to simultaneously arrive at the IAF at 2,000′ so we could now begin a descent to MDA, but I was still well above gear extension speed. The plan was to keep the speed up with wheels and flaps stowed and exit the clouds before the visual descent point (one mile out) at an altitude somewhere between pattern altitude and the published circle-to-land minimum altitude. I would then level off, slow down, dirty up, run a tight circle to land on the opposing runway. The little voice agreed. “Sounds good, you got it… what could go wrong?”

As I broke out of the clouds on the final approach course, I flew about 1.5 miles northeast of the airport in reduced visibility. I immediately leveled off at around 650’ AGL, and began slowing down. The approach end of runway 24 came into view, followed by the rest of the airport as we entered the left downwind to runway 6. Looking at the runway and ramp areas, I noticed the entire airport was soaking wet, and the visibility a little further out from the airport was a solid grey in all directions.

Continuing on the downwind leg, I dropped the gear, lowered the flaps to half, and further reduced power to slow down preparing for a tight and relatively steep low power base to final turn. Any thought that this could be the last and “final” approach I’d ever fly never entered my mind. As the airplane passed by the approach end of runway 6 a few strange wispy “ripped up” small pieces of clouds appeared off to the left. I had seen these clouds associated with turbulence before, but all appeared to be calm.

With my head turned left and brain focused on starting the descending turn to base, I reduced power a little more and all hell broke loose. The Mooney, with two of my loved ones onboard, flew into a wall of water. The sound was deafening and the surprise factor indescribable. My heartbeat probably jumped to over 200 in the matter of a millisecond. And worse, the bottom dropped out in a strong downdraft. This is bad, really bad, and I knew it. Low, slow, dirty and being pushed down towards the ground.

My attention went straight to the attitude indicator and full power applied. I pulled the nose up and retracted the gear. I don’t remember if the flaps were raised (hopefully not). My memory of the downdraft portion of this event still, seven years later, draws nearly a complete blank. While in the downdraft, I do remember three short mental snapshots of two different instrument gauges in the central region of the steam gauges. The first one is the airspeed showing 70 kts. (Vx). The second snapshot was the attitude indicator showing a very high nose up position. The third was the 45 degree left bank on the attitude indicator.

I have absolutely no recall of altitude or vertical speed whatsoever during the downdraft, but I would surmise we came to within a couple of hundred feet from being forced into the tops of the southern pines that surround the airport.

The best way to describe the volume of water associated with this cumulus buildup is driving on the interstate and encountering rain so extreme it was necessary to pull over and stop.

Unexpectedly, but very welcome, was a feeling in the seat of the pants indicating we had entered a strong and smooth updraft, which felt like ascending effortlessly upwards in a ballon. Details pulled from memory of the missed approach are all there and fully retrievable beginning with the updraft and realization the altimeter was indicating a brisk climb through 1,100’ MSL (1000’ AGL). During the updraft, I distinctly remember thinking “the hand of God is lifting the plane upwards”, along with a feeling of joy, and relief. My voice had also returned.

I announced a missed approach while continuing a gentle continuous counterclockwise 240 degree left turn around the airport, before pointing the plane west towards Florence, South Carolina (KFLO). I then informed ATC we were diverting there and was instructed to climb to 3,000’. We were in VMC conditions soon afterwards.

On the short flight to KFLO I asked my son about how much turbulence he felt during the missed approach. He explained not nearly as bad as some of what he’s experienced in past flights, but it was the noisiest ride ever. It’s amazing how the brain works during extreme stress with the realization two of my loved ones came so close to being killed at the hands of their pilot. I’ve never elaborated to them how serious a transgression this was.

After fueling, we remained on the ground for over an hour at the FBO and monitored the clusters of storms necessary to circumnavigate during the remaining leg. We then departed and continued to KJAX, which was interesting, but thankfully uneventful.

Rick Armellino
Latest posts by Rick Armellino (see all)
20 replies
  1. James T. Lee
    James T. Lee says:

    This was a good read. I had to change my pants after the “downdraft event”. Thanks for putting out this story.

  2. Tony
    Tony says:

    Not sure how this type of flying is worth it. Just get on a commercial flight. Once you scare your family to the point they won’t want to fly with you, then you will be by yourself with them safely on an airline.

