September 1, 2006
My best friend and partner in a new Cessna Skylane and I were off on our first long cross-country excursion to test our newly minted instrument ratings. Our mission was to depart from Nashville, Tennessee, and explore the northern Bahamas. We planned the flight meticulously and had with us every instrument approach plate and chart for the Northern Hemisphere. Our route was to Albany, Georgia, then to Fort Pierce, Florida, before crossing the stretch of open water to Walker's Cay. We would switch pilot duties at each stop, and each pilot would flight-plan their own flight leg.
We had about 400 hours between us. We felt pretty good about our skills and fancied ourselves seasoned pilots. We were armed with a new Goodrich Stormscope WX-500, which would help us stay away from the worst of weather evils. As fairly conservative pilots we would not knowingly put ourselves in harm's way. However, we were to find out that it's what you don't know that can hurt you. Several hard lessons were learned that day, and we are lucky to be able to share them.
September is notorious for tropical weather in the Caribbean as it falls in the heart of hurricane season, and this September was no exception. There had been several notable storms earlier in the season, and Tropical Storm Eileen now was churning in the Gulf. She wasn't likely to become a hurricane, but promised to ravage central Florida nonetheless.
I flew the first leg, which was relatively uneventful except for some moderate showers in northern Georgia. We checked the radar at our first stop in Albany. Eileen was quickly making her way across Florida — already bearing down on Cross City. Our best plan: to have a cup of coffee and let the storm move on east. But then, my friend mentioned the FSS specialist's suggestion to fly east toward Jacksonville, then down the coast to Daytona, and on to Fort Pierce. I made a passing remark about the possibility of getting trapped east of the storm, but my friend told me that the briefer had assured him that all flights had been routed that way. I realized we could always land again and wait out the storm, so we went on our way.
As we approached Jacksonville, dusk was upon us, and our trusty Stormscope painted lightning strikes to the west. We called Jacksonville Center to discuss our options: to land or continue flying south. The controller felt confident that we could make Daytona and stay ahead of any dangerous weather. We should have heeded that little voice questioning our decision, and landed. We could have had a nice dinner in Jacksonville. Instead we pushed on.
The controller gave us vectors to the east of the shoreline to keep us dry. As we turned south the sky grew black, and the Stormscope looked like a war zone with abundant strikes lighting up the screen. There was nowhere to go as the rain began hitting the windshield. I wondered if the engine might fail as buckets of rain splashed down. Flying east would take us out over the ocean, the north had closed in behind us, to the west was the heart of the line of storms, and south wasn't looking safe.
After about 10 minutes of heart-stopping rain, lightning strikes, and turbulence, a small hole opened, revealing the beacon of St. Augustine airport in the distance. I told my friend, "Tell the controller we're going right there," as I pointed to it. We quickly amended our flight plan and set up for the St. Augustine VOR approach to Runway 13.
My friend expertly flew the approach, breaking out of the clouds in light rain with plenty of room to spare. I felt the tension leave my body, and I breathed a long sigh of relief. The controller asked if we wanted to cancel IFR, and I confidently confirmed — a big mistake.
Whatever it was — the excitement, rain, dark night, or relief to be landing — it caused my friend to approach the runway too high and too fast. He announced our go-around over the common traffic advisory, and off we went. As we plowed into the dark cumulus ahead we found ourselves back in the clag, even though we already had canceled IFR.
As we turned downwind, we heard another aircraft also calling a downwind entry, and I immediately spotted a light that appeared to be moving toward us! It seemed our nightmare flight had quickly gone from bad to worse. Luckily, the other aircraft turned out to be no factor for us, and the light was from a ship in the distance. We were soon clear of clouds and landed. This time my friend put our Cessna down on the numbers.
As we de-boarded, we tucked our tails, hung our heads, and quietly slithered to the FBO. We checked the radar to find that we had flown through an advancing thin line of storms. A larger line was marching quickly behind it. If we had continued, we would have been caught off the coast with no exit strategy and a slim chance of survival.
We recounted our shortcomings that night over dinner. We learned that we have the ultimate responsibility for our flight; as much as air traffic controllers may help us, they don't know our skill or experience levels, or our airplane's performance. We learned to always have a way out should trouble arise. And we learned never to cancel an IFR flight plan if there is any chance of a missed approach back into instrument meteorological conditions.
The rest of the trip was fantastic. Since then, we have been back to the Bahamas on several occasions with our families. My partner and I have well over 1,000 flight hours combined. Although we may never be seasoned pilots, we learned much on that memorable September day, and we now are better pilots for it.
Greg Richardson, AOPA 4134755, is a 700-hour multiengine instrument-rated pilot. He owns a PA32R-301T Turbo Saratoga and is working toward a commercial certificate.
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