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A few months ago I was prompted to answer that question. I was asked to put it in writing. At the time of its writing it was intended for an audience of three—my sons. Months later, during a brief email exchange with friend and aviation author, Dean Zakos, it occurred to me to drop it in his email for his momentary diversion. He responded in a way I hadn’t anticipated. He suggested I submit the story to Sporty’s Air Facts with the possibility readers might enjoy it. After that, it remained in my file for another several weeks waiting for me to get around to it. I got around to it.

From the start, selecting a story about my scariest moment in life wasn’t difficult. In all candor, however, I don’t submit it to an aviation community without some chagrin.

My “scariest” moment occurred over four decades ago. It was 1979. I was on a winter trip to Florida with my dad, mother, and brother, Lyle. Just a few days earlier, in my dad’s four-place Cessna Skyhawk, in zero degree temperatures, we had departed our grass airstrip in Fond du Lac County, Wisconsin. On the day of my “scariest moment,” we were flying in the northern part of the Sunshine State, which wasn’t so sunny just then. Dad, a seasoned VFR pilot, was at the controls. I, a 19 year old greenhorn with a brand new pilot’s license in my wallet, sat at his right. We were a little over an hour into the first leg of our return flight to Wisconsin from our departure point of Kissimmee Gateway Airport.

The flight started off uneventfully enough. We had light winds, good visibility, full cloud cover, and ample ceiling heights. These conditions where consistent with the forecast for the time we planned on being in that area. But, with a frontal system approaching, the conditions were expected to worsen over the hours subsequent to our passing through, including the chance for moderate to severe turbulence. Heading north, we believed we would be clear of the area of concern in time for it to not be a concern, but without a large margin. We thought we would be ahead of it. We weren’t.

A little over an hour into what was up to that point, a routine flight, things began to change for the worse. What was changing, however, wasn’t the visibility, or ceiling heights, or wind—at least not perceivably. The “ride” began to deteriorate. At first it was just gradually, then more decidedly, evolving into moderate turbulence. This wasn’t a problem. I had experienced enough of that during training and on previous flights with Dad to remain unphased. But the turbulence would continue to worsen. And it would worsen to a point that would be too much for this new pilot, fresh out of flight training, to remain “unphased.” It wasn’t that I couldn’t handle the ride. The problem would be the matter of maintaining control, which would became increasingly difficult and, at one point, marginal. That’s the part that would scare the hell out of this rookie.

Cessna 182 climbing over clouds

At first the ride deteriorated gradually before evolving into moderate turbulence.

The ride was now degrading beyond moderate and we realized it was time to be on the ground. And we needed to do it as quickly as practical. And we needed to do it without doing anything rash, like an off-field landing. Our destination airport, hours to the north and in better meteorological conditions, was out of the question. Also, now well into our trip, with the conditions forecasted to be degrading in the area we had passed, returning to Kissimmee was not an attractive option. It was time to cut bait. Dad knew it. I knew it.

We examined our charts for an airport that might be reasonably close. There wasn’t much available. This was a sparse, vast area of the state, not conducive to producing airports. But we found an option, a small backwater (Cross City—population 1,730 in 2021). This was not our original destination, of course, but as they say, “any port in a storm.” It would have to do.

Working our way toward Cross City, especially in those last few minutes, the ride continued to worsen. Moments before, Dad, at my suggestion, slowed the aircraft to the manufacture’s posted maneuvering speed (112 mph for a Cessna Skyhawk), something I hadn’t ever needed to do during my short time as a pilot. (Maneuvering speed is used to reduce stresses on an airframe when traveling through—well—rough air). After a few minutes of flying through the “chop,” our runway was in sight. Most of those few minutes were tolerable. The ride was bumpy, but we were doing fine, and we had a plan.

Then, about five miles out, things took a turn for the worse. In those final three minutes of flying that day, conditions degraded from severe to dire. We had good visibility, with no thunderstorms, precipitation, or lighting present—just a layer of generally stratified, but undulating cloud bottoms above us. We began experiencing violent pitch changes, accompanied by strong, intermittent up and down drafts. The updrafts were so strong, and the upward pitch of the aircraft so steep, that full down deflection on the controls wasn’t giving us enough to level the aircraft. It felt like we were in a vacuum, the control inputs not biting the air and not giving results. There was an eeriness to it.