    • Dave
      Dave says:

      “Not sure how it’s worth it…?” Really? The man is an accomplished pilot with thousands of hours in varying conditions. Not to mention, his mother was on her deathbed. GA flying is about managing risk and having adventures. Enjoy the time you spend clothed in bubble wrap on your couch…I’ll enjoy my time creating new adventures and learning from others who share the passion and commitment of the road less traveled.

      • Tony
        Tony says:

        I like Chris’s response below. Something made him have get-there-itis. Needing to get to a dying loved one could make anyone make poor choices. If poor choices weren’t made, what’s the point of sharing this story? One word…airline. Save your IFR trips for when there is no timeline and you can give more margin for error.

      • John
        John says:

        It sounds like Rick inadvertently flew into a wet microburst and he is relating the incident to us describing the visual clues that he had so we learn from his experience and don’t repeat it. I also am a CFI-I and tell students that there is NOTHING at the end of a flight that is worth dying for and I am sure Ricks mother would have agreed.

        Thanks for sharing Rick.

  3. Chris
    Chris says:

    Don’t want to cast aspersions, but I think airline would’ve been the better option here. Why? In one word: mom. The E in IMSAFE doesn’t stand for ‘emotion’ for nothing, combined with the desire to see her one last time, IOW get-there-itis. That’s what the little voice the author refers to did. The desire to hold the hand of a loved one one last time is a very powerful thing and IMHO doesn’t go well with piloting an airplane.

  4. Brad
    Brad says:

    The key you reached for instinctively from your extensive flying and training was when your eyes immediately went to instruments, added full power, and verified a doable climb in progress with the steam gauges – airspeed and attitude indicator. That was about your only chance out, and you took it without hesitating. Good on you, sir.

  5. Marc
    Marc says:

    This kind of article sticks in the back of your head until it can be helpful once again. Well played. Coincidentally we were traveling by car in the same area of the SE and under similar conditions when ~1 mile ahead directly over the highway out of nowhere a vertical wall of water crashed to the ground, completely drenching a quarter mile of highway, forcing all traffic on both sides to immediately halt and sit in place for 5 minutes. Impressive and horrifying. Would have hated to find that thing in the 206. Thanks for sharing your story.

  6. Kenny
    Kenny says:

    The flight was conducted in a safe manner, and the pilot’s response to the
    unexpected conditions on the circling approach was correct; he kept the wings level,
    managed the airspeed, and flew a missed approach. The nature of IFR flight is that
    IMC can rapidly become worse than predicted or reported. That does not mean that
    we should stop flying IFR flights. We should be prepared to take whatever actions
    are necessary to safely complete the flight, as this pilot did, when unexpected
    conditions occur.

    I can recall a similar IFR flight, where everything was normal until I broke out in
    turbulence between broken layers and immediately got severe vertigo. It was a
    condition that was over in about 15 seconds, but without the correct response,
    could have been fatal.

  7. Macon Pane
    Macon Pane says:

    Thank you for such an exciting and (primarily educational) account of your trip.

    As for me, a former pilot who managed to survive my own poor decisions, I think of the times an unwritten item on my departure checklist surely included “foolheartedness”… but, to my credit, never with passengers. (In fact, with passengers, I was probably overly-cautious.) I write that, not to be judgmental, because I wasn’t there, nor was I ever as accomplished as this pilot, nor did I ever own a plane as equipped… although, I did own one Mooney.

    I do recall a time I forced my daughter to return to our home in Maryland via airline because the weather conditions had changed so drastically from the week before when we had flown down to Louisiana. She was not happy, but although I was willing to put myself “out on a limb”, I would not have chanced the return flight with her life in the balance.

    The plane and I survived the trip, by-the-way, without creating any havoc for anyone else. And, now I neither fly nor own any planes… so everyone can take a sigh of relief.

  8. Jay Robinson
    Jay Robinson says:

    I’ve known Rick for many years and find him to be a conservative and accomplished pilot. Stuff happens and you hopefully are prepared to handle the unexpected which Rick did.

  9. Some Pilot
    Some Pilot says:

    “Fact: Mooneys can either go down, or slow down, but you can’t do both at the same time.” I get it, it’s a “slippery” aircraft, but you can do S-turns, pull some Gs. If you’re below flap speed, drop flaps, of course boards (speed brakes) if you got ’em. COULD level or ask ATC for a climb of a thousand feet, etc, go to idle, get below gear lowering speed, drop the gear, too. Stuff DOES happen, I know, I know, scary!

