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What Didnít I do Wrong

By Todd Underwood

I had a whopping 105 hours of private pilot experience, no instrument rating, and five hours in the C177 Cardinal when I departed at 5:45 A.M. with two passengers and baggage from Phoenix Sky Harbor for a flight to Rapid City, South Dakota. Normally, I would have just gone to sleep, but not this day. The "band" had two days of gigs in Sturgis, South Dakota after which all three of us needed to get back immediately for work.

The flight was not too bad. Aside from the turbulence and the dodging of an occasional thunderstorm, we made it to Rapid City in about six hours flying time. I could go through the horrendous events of the next two days in detail but to sum it all up, we got about an hours sleep per night. You see, during the annual "rally" in Sturgis, the motorcycles never stop, day or night. Our tent seemed to us to be a good place to sleep, but to the other people in Sturgis it was a great place to park their motorcycles. We also had no transportation (we were supposed to have been provided a vehicle), which meant we had no way to get food. Needless to say, we hardly ate anything for the two days we were there. To top it off, the last night we were there, I, the pilot had an enormous fight on a pay phone with my then girlfriend, which lasted into the wee hours of the morning we were to depart back to Phoenix.

As we were driven to the airport that morning at 6 A.M. we could tell the lack of food and sleep was taking its toll. Even for the early morning hour it seemed very dark out which was probably due to the storm that had moved in while we slept. By the time we got to the airport it was raining hard and on the verge of snowing. I was worried, but I did see an occasional hole in the clouds and figured we just might get out. We "had" to be back to work so we "had" to leave. I called Flight Service and got a briefing which sure didnít match the weather I saw outside. Flight Service said after the front passed the outlook was VFR-no problems over my route. So, we loaded up, a few pounds shy of gross weight, and headed for one of those "holes" in the clouds.

After stretching the VFR minimums we cleared the first layer of clouds, but alas, there was another layer above us. Two layers of clouds? This was the first I had ever heard of, more or less, seen such a thing. Thinking they would stay two separate layers I pressed on. After about twenty minutes the two layers started merging together and I got nervous. Just then, I saw a hole in the lower layer through which I could see a town. Pulling the throttle back and pointing the nose down, I dove for the hole only to pop out about 200 feet over main street of some small town headed straight for a small hill whose peak was in the clouds. I threw the throttle forward and did a 180į back through the hole feeling lucky to still be in the air.

I thought to turn back at this point but Rapid City was now IFR as were all other airports in the vicinity. There I was, stuck between two layers of clouds wishing I was on the ground. It was here I should have declared an emergency, or flew east and found an airport ahead of the front, but we "had" to be back for work. So, I headed west thinking it might get better. It got worse. After about another thirty minutes the two layers became one at 5000 feet. There was a massive hole in the lower layer through which I could see a beautifully flat farmerís field just perfect for a precautionary landing, but, I waited too long to make the decision. You see, I didnít want to upset my passengers and I didnít want to face the farmer after landing in his field. I felt I had no choice at this point but to climb.

The clouds had closed in all around me and I was dangerously close to the northern edge of the Rockies as I pointed the nose up and all turned grey. I told my passenger to watch the turn and bank and tell me when it was not level, and I watched the artificial horizon, the DG, and the airspeed indicator. Something on the order of a millisecond after entering the clouds I went into sheer panic. I thought this was it. It was all over. Precisely what was going through my mind was an article I had read giving statistics that something like 99% of VFR pilots lose it within the first minute after entering IMC. I thought if I could just make it through the first minute We would be O.K. I also thought of my passengers, one of whom was a new "daddy" by about five days. "Take me God" but spare them, I said to myself. I knew it was my fault but I didnít want them to have to suffer because of me.

Well, the first minute passed and we were still there. I was convinced my prayers were answered and I was no longer flying the plane. We were climbing into a layer of clouds not knowing the ceiling but hoping we would pop out before we reached the service ceiling of the Cardinal. After 11 minutes in the clouds, we finally saw the sun as the altimeter reached 11,000 feet. Amazingly, we managed to miss the mountains, which in that area range from 11,000-14,000 feet. But, now we were completely lost. The artificial horizon in the airplane was a little off which meant when I had the instrument level, the airplane was in a slight left turn the whole time we were climbing. I took a couple of minutes to relax and ease my shaking and then got out the map. By this time my brain was ready to shut down, which didnít help in trying to tune in VORís to get a fix on our position. On top of that, some of the VORís in the area were out of service.

Seeing the end of the cloud layers to the west, we headed in that direction while managing to get what we thought was a good fix on our position. Seeing an airport ahead that we thought was Rawlins, Wyoming, we descended and began calling the tower with no response. We rechecked the map and the terrain checked out but we still got no response from the tower. I had no choice but to fly over the field and see if I could determine its name, which, I did - Laramie, Wyoming. Only about 100+ miles southeast of where we were sure we were at. We landed uneventfully and took a well needed break.

Unfortunately for us, this was not the end of the trip. With the headwind we had it was going to be a nine hour trip with most of it in 110į heat. By the time we reached Page, AZ I was feeling very sick. We stopped, and I was so beat I couldnít even rest. So, we took off again for Deer Valley, AZ, where I always bought cheap fuel. Feeling like it was finally over as we turned final, I felt very relieved. The touch down was as smooth as glass, the best landing I had ever made. Just as I let myself relax, the left wing tipped up and the airplane, on two wheels, started to turn left. Right rudder and left aileron, I thought. No, left rudder and right aileron. No. No aileron and both rudders. I couldnít even think as the right wing tip came within inches of the ground and the airplane careened into a drainage ditch, flattened out a few small cacti, and jumped up the other side only to come to a complete stop perfectly centered on the taxiway.

Needless to say, my passengers werenít as happy as I was as I called the tower to inform them of the "wind shear" on the runway. ATC reprimanded me and said I wasnít supposed to have proceeded to the taxiway before calling ground. Obviously, they had missed the whole fiasco. After thoroughly checking the airplane for damage, we got fuel and took off for our home field watching the sky turn black.

After this adventure I took a few months off from flying, and then got my instrument rating. The moral of the story, well, there are many. What did I do wrong, well, what didnít I do wrong? I should have never flown without sleep or food. I should have never left the ground in Rapid City to "play" with the weather. Countless numbers of times I should have stopped and not continued the trip until the conditions, including mine, got better. But, next time I will know.

Other Frontier Trails

Flying Pictures


The Cardinal (C177), and the "girlfriend"


Taking Off in the Cardinal


The San Francisco Peaks in Northern Arizona off the wing tip at dawn as we make our way north


In the clouds with Todd and Boris


It takes all these instruments to fly in the clouds


Sunset in the Cockpit with our pilot Todd


The New Plane

 

 

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