Then, just as quickly, for a few seconds, we would encounter a strong downdraft, and the aircraft would pitch so violently downward that full up deflection wasn’t enough to overcome the aircraft’s downward pitch. These lasted just a few seconds each, but it felt like an eternity. It is terrifying to not feel the nose rise when the yoke is pulled to the pilot’s stomach. Clearly we were barely in control; conditions were “in control.” About a third of the time the aircraft was level. The rest of the time we had those unpredictable pitch movements to contend with and that momentary, intermittent loss of control.

Across Dad’s lap was his sectional chart; on my lap, a thick airport directory with my finger on the page turned to Cross City. My eyes were busy: inside the cockpit, watching, monitoring, and checking that chart; and outside the cockpit, searching for a first glimpse of our new destination. There wasn’t much talk. I’ll admit my hands, for a couple of seconds, reflexively touched the yoke a couple of times, pushing and pulling, aiming to get whatever the control surfaces would give us. Admittedly, that is not a recommended practice for a co-pilot, uninvited. I was scared, and intent on doing anything I could to help, if possible.

And we were doing what pilots are supposed to do when plans change midflight; when things are getting rough; when something unexpected happens or when something expected happens but more severely. We were doing what pilot are supposed to do when we know it’s going to be a new airport this time, an unresearched airport; and when we are awake, wide awake, as awake as one can be. We got busy–“fly the plane,” that old pilot’s admonition for when everything but the wings are falling off. We stayed with it.

Then, finally, after several of these episodes, and “staying with it,” we achieved short final, with our airport now filling our windshield. We had no idea how this was going to end. But we were going to ride it out, come what may. Then, descending through just a few hundred feet AGL, and a few hundred yards from the end of the runway, the turbulence diminished. Seconds later, now within 50 feet of the ground, the turbulence completely vanished, granting us a steady, moderate wind straight down the runway, and allowing us our standard over-the-fence speed of 65 knots, a gentle flair, and a greased on landing like Dad had done countless times on our little airstrip in St. Peter, Wisconsin. A perfect landing.

Strangely, unexpectedly, all seemed back to normal. The airport was quiet, the winds light, the sky still overcast—though that cloud layer had those strange looking undulations. There’s your sign. An untrained eye on the ground might never have guessed our experience during those last few miles to safety. All was tranquil in Cross City, Florida, and we were glad to be there, at our newly chosen destination, all in one piece.

That was the longest, most terrifying final approach—actually the only terrifying final approach—I’ve ever experienced. As we taxied to the parking area, before a word was uttered in the cockpit, I was already resigned to staying on the ground the rest of the day, with or without my travel companions. I told myself, if I was going to be continuing our trip that day, it would have to be on a bus. There’s no way in hell I was going to climb back into that airplane, not that day, not in those conditions.

While I have speculated here as to causes (wind shear or severe turbulence—you may judge), we, in hindsight, would have been well served to have departed earlier, getting farther “ahead of it.” We got a severe dose of “it” in those final three minutes of flight.

It was humbling–one of the scariest moments of my life.

airplane on ramp

Bill Nett’s (Dad’s) airplane, Wautoma, WI municipal airport – point of departure.

In all the decades of flying that followed, I don’t believe Dad ever once left the ground when anything more than “moderate” turbulence was in the forecast. This was a case of a lesson learned and a good pilot made better. To this day, decades later, the terms “moderate to severe turbulence” and “Cross City, Florida” have a special significance for me and my brother Lyle, who became a pilot himself just a couple years after that flight.

