Never Again

Learn and live

June 1, 1997

In June 1968 I was working as a special agent for the United States Treasury Department out of Atlanta. I had been flying for about four years and obtained my instrument rating in March, but I had accrued very little actual instrument time.

One afternoon when the telephone rang, I had no idea what the next 24 hours would bring. Another agent wanted me to bring to Raleigh, North Carolina, three portable radios that I'd been using in the airplane. He was in a bind and needed them that night. He was a longtime pilot, had already checked the weather, and thought it would be OK except for a few thunderstorms.

I checked with the Atlanta Flight Service Station and found that it was expecting the weather to hold until about 8 p.m. After that, the forecast called for low stratus clouds with a possibility of thundershowers until daybreak. I can make it to Raleigh, I thought; if it looks too bad later on, I'll just spend the night and come back tomorrow. As usually happens when you're pushed for time, the telephone rang. After two lengthy conversations, I finally left Atlanta in a Cessna 172 at 1 p.m. I ran into a line of storms south of Greenville, South Carolina, and was forced to land at Anderson.

An hour later, after the weather cleared somewhat, I took off for Raleigh. Although I was late, the two agents were waiting for me. We quickly unloaded the radios, and I checked the weather again. It was worse than the last forecast.

"I've got to get going if I'm going to get back into Atlanta tonight," I told the agents. But they encouraged me to stay for dinner. Besides, I was hungry. An hour later, I called flight service again and learned that the weather had continued to worsen. I decided to stay in Raleigh, but the hotels were all full, thanks to a convention that was in town. So I headed for the telephone to check the weather — again. I reasoned that I could make it back by staying under the low overcast and asked the agents to give me a ride back to the airport.

As I took off, I knew that I was not using good judgment. By now the clouds were solid overcast at 2,000 feet. As I headed south, the ceiling lowered. Navigating by using VORs in the area, I began to lose the signals about 40 miles south of Raleigh. Fumbling for new charts and different radio frequencies for other VORs, I found myself flying lower and lower to stay under the clouds. When I lost both navigational radio signals, I decided to call Fayetteville Approach.

I made contact with the controller and was assigned a transponder code. After entering the code, I looked up to find myself engulfed in clouds. I pushed the nose over gently and in a few seconds emerged from the clouds, but only about 800 feet above the ground. I inquired whether Fayetteville had picked me up on radar yet.

"No contact. You're probably too low for us to pick you up."

I asked if I could get an IFR clearance to climb on top to continue to Atlanta. "Negative. I cannot give you a clearance until I have you positively identified. Do you want to declare an emergency?" the controller asked.

"Negative." My pride and the thought of all of the explanations and reports I would have to make to the FAA overwhelmed my common sense. I plunged on through the dark, foggy night.

By now I was down to 600 feet agl and couldn't see a light anywhere on the ground. I found out later that I was over the Pee Dee Wildlife Reservation. I tuned the radios to different frequencies with one hand and tried to hold a sectional and the yoke with the other, glancing up occasionally. Suddenly, something told me to look out the side window and down. There was the most beautiful sight I had ever seen — runway lights. I had no idea where I was. I pulled the power back on the 172, laid it on its side, and lined up with the lights. The sound of those tires squealing on the asphalt runway was beautiful.

It was pitch black in all directions. After I shut down, there was total silence. For a few seconds I wondered if I was dreaming. Then I thanked the good Lord for bringing me out of another predicament. If I hadn't looked out of the window at the precise second that I did, I wouldn't have seen the runway. I certainly could have wound up hitting a tall tower or a hill somewhere down the line.

After the brief prayer of thanks, I climbed out and tried to figure out where I was. Automobile headlights suddenly lit up the airplane. As I walked around the car, my pride left me. My first words to the two teenagers were, "Where am I?"

"You're in Pageland, South Carolina." The teenagers gave me a ride to the nearest telephone. I called flight service and told them that I had landed safely so that they wouldn't be searching for me. I spent the night in the back seat of the airplane. The weather cleared the following day, and I was able to make it back to Atlanta.

Over the past 29 years, that night in 1968 has been a constant reminder to me while piloting single- and multiengine aircraft in all types of weather. I realized then how much peer pressure could override my good judgment.

Charles H. Weems, AOPA 262534, a retired U.S. Treasury agent from Gainesville, Georgia, is a 6,000-hour ATP and CFI. He is the author of two books, Agents That Fly and A Breed Apart.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts should be typewritten, double-spaced, and sent to: Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.