Never Again: A change in the weather

Resolve to check the forecast

January 1, 2013

never again

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I live in Central Texas with my wife and two daughters, and I rent from a local FBO at an airport in Class D airspace. This particular Saturday morning in January started out nothing short of gorgeous. The weather report could be summarized as cool, crisp temperatures, and virtually zero wind. I booked the Cessna 172, loaded the family up, and headed off for a one-hour flight to another airport in south-central Texas. It’s a little airport with a café well known for great food and friendly staff. This was starting out as the perfect outing with the family, and it was the first time I had taken my two daughters flying with me.

We took off early and had blue skies the whole way. My wife, a freelance photographer, took advantage of the opportunity to snap a few great pictures of the scenery. My girls also had a great time and enjoyed the flight immensely. I took pride in that I was finally fulfilling a lifelong dream of sharing my passion for aviation with my family.

We landed, taxied in, tied down, snapped a few more pictures, and then headed to the cafe for a big breakfast. After breakfast we walked around, admired the airplanes flown by the taildragger club that had the same idea as us, and then started to load up for the flight back. We had probably been at the airport for a total of two hours.

Since the weather briefing was so stellar and appeared from my perspective on the ground to be identical to the one I’d already received, I skipped getting a second briefing.
It had been only two hours—what could have changed?

Almost immediately after liftoff, I could see a thin layer of clouds at 12 o’clock, at about 2,000 feet agl. I proceeded above the layer, staying VFR the whole time. I probably should mention now that I do not have an instrument rating.

After a few minutes it became painfully obvious that this layer had moved in from the southeast, which is very common in southern Texas, and extended well beyond my destination. Great, now what do I do?

I switched to my home airport’s ATIS and listened to the weather report, which confirmed what I was seeing. So I called up the tower and as soon as the controller heard my call sign, he cleared me all the way in and instructed me to report when I was five miles out. I was a bit surprised considering the weather change and inquired about what he was seeing outside. He advised that the airport was still VFR and if I came straight in, I “should be just fine.”

So, I quickly turned around, descended below the layer of clouds, maintained VFR, and pushed the throttle forward to get home. Even as I type these words, I still can’t believe I did this. I had my family on board, for Pete’s sake. But I did it.

All was well for about the first half of the trip. The clouds were well above me, and I was able to maintain VFR. A very low-flying VFR, but VFR nonetheless. That’s when I started entering an area characterized as the Hill Country, with soft rolling hills. Mountains to us flatlanders, but rolling hills to most other people. Regardless, they are big enough to really mess with the weather patterns, especially this close to the ground.

It quickly became apparent that the ceiling was starting to drop, so I had to descend as well. At this point I had the airport in sight, but it was still a good 10 miles or so out. The next few minutes were the longest of my life. The ceiling was dropping, I had the throttle pushed almost into the propeller, and I swear that airport was moving away from me. And I could tell my wife had picked up on what was going on. To her credit, she stayed very calm and trusted me to get our girls home safely. Albeit a dumb decision, I was too far into this now to turn around. The airport was closer than turning back and escaping the low ceiling. I was still maintaining VFR, just on the very edge of it turning into instrument conditions.

Since I was quietly in a desperate situation to get on the ground as quickly as I could, I called the tower and asked for a straight-in approach. He instantly cleared me to land, which was probably easy on his part since I was the only fool flying right now. I’ve never been more relieved to hear the words “cleared to land.”

This is when the thought hit me: What if I need to go around?

I made sure I was set up perfect, right on the glideslope, and lined up as if I was on a frozen rope. Thankfully, no go-around was necessary and I made one of the best landings of my flying career—at the end of some of my poorest decision making.

Once we were down and done at the FBO, I told my wife that was too close on the weather and I would never do that again. She commented that she also felt the window closing but really felt calm because I didn’t show signs of stress. I guess I fooled her, but it was an event that will stick with me forever—and will never happen again.

Randy Miller is a private pilot who lives in New Braunfels, Texas.