Never Again Online: Night flight around the patch

October 15, 2007

When I was diagnosed with testicular cancer in December 2004, flying was the farthest thing from my mind. Getting better was my first priority, and although this is one of the most curable cancers, a hard road lay ahead.

I did more research and realized that I had to ground myself and possibly wait several years to have my medical certificate reinstated — it felt like pouring a little extra salt in the wound. Meanwhile, our flying club airplane had a hard "wheelbarrow" landing and was in the shop to get a new firewall and nose gear.

Fortunately, by September 2005 things seemed to be looking up. I had finished my chemotherapy regimen and had surgery to remove some enlarged pre-cancerous lymph nodes — by all indications there was no evidence of any active cancer.

Our club airplane was returned to service, and I started working on an instrument rating. Thanks to the very helpful and accommodating folks in the regional flight surgeon's office, I received a special issuance medical certificate. Things were looking up indeed!

So on a Friday night, with my spouse out of town and me having nothing better to do, I headed out to the airport to get in some takeoffs and landings and become night current again. Our airport doesn't report weather, but a report from an airport 20 miles to the east indicated good visibility and a scattered cloud layer at 11,000 feet. Weather to the west wasn't very promising, with three miles and mist, but since the winds were out of the east, I figured that things would be fine for pattern work.

I arrived at the airport, opened our hangar, and started to preflight the Cessna 182. As I pulled the 182 out onto the taxiway, I heard an airplane overhead and looked up. Wasn't he flying a little low?

I taxied out toward the runway, completed the run-up and preflight checks, and took off to the north. I wasn't more than 300 or 400 feet off the ground when suddenly I entered clouds.

My mind started racing; heart pumping furiously. OK, what to do? I remembered a recent club safety meeting when the question was asked: "What's the first thing you do if you are flying VFR and inadvertently enter instrument meteorological conditions (IMC)?" The answer was, "Get on the gauges!" So I checked the attitude indicator, which showed the aircraft in a nose-high attitude with more than 40 degrees of bank. Holy cow! I corrected back to straight and level, turned away for a second to look at the GPS to figure where I was, and then looked back at the attitude indicator. This time the aircraft was pitched nose low and turning to the right. Breathe. Focus.

Finally, I managed to hold straight and level at about 1,800 feet msl, which was about 1,100 feet agl. I needed a plan: I was determined not to perish in a small airplane crash after having gone through four months of chemotherapy and surgery to fight off cancer. So, I figured I would load the GPS instrument approach and make an attempt to get back down on the ground. If I couldn't see the runway on final, I would call the local approach control facility and get vectored to a nearby airport with an instrument landing system (ILS). Then I would call and beg a club member to pick me up and take me home. I had enough training with the GPS system to know how to load the approach, but I hadn't actually flown such an approach in our airplane under instrument conditions.

Things worked pretty smooth — I managed to stay on course through all the approach fixes, and activated the pilot-controlled lighting as I approached the final fix. Through the clouds I could see the runway-end identifier lights.

I started a descent and broke out about 700 feet agl. I said a silent prayer as the runway materialized. I got the wheels down on the ground and figured that was enough flying for the night. I logged 0.5 hours of abject terror.

When I finally debriefed I realized I had made several mistakes.

I had launched solo at night, probably not the best idea when you haven't flown without an instructor in more than nine months.

I hadn't seen any stars when I had looked up to see the airplane passing overhead during preflight — I should have realized this meant there might be clouds, and without any moonlight that night it was impossible to tell how low the clouds might have been.

I hadn't called for a weather briefing, which would have been a good idea before flying in the darkness.

Once I entered IMC, I forgot the four "Cs" — climb, communicate, confess, and comply.

Simply put, I got lucky and was able to complete the flight without incident.

The next day, still shaken up, I met with another member of the club (a CFI and a former Lockheed C-130 and Boeing 767 pilot) and confessed my transgression. He suggested I take a nice daytime VFR flight to clear my head. Good advice.

I now have an instrument rating and 125 additional hours of experience. But I'll never forget my inadvertent encounter with IMC that night. I'll always remember how debilitating and scary that can be for an unsuspecting VFR pilot.

Frank Santoro, AOPA 4966623, is an instrument-rated private pilot. During four years of flying he has accumulated more than 290 hours of flight time. He is a volunteer pilot for the Young Eagles and Angel Flight, and he shares a flying club ownership in a Cessna 182 and 172.

Look for the latest installment of "Never Again" in the November issue of AOPA Pilot. Learn why when your instincts are telling you not to go it's better to say no.