Neal Nett
Latest posts by Neal Nett (see all)
15 replies
  1. S.Ramsey
    S.Ramsey says:

    2 “Scares” indelibly imprinted in the psyche :
    Flying our P28-R200 IFR vicinity KFDY Findlay Ohio vectored well clear (we thought) of seriously “black” Wx, literally flipped…some truly improvised flying…instruments toppled…& a profuse apology from ATC!
    Flying the Australian Outback in a rented P28-R200T started with an un-forecast Willi-willi grew into a full blown major dust storm forced a climb luckily topped out at 13000ft our luck held as we escaped it over the ridge to land YBHI Broken Hill NSW in extreme gusty conditions.

  2. David Yonker
    David Yonker says:

    Thanks for telling your story very well written. One of my many instructors once said it is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than in the air wishing you were on the ground. I own a Marina and fly too, I tell people the best part of my job is working outside, the worst part of my job is working outside. Weather can and does change, you felt first hand the power of the weather over your Plane a moment most Pilots will never forget if they live thru it. Not that you had much choice but the fact that you never gave up and your Plane never failed reminds me of another saying, you need to fly the Plane all the way to the crash site. One of my best landings was after flying thru rough clear air bad enough my passenger asked if we were going to die. I told him it would smooth out as we got closer to the ground and it did. Thanks for telling your story hope others will learn from it. It is okay to land and wait out a storm, able to fly another day.

  3. Brad K
    Brad K says:

    Love this, and good writing. Have been in such conditions myself. You just don’t know how you’re going to get the thing on the ground, until you do, by the grace of… . And when finally you do shut the engine down, all safe and quiet, you know you’re then and thereafter living on bonus time. It didn’t have to be. Things could have easily went otherwise.

  4. Graham Leese
    Graham Leese says:

    Slowing to manoeuvring( UK spelling) speed was the vital part to avoid a breakup; I am chilled by the references to full elevator movement being used in turbulence.Even so, the “ book “ speed is too fast with the aircraft at less than max gross, which it would be with two POB.
    Books dealing with penetrating severe turbulence generally advise against anything more than a gentle effort at pitch control,but recommend firm efforts with aileron to keep wings level and prevent a spiral dive.
    I once had post cold front turbulence in Colorado sufficient to move the pens from my flight bag into the baggage compartment and give me a ( momentary) knockout blow to the top of head.That was not even forecast….

  5. Dale Hill
    Dale Hill says:

    Getting shot at and only realizing it when someone else informed me that I was! Usually relayed as, “FAC, you’re getting hosed!!!”

    I enjoyed reading about your experience and am glad you were able to recount it for us rather than it being reported by the FAA or the NTSB!

  6. Michael G
    Michael G says:

    As a maintenance test pilot with Beech Resale Network in the 80’s, I had the good fortune to experience several engine failures, mostly in Barons, Dukes, etcetera.

    I never had an engine failure in a King Air. Every engine failure was a complete surprise. It always took me at least ten seconds to calm down, figure out what had happened, and deal with the catastrophe.

    One really fun takeoff occurred taking off to the northeast out of FTY (Atlanta) in 1985. The vibration from the failed engine shook the airplane so violently that the wristband on my heavy Tag Heuer (pilot watch) broke, and the dang thing slapped me on the left side of my head. The airplane was a turbocharged Baron (TC-3).
    I was so upset about the broken watch that I spent a few seconds bitching to the tower. I always loved the new push-to-complain switch on my portable David Clark system.
    The left engine had almost completely puked. It was about seven in the morning, and I didn’t drink coffee at the time.

    My strategy was to go for Vx as I sank into the ravine west of FTY while I decided that an identify’/feather would be in order.

    I picked the correct engine and I was told that I sank out of sight. When I reappeared, the tower asked if I needed any assistance.

    I was too embarrassed to talk for a while. When I achieved an amazing 200-300 FPM rate of climb, I went straight for the fuel farm northwest of FTY.

    When I got to about 1,000 AGL, I decided to make a careful turn to the right and head back to FTY. I distinctly remember the tower asking me if I needed any assistance. I told them that another pilot would be helpful, but nothing else. As I lined up on a very long final for the southwest runway, I couldn’t ignore the six or eight vehicles lining the left side of the runway. No one wants to miss an airplane crash.

