Never Again: Unseen storm

Icing, turbulence, and answered prayers

July 1, 2013

Listen to this month’s “Never Again” story: Unseen storm. Download the mp3 file or download the iTunes podcast.

Hear this and other original “Never Again” stories as podcasts and download free audio files from our library.

Illustration by James Carrey

In January 1998, as I prepared for my second legislative session as a New Mexico state representative, my wife Cynthia asked me to fly her to Arkansas to visit our daughter.

The weather briefer reported a fast-moving cold front that might necessitate an instrument approach. With 10,000 hours as a professional and military pilot, and a thousand in our Mooney 231, I was comfortable with the three-hour IFR flight.

As we crossed Oklahoma, the cold front pushed across our route, bringing a report of possible icing in northwest Arkansas.

Ceilings and visibility at Springdale Municipal Airport were lowering but considerably above minimums. There was no icing on the approach, but now I was in a hurry to deliver Cynthia and depart. A quick weather briefing disclosed that icing on the route home was at higher altitudes, so I filed an IFR flight plan and took off, leveling at 14,000 feet and +5 OAT. I had been alone, in the dark, and in weather like this many times.

Between layers and having experienced little precipitation and no icing during climbout, I closed the alternate air valve—a decision that would later cause much grief.

My route took me over Lawton, Oklahoma; Lubbock, Texas; then to Hobbs, New Mexico. I was the only small aircraft on the night frequencies. After Lawton, the airliners began to deviate, usually indicating a thunderstorm on the route.

Seventy miles from Lubbock I asked the controller if there was weather ahead.

“Negative, the radar is clear.”

I was back in clouds, but there still was no icing. Then the alternator warning light flashed and went out. Minutes later, the blink occurred again. This time, the gauge showed erratic voltage that abruptly dropped to zero.

“Fort Worth, this is Eight-Eight-Six,” I said, trying to remain calm. “I’ve lost my alternator and need to get on the ground ASAP. Still no radar returns ahead?”

“Negative. It looks good,” he replied.

The loss of the alternator was serious, but I felt confident and was contemplating my course of action. Childress Municipal Airport, the closest lighted airport with an instrument approach, had no control tower or emergency equipment. Even though it was 35 miles farther, I preferred Lubbock Preston Smith International because it had multiple approaches, a tower, and emergency equipment.

Suddenly, lightning, thunder, and turbulence hit with a vengeance, throwing the airplane around like a ping-pong ball in a bingo tumbler. The storm the controller knew nothing about was suddenly all over me. I snapped off the autopilot and broke a cardinal rule of instrument flight, rolling into a 60-degree bank turn to get out of the storm.

“Fort Worth, Eight-Eight-Six, I just got into severe turbulence; request deviation.”

“Roger, that’s approved.”

It took all my focus to stay under control as the storm slammed me against the roof before smashing me back into the seat, rolling the aircraft violently—nearly inverted—one direction then the other. A harmless orb of St. Elmo’s fire fed the panic, pushing its way up my throat. Then, the airspeed fell to zero.

All my training told me to push the nose over to regain airspeed to avert a stall. Closer to panic than ever before, I had only seconds to react. At that moment, I uttered the most desperate prayer of my life. God, I don’t know if I have the skills to get out of this. I need help.

Some of the most perplexing accident reports are those of small airplanes flying straight down so fast that the wings are ripped off. It never made sense until that moment. They had plenty of airspeed—it was not displaying.

The realization saved my life. I struggled against ingrained training to lower the nose. In those few seconds, I experienced complete sensory overload and faced the growing prospect of losing self-control. If I could control my emotions, the aircraft could fly.

An airliner began to relay radio calls because my transmissions were getting weaker. And then the engine sputtered. I jammed the mixture full rich. It didn’t help, and the engine quit.

“Fort Worth, Eight-Eight-Six, I’ve lost my engine.” My voice revealed that I was fraying at the edges.

I could hear the discussion about me; it seemed the controller, the airline pilot—and maybe even I—did not believe I would survive.

My voice was shaking and uncertain, “American uhhh,” I could not remember his number, “American, can you have ummm…Fort Worth give me a vector to Childress…and I am declaring an emergency.”

Thoughts began to crowd my mind—that I would not get to see our grandkids grow up; I would not get to spend my golden years with Cynthia.

I shouted commands to myself. “Snap out of this. Trust God. Just fly the airplane, stupid.”

The airline captain relayed that the sheriff had been notified; I was too despondent to answer. I didn’t want my aircraft wreckage to be found by a Texas county sheriff.

The controller told me to continue the turn. I was exiting the storm but was IFR without power at 13,000 feet. Landing without power, without a runway, is harrowing in daytime. At night, survival is rare. Don’t panic. Just fly the aircraft. All my thoughts had been distilled to those two simple commands.

After almost 7,000 feet in a controlled descent, I broke out at 5,100 feet above ground level. I could see the lights of Childress and the flashing lights of the sheriff’s car.

The airspeed indicator began to bounce, and the engine coughed. Ice had restricted the pitot tube and engine inlet in the storm. It was now melting, bringing a bit of hope. The engine, firing on partial cylinders, shook the entire airframe. I was getting closer to the field, but very low and battling another pilot instinct—a tendency to stretch the glide.

My time flying crop dusters was paying off; I had the Mooney tickling right at the edge of a stall. Experience tells you when you can do no more.

“Just fly the aircraft,” now quietly coaxing a little more out of the airplane—and out of myself. “Touch down out here if necessary. Wings level. Don’t stall and cartwheel.”

The glide continued to extend. And, finally, somehow, the wheels touched on the pavement.

I was still on the runway when the battery gave up and the airplane went dark. I shut the engine down and sat unmoving. My knees were shaking, but what kept me sitting in the dark was the recognition that many had failed to survive the situation I had just faced. Without an answered prayer, I would have fared no better.

The sheriff’s flashing lights turned into the airport and parked beside me. Finally, he got out and knocked on my window. I turned, looking absently at him for many seconds. Finally, I unlatched the door.

“Evening,” I said, my voice still trembling. “Pretty cold out here.”

The deputy had seen fear up close before. “Yep, pretty cold. You need a lift?”

Life, like flying, has a rather mundane quality to it, with repetitive tasks making up the bulk of both. But at any moment, the ride in either can become harrowing.

Discipline in the boring and everyday prepares us for the sudden and unexpected.

Rep. Stevan Pearce (R-N.M.) lives in Hobbs, New Mexico. This story is excerpted from his forthcoming book, Just Fly the Plane, Stupid.