Never Again

Trapped above paradise

December 1, 2005

The truth is, I had caught "go fever," maybe the most deadly disease a pilot can be infected with. I was in Hawaii with my wife, Karen, at the end of one of her long business trips. Without a lot to do, I had occupied myself by taking Karen and her business associates out in a rented Cessna 172 to look for humpback whales. The weather had cooperated each time — I was not instrument-rated — and it had been a lot of fun seeing what were larger-than-normal pods of humpbacks with each jaunt over the crystal-blue water of the Pacific.

The day in question, however, started out decidedly different than the others. As we drove from our hotel to Kona International Keahole Airport on the "Big Island," I could see clouds building to the point where I was beginning to be uncomfortable with the idea of this flight. Here was where the mistakes started. My wife, who at the time was not a pilot, and our passenger, a gentleman named Duke — a person I like a lot and who in all honesty I wanted to impress — both really wanted to go flying. They were psyched up to see some more whales.

As we got out of the car at the FBO, I scanned the sky with trepidation. At that point in my aviation career, I had about 400 total hours. Although I had done a great deal of flying in the past year, the bulk of it was in gliders. I had perhaps 25 hours of powered-airplane time. And at best, 10 hours had been toward earning my instrument rating.

The clouds were building and the bottoms were growing darker, neither of which was a good sign for VFR flight. However, I had passengers who wanted to see whales. I wanted to be a safe pilot so I called the flight service station for a weather briefing, and I was told that the scattered clouds I was looking at would dissipate by the time I reached Kahoolawe island, about 55 miles to the northwest. The flight was on.

I spotted an instructor and student who had just flown out of the same airspace I was about to fly into. They agreed with flight service's information and predicted a beautiful VFR flight with scattered conditions. My gut instinct disagreed with both flight service and the instructor, based on what I had learned as a glider pilot. I knew that these clouds were growing, not dissipating.

I called flight service again to get a second weather briefing. I thought that I was being safe and didn't realize that I had just overridden what some consider one of the basic rules of safe flying: Anytime you have to question, and question again, whether you should fly, you've already answered the question.

Despite having gut feelings that later proved to be accurate, I launched. About 30 miles over the water on Victor 7, I started to get the first hints that things were bad. The sky was growing dark. The clouds were a whole lot thicker than had been predicted.

By the time we reached Kahoolawe island, we had not flown into the promised VFR conditions, but were looking at marginal conditions on every point of the compass. In addition, the area we had just flown through was quickly closing up behind us.

I was mad and had a strong desire to blame flight service. I thought I had played by the rules but now was in trouble. It was time to fall back on some "hangar talk" type of rules: What are the three most useless things in aviation? Altitude above you, runway behind you, and fuel you left on the ground.

I was at least going to take advantage of the altitude above me. As much as I liked the comfort of having even a hazy horizon, I knew that each of the Hawaiian Islands contained its own set of mountain peaks. Clouds can be very clever at hiding them. Plus, if the clouds chose to drop, they would push me closer to the water.

One thought kept running around in my mind. I had heard that statistically, the life expectancy of a VFR pilot who flies into instrument conditions is three minutes and seven seconds. It wasn't only my life that was at risk. I was racking my brain to come up with a solution that would live up to the trust my passengers had put in me.

We climbed to 6,500 feet and tried to make it to Lanai island, where I had landed just the day before. Using a GPS moving map and the VOR, I knew I was directly over the top of Lanai, but all I could see below me was a blanket of white. Off to the east, I could see both mountain peaks of Maui popping through the tops of the clouds. In less than 10 minutes, we were circling just outside of Kahului Airport's Class C airspace. It was time to admit the mistake and ask for help.

I called Maui Approach and informed them of my situation. Through the holes in the clouds, I could see straight down to Molokini Island, but amazing as it was, I suddenly couldn't pronounce the name. When things get dicey, trying to fly an airplane and read the names off the chart in unfamiliar territory is a lot harder than it might seem.

With as much as had gone wrong on this flight, there were still things I had done right. Besides being willing to talk to air traffic control, I had insisted that I have two full tanks of gas before I ever left the ground. I could lean out the engine and continue VFR on top for a good three hours while waiting for conditions to improve and searching for the right solution to safely land this aircraft.

Maui Approach turned us toward the north and had us climb to 7,500 feet. They felt that somewhere up in front of me was a hole big enough to bring me down. There wasn't. I flew almost as far as Huelo before they turned me around and brought me back right over the top of them.

At about this point, an IFR pilot who had just taken off from Molokai heard my predicament. He radioed me with the information that Molokai was presently VFR.

I looked to the west and could see just a sliver of Kamau, Molokai's highest peak reaching up through the sea of white. And just south of that, a channel to the Pacific Ocean. The sky had parted and showed me a way to the water. I nosed the 172 over and gunned the throttle. I booked down between the clouds and in front of Kaunakakai beach at about 130 knots.

Molokai Tower was more than happy to guide me to their airstrip. The visibility was poor. Puu Nana hill was completely obscured. I took the Tower's word for it that it was actually there. A couple of turns later, I had runway lights and was lined up on Runway 5. Just then, the rain started. Molokai went IFR before I even had the engine shut down.

What's the main lesson I learned? If your gut tells you not to fly, stay on the ground. Every dark cloud, however, has a silver lining. After this flight, my wife was very agreeable to spending the money and effort required for me to obtain an instrument rating.

Peter Lynch Tobin, AOPA 4432139, of Glenview, Illinois, is an 850-hour instrument-rated pilot who owns a Columbia Lancair 350.

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