March 1, 2005
My particular "never again" brought back words of wisdom from my dad: "The only thing you can't teach is experience."
As a new pilot of 100 hours, I read as much as I could on the subject of aviation. Of special interest to me were the experiences of others. How, I'd ask myself, can anyone run out of fuel? Why would a pilot continue VFR flight into instrument conditions? Just plain stupid, right? Then, one miserable day in March, experience decided to give me a wake-up call.
A business meeting in Helena, Montana, a 90-minute flight from my home base in Kalispell, Montana, seemed like an ideal opportunity to stretch my cross-country wings. I planned the flight exactly as I'd been taught, carefully observing the weather patterns over the preceding days. Low pressure gave way to a weak high-pressure ridge the evening prior to my flight. An outlook briefing the night before confirmed "ideal VFR conditions," according to the flight service station briefer, and echoed in the standard briefing I called for at 5:30 the next morning.
With a flight plan filed, my wife and I departed under clear skies, into a 3-knot wind straight down Glacier Park International's Runway 20. We were airborne at 7 a.m. and climbing to 7,500 feet.
Then things started to head south.
As anyone in northwest Montana will tell you, the weather here can be a very fickle beast, especially in mid-March. Ten minutes out of Kalispell, heading down the Swan Valley, we saw our first signs the weather was not as predicted. Low clouds kept us at 5,500 feet, leaving 2,500 feet between us and the ground, even if we were well below the mountain peaks on either side of us in this 2-to-3-mile-wide valley. I knew from previous flights, however, that the valley is a lot narrower at some points.
I'd read accounts of other pilots telling how weather can close in around you at an alarming speed. This seemed like an exaggerated tale to me; after all, you can see clouds miles away, right? Wrong! It happened almