Proficiency: Go/no go?

All shook up and still flying

June 1, 2013

Tom Haines’ “Waypoints” column, “Making the Weather Go/No Go Decision” (October 2012 AOPA Pilot), reminded me of some of my adventures flying light airplanes IFR.

The experience that sticks in my memory as the worst was a night flight from Pensacola, Florida, to a suburban Miami airport. The weather was forecast to be miserable, with cloud bases at several thousand feet, solid up into the flight levels, rain and light turbulence. I was flying a Cessna T210, by myself. I was current, cool, and knew I could hack it, so off I went for a couple hours of hard night IFR. I was hacking the program just fine until somewhere around Tallahassee when the autopilot decided it had done enough and quit. I recycled CBs and cussed—none of that helped. I settled in to hand-fly my steed. The turbulence got worse. It was medium chop now, and I was really working at flying the airplane. Raindrops streamed by in the glow of the wingtip lights.

I was making all those little needles behave, still having fun, when halfway down the west coast ATC gave me a new routing to my destination. I copied it down, bouncing madly and studiously aviating, and by some miracle managed to read it back correctly.

Just where do they want me to go? I studied my charts by flashlight, aviating mightily, while the weather gods shook the bejesus out of me. Controlling the airplane in turbulence while I tried to read charts and approach plates took me to the edge. It was worse than combat. The situation was taxing me 110 percent, and I only had 100 to give. By the time I had it all figured out, I was a strung-out, worried man, with no reserves. Every jolt and bump was like a punch. My instrument scan was shot. The airplane corkscrewed through the roiling night sky, barely under control.

When I finally broke out of the goo on the descent across the Everglades, the lights of the Miami area looked the way I imagine the Pearly Gates will look if I ever get there.

What did I do wrong? Well, when the autopilot packed it in, maybe I should have turned around and aviated myself back to Pensacola, where the weather was fine. But I didn’t know the turbulence and ATC were going to challenge me. Perhaps I probably should have asked myself, what if they do?

Single-pilot night IFR without an autopilot may be OK for those lusty studs who haul cancelled checks every night of the week and get lots of practice, but it can be too much for someone doing it in strange airspace and flying strange approaches.

I got the autopilot fixed before I committed lift again.

Never fly yourself if you have a deadline. The pressure of having to get there, when added to the demands of the flight, is all too often the final straw. If you just gotta get there, buy a ticket and let the pros in the front end with experience, training, and equipment superior to yours deliver you while you swill a drink and read AOPA Pilot.

Never aviate unless you are mentally and emotionally ready to devote all of your brainpower to flying. Even safe VFR takes all the gray cells I can muster. There are days when I can’t let go of professional and personal concerns, so I stay on the ground.

Never go flying unless you are willing to park the airplane somewhere if the weather throws you a curve. Being willing to park the airplane and rent a car, a motel room, or get on an airliner is a lightplane pilot’s life insurance. I’ve left airplanes stranded all over the United States; amazingly, they were all still there when I went back for them days later. And by some miracle the weather then was always better, too.

Stephen Coonts is a pilot and novelist whose latest book is Pirate Alley. Visit his website.