Never Again: Big Sky mission

Impatience is not a virtue

April 1, 2013

big sky mission

Never Again

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I live in Bozeman, Montana, with high plains and big mountains. Summer is a great time to fly; you just have to be very careful in the afternoons, because the thunderstorms are numerous and very unpredictable.

Flight planning in the summer months in Montana requires more than standard fuel, time, and distance calculations. It requires scheduling around the inevitable cumulonimbus anvils that will randomly appear in your path. It is hard to cancel a trip on a clear morning, when weather briefings simply mention the chance of this phenomenon.

Early one morning in mid-July, my boss and I set off for eastern Montana to check the progress of a couple of construction projects. I fly a 1976 Cessna 172 that belongs to a friend and we are the only two who fly it. The airplane is not beautiful, but the mechanics are perfect and the addition of new coms and a panel-mounted Garmin 396 with XM weather and terrain is awesome.

The flight east was uneventful. We completed our business around 3 p.m., and I was anxious to get going. I had been checking the weather all day and talking with Flight Service. The weather was still great in eastern Montana, but deteriorating closer to home.

Our route home took us direct from Baker Municipal (BHK) to Billings (BIL), and then direct over Big Timber, Livingston, Bozeman Pass, and into Bozeman (BZN). We departed around 4 p.m., filed a VFR flight plan once airborne, and then enjoyed the smooth air and rising terrain from the eastern Montana Plains with the Crazy Mountains out front and the Missouri Breaks to the north.

Around Billings and a couple thousand feet above ground level, you can see Bozeman Pass. It is 130 nautical miles away, but on a clear day it will mark your direct route from Billings to the Gallatin Valley. Approaching Billings, I could not see the pass, and the active weather on the 396 showed a line of thunderstorms cutting across from Yellowstone Park to well north of our desired track. The weather was beautiful in Billings, but we could clearly see that there was no way through to Bozeman. I decided to land at Billings and wait it out. As we were descending to land in smooth air, I could see that the landscape of fast-moving clouds had changed. These thunderstorms were moving fast to the northeast. Perhaps we could get back tonight—I had plans, you know.

We tied down at the FBO and went inside to get some coffee and check the weather. My passenger, who knew very little about flying, sat down to watch some TV and relax. I called Flight Service and closed our flight plan. We discussed the weather and then I sat staring at the computer monitor, hoping the picture in front of me would magically change.

At 8 p.m., I went outside and looked west to see a beautiful sunset. The towering thunderstorms were glowing with color. Something was different; the mass of the storms was now north of my route and I could see blue sky straight through toward Bozeman Pass. Bozeman was reporting clear and calm. All I had to do was just get through one area, and we would be home.

I woke my passenger on the couch, quickly preflighted the aircraft, and away we went. The air was smooth, and I could see the gap in the clouds that we would take to Bozeman Pass.

Around 40 nm west of Billings, departure control will inform you to squawk VFR and navigate on your own. At 30 nm from Billings I noticed that things did not look so good. The storm to the north was not continuing its track to the north as quickly as before.

The window I was aiming for seemed to be getting smaller. We were still in smooth air and I said nothing to my passenger, who seemed oblivious to the changing weather. I could still see Bozeman Pass, and the window was still wide enough for VFR travel. That cell to the north was massive, towering out of sight with colors of dark gray and black. The base of rain looked like a large tree stump plucked from the earth.

It was now 8:45 p.m. and getting dark. My little window to Bozeman was gone—then, without warning, we were quickly and abruptly tossed to a 90-degree bank angle and a steep nose-down attitude. I recovered to wings level, pulled the throttle, and did my best to not exceed the 172’s maneuvering speed. I asked my passenger to pull his seatbelt tight and brace himself. We were getting tossed around like I have never been before, going violently from full throttle to no throttle at all, and I was constantly applying full control movements in all directions.

“Cessna Niner-Six-Niner-Six-Hotel, radar service terminated. Squawk VFR and resume own navigation.”

“Ahhhhh…Billings Departure…Cessna Niner-Six-Niner-Six-Hotel. We are going to stay with you. We’re coming back.”

“Cessna Niner-Six-Hotel, plan to enter a left downwind for 28L. Wind 310 at 35, gust 45.”

Still getting tossed around, we returned to the airport, aligning for the left downwind. Approaching the pattern, approach control passed me to the tower controller. I asked for the longer, wider Runway 28. The winds were now 310 at 32 knots.

My heart rate increased. I had left calm winds and daylight for a 30-degree, 30-knot crosswind and a night landing. That massive cell had parked itself in the perfect location to bring strong winds to the airport.

I performed the landing checklist, turned on the landing light, and entered a left base for Runway 28R. I chose to use only 10 degrees of flaps, as I was going to fly this high-wing aircraft onto the runway.

On short final I was crabbed 30 to 40 degrees to the north, but it was relatively smooth. I remember playing with the rudder pedals to rehearse the cross-control inputs I would have to make at the last moments in ground effect.

The winds were now from 310 at 30 knots. The next few minutes are a blur. I remember taking my time; reacting to the gusty, unpredictable wind conditions; and thinking that I had plenty of runway—use it all if necessary.

My voice cracked as I thanked the tower for their help. We labored during the taxi to get back to the ramp, but successfully shut down in the same spot we had left only one hour earlier.

When I look back on this experience, it’s tempting to feel a sense of accomplishment in my ability to get down safely. However, I realize I made the mistake that I always thought I would never make: I let my plans at home affect my decision making. I hope that other low-time pilots will remember how fast conditions can change. It is so true that we can try to hope our way to our destination and disregard the lessons of those who came before us.

Andrew Allen lives in Bozeman, Montana, has 450 hours, and continues to fly around Big Sky Country.