  10. Sal
    Sal says:

    First of all, thank you for having the courage to share your experience! There will always be “Monday night quarterbacking” when you make yourself vulnerable in an effort to let others learn from your experience. Hopefully, opinions provided are coming from a place in the heart that generates care, concern and ordained humanity!

    Only the pilot can judge their fitness for duty and the same set of circumstances will affect each one differently, this is why I refuse to judge someone’s emotional state. Some people are amazing at compartmentalizing, while others can’t get rid of the hostility from an incident on the freeway a week ago. Who are we to judge?

    As a wide-body airline captain and Cessna 421 owner/operator, I respect the limitations of GA flying. While it is safe to say airliners have a higher safety record, people often assume that they are immune to the same challenges that GA face. This couldn’t be farther from the truth. Some things like icing, single engine performance are much better in airliners, others are not, and windshear is one of them. I would much rather have windshear in a Mooney than in my 787. The engine spool-up time is simply gross in a large turbo-fan. The engine in a Mooney gives you instant power in a windshear encounter. The most important safety aspect of windshear is avoidance. That brings up the question of how do you avoid it, especially at an airport that does not have detection technologies. This is where the learning begins.

    We use a probability guide for detecting the possibility of windshear. The more factors, the greater the probability of windshear.

    Some of those factors include but are not limited to:
    1) Large temperature/dew point spreads (30 degrees Celsius or more)
    2) Changes in descent or climb rates in excess of 500fpm
    3) Airspeed changes of more than 15kts
    4) Dry Microburst (You’ll notice a dark cloud, no rain and a dust cloud below)
    5) Microburst Alerts (Detection equipment available)
    6) Gust fronts in vicinity

    These are just a few off the top of my head.

    Excellent story and thanks for sharing, glad you and your loved ones are okay!

  11. Tommy. Campbell
    Tommy. Campbell says:

    Rick, it’s great to see you are still flying! It’s. Even a long time since we hooked up. Give me a shout to reminisce. Tommy Campbell

    • Rick Armellino
      Rick Armellino says:

      Tommy, great to hear from you! Email sent. You should consider sharing your near death flying experience. Over thirty years later it still makes the hair stand up on the back of my neck!

  12. Rick Armellino
    Rick Armellino says:

    Thank you to all that took the time to respond. Everyones’ points were well-received and greatly appreciated. It’s truly humbling to have this ability to communicate with fellow pilots who all share the enjoyment of flight, and doing it safely!

    • wade russell
      wade russell says:

      Rick- Thanks for sharing this one! I`ve owned three M20R`s and they are great scooters! All were equipped with Speedbrakes, and they are very effective in slowing up a slick bird w/o dragging their feet !. BUT- yes- once you want to “cleanup and climb” they and the gear make a HUGE difference! You did the correct thing! I once had to fly my wife to Marco Island,FL and fought a very similar WX pattern to get her there- and she still [13years later] thanks me for getting her there safely! Keep the dirty side down! Sinc., Wade Russell 4,000TT +

  13. Blake
    Blake says:

    Anytime that you feel you might be high or fast or behind the airplane the FIRST thing you do is dirty up the airplane and slow down. In most planes that means GEAR DOWN. THEN, you can start your descent. Three key mistakes that resulted in this situation: 1. Should have just gone to Florence which was VFR- bad idea to go IFR in convective activity in a small plane, 2. Failure to slow down and dirty up before descending, 3. Performing a circling approach, which wouldn’t have been necessary had he done #2. Circling approaches kill lots of pilots and should only be used as a last resort. This story is also a great illustration of one of the reasons the airlines are so much safer- TWO pilots. I fly for United (also 40 years of GA experience) and in a similar situation one of us would have been saying “Hey, I think we should consider going to Florence…” or “Hey, we need to slow down and dirty up before we descend..” having a second pilot who is monitoring the flight path and participating in the decision making is invaluable. Two other comments- stormscopes suck. You should never rely on them for weather avoidance. I have flown airplanes with them for over 30 years and found them to be essentially useless. Lastly, single pilot IFR in a single, especially in convection, is a very risky thing to do. Especially without having the autopilot engaged to fly the airplane in a high workload environment like that.

  14. Peter N Steinmetz
    Peter N Steinmetz says:

    How many times have we read accident reports where a person traveling in GA aircraft under pressure to get to a funeral becomes the second death that has to be mourned?

    Glad the author and family made it. But I agree get there itis.


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