    I learned that morning that a piston-engined twin is almost impossible to taxi on one engine.
    When our mechanic took off the cowling on the engine that had failed, he looked at the induction hose that had come off and pronounced the problem to be nothing. He came back out with a hose clamp and told me I was good to go.

  7. Paul Harding
    Paul Harding says:

    Very well written, one HAD to keep reading to find out how this ended. For so many of us that ‘never again’ experience so well illustrated here. We say ‘never again’ yet here we are back up in the blue, wiser now, staying well away from that dubious looking grey stuff ahead!

  8. Gary Michel
    Gary Michel says:

    Sounds like the clouds you saw before things went downhill were Mammatus, described in part in Wikipedia as follows:

    “Mammatus are most often associated with anvil clouds and also severe thunderstorms. They often extend from the base of a cumulonimbus cloud, but may also be found under altostratus, and cirrus clouds, as well as volcanic ash clouds.[4] When occurring in cumulonimbus, mammatus are often indicative of a particularly strong storm. Due to the intensely sheared environment in which mammatus form, aviators are strongly cautioned to avoid cumulonimbus with mammatus as they indicate convectively induced turbulence.[5] Contrails may also produce lobes but these are incorrectly termed as mammatus.[1]

    Mammatus may appear as smooth, ragged or lumpy lobes and may be opaque or translucent. Because mammatus occur as a grouping of lobes, the way they clump together can vary from an isolated cluster to a field of mammae that spread over hundreds of kilometers to being organized along a line, and may be composed of either unequal or similarly-sized lobes. The individual mammatus lobe average diameters of 1–3 kilometres (0.6–1.9 mi) and lengths on average of 1⁄2 kilometre (0.3 mi). A lobe can last an average of 10 minutes, but a whole cluster of mamma can range from 15 minutes to a few hours. They are usually composed of ice, but also can be a mixture of ice and liquid water or be composed of almost entirely liquid water.

    True to their ominous appearance, mammatus clouds are often harbingers of a coming storm or other extreme weather system. Typically composed primarily of ice, they can extend for hundreds of miles in each direction and individual formations can remain visibly static for ten to fifteen minutes at a time. They usually appear around, before, or even after severe weather.”

  9. Ryan J. Damask
    Ryan J. Damask says:

    What a great story and thank you for sharing. As the saying goes “there are old pilots, and there are bold pilots, but there are no old bold pilots.” What a great story and well written.

  10. Bart
    Bart says:

    Gordon Baxter once wrote an article about Cross City, FL. “There’s always a thunderstorm at Cross City.”

  11. Larry
    Larry says:

    N20251 has been a trainer in Wisconsin Rapids since your Dad sold it in 2014. I fly it for my FR every 2 years.

  12. Mark Baird
    Mark Baird says:

    Not scary but very interesting. Going into Majuro Atoll at night, in a fire tanker, on the way to Australia to fight fires. We came from PHNL, restricted below RVSM airspace, dodging thunderstorms most of the way. Night time on a moonless night mid pacific. The only lights were on the atoll, otherwise it was as black as ink. Down wind abeam on the visual approach the PIC called for gear, but the handle wouldn’t budge. Air Micronesia on the ramp waiting to depart and if we had to belly land no one was going anywhere, maybe for months! Even fuel had to be pre arranged and barged in. The main ramp was barely a turn around pad for us. One runway, meant one way in and one way out. It took a couple tries but alternate gear extension gave us three greens. Uneventful landing followed. Air Mic, pulled out onto the runway as we entered the pad allowing both aircraft safe room to maneuver. We refueled and went on to Australia. It was a rough fire season that year. A Coleen C-130 crew lost their lives along with at least one engine crew. We were stationed in Canberra and some days flew eight on ten drops per day. The flight home was uneventful. On the way home we went through American Samoa and Hilo for fuel. Aviation is always an adventure.

  13. Bob Watts
    Bob Watts says:

    Somewhere over Viet Nam, sandwiched between a low, solid overcast and a solid green jungle not far below us. All of a sudden hundreds of quick white flashes in front of us. Lots of hollering, swear words, a start to bust up through the clouds and someone hollers, “It was just a pamphlet drop!” Longest three seconds in my life.


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