Never Again

Minor distractions

July 1, 2005

A textbook definition of spatial disorientation is "sensory confusion, sometimes accompanied by a dizzy, whirling sensation." On one memorable flight, I was given an object lesson in spatial disorientation.

The Chicago-area flying club I belonged to had a number of aircraft that included a Grumman Tiger. It was a well-appointed, four-place bird with a bubble canopy that slid back for entry to the cabin. The extra horsepower and fighter-type cockpit made it a fun airplane to fly on weekend escapes to Wisconsin and Michigan.

One of those weekend opportunities presented itself when I suggested to a few friends that we fly to Washington Island, a small island in Lake Michigan off the coast of Door County, Wisconsin. Its location, as described by natives, was "somewhere north of the tension line."

After a novice pilot gathers a few hundred hours of flying time, humility can dissolve into arrogance. And when the mind is filled with arrogance, there is little room left for awareness. This was clearly the case when we took off from Lewis University Airport in Romeoville, Illinois, one clear July day.

Three hours and 10 minutes after departing Lockport, a magnificent view of Washington Island filled our windscreen. After several lazy three-sixties, I spotted a clearing in the trees and a grass alley. My passengers were pointing out the island sights to each other as I turned off base and lined up on final.

The next morning a call to Green Bay Flight Service Station (FSS) indicated that a low previously situated over Lake Superior had become more assertive than expected and might affect our homeward flight. Since we all had jobs in the Chicago area to report to on Monday morning, no one protested my suggestion to cut the weekend short and return on Saturday rather than Sunday.

We arrived to find the airplane just as we left it the day before. The surprise came when I checked the tanks during preflight and found them apparently empty. My first thought was that local kids must have siphoned the fuel for one of their island cars, or possibly I cut it too close on my flight plan. But when I referred to the pilot's operating handbook, I found that the Tiger should have burned 11.4 gallons per hour at 2,600 rpm at 2,500 feet. We flew at 3,500 feet, so arguably we should have burned a little less. The tachometer showed 3.3 hours since we left Lewis. The tanks had been full during the previous day's preflight with 52.7 gallons usable. Even if we burned 5 gallons more than expected, somewhere in those empty tanks should have been almost 10 gallons of 100LL.

Obviously needing fuel for our return flight, we searched the area to find an old gas pump near an open shed. Upon dialing the number penciled on a nearby pay phone, I discovered that the "airport guy" was at a local ball game and under no circumstances would be disturbed. We then began to understand what was meant by "just north of the tension line."

As we pondered just how to create a little tension regarding our fuel situation, a Piper Apache landed. The pilot offered fuel from his airplane's auxiliary tanks, and even produced a chamois cloth to use as a strainer. In addition to the fuel, he gave us his pilot report: an estimated ceiling of 4,500 feet with visibility from four to six miles for our route — more optimistic than what Green Bay FSS had noted during my last briefing.

We landed at Sturgeon Bay to take on more fuel, and Green Bay FSS advised us of declining weather along our route, with a line of isolated cells between Milwaukee and Chicago. Chicago's forecast was still VFR but was now showing a ceiling at 2,500 feet with three-mile visibility north of Chicago. A line of thunderstorm cells was also on a west-to-east track just north of Racine, Wisconsin. It was almost 3 p.m. and I felt if we departed at that moment we could still make it. Besides, I had a good visual reference with the Lake Michigan shoreline and I was very familiar with the Chicago area.

We departed Sturgeon Bay and set a southerly course along the Lake Michigan coast. There was a new problem, however — excessive heat in the cabin. Even though the cabin heat control indicated Off, the heat was on and, with an outside air temperature reading 90 degrees Fahrenheit, the cabin quickly became a low-temperature oven.

As we passed over Milwaukee the weather worsened. To stay clear of the ceiling I descended to 2,400 feet msl with visibility now less than two miles. Chicago FSS cautioned that a band of serious echoes was moving west to east across my route. I was sure I could handle it. Chicago weather was already improving, and I felt I could work my way around the cells as long as I could see the ground.

Ten minutes later our weather was less than 2,000 feet and one mile. I hadn't pondered the problem long when I lost complete visual contact with the ground. Having no IFR experience and little more than the hood time required for private pilots, my only question was which way to begin my 180-degree turn.

Suddenly our environment became surprisingly dark. We were proceeding directly into one of the serious echoes Chicago FSS advised of earlier. Moments later we were blinded when the dark cabin was illuminated by a lightning flash. I couldn't see the instrument panel but had already started my one-eighty to the right. The disorientation came as I felt the G force of the tight bank. I tried an instrument scan but was still too blinded to see the attitude indicator, which was already showing a 75-degree bank. I pulled back on the yoke only to hear the cockpit noise increase.

During an aerobatic lesson two weeks before, I had blown a wingover and ended up in a modified hammerhead stall. As the Cessna Aerobat had plunged toward the ground under full power, the instructor calmly said, "Throttle." I reduced power. He then said to level the wings.

Remembering the lesson, I pulled the Tiger's throttle back, leveled the wings, and broke out of the clouds all at the same time. The altimeter was just passing through 1,300 feet — 600 feet agl. I'm not completely sure if I completed one or two spirals, but based on our altitude and rate of descent I'm confident we never would have completed the next one.

We landed at nearby John H. Batten Airport at Racine and unwound for a few hours while the weather passed.

The remainder of the flight to Lewis was uneventful. On the drive home, I thought, was I really that overconfident? Why did I ever make the decision to depart from Sturgeon Bay?

It was obvious how several small distractions could mask the critical issue. The missing fuel, the need to get home, and the cabin heat were all minor problems that distracted me from the critical issue — the weather.

Augustin J. Morley, AOPA 704139, flew single-engine airplanes for 22 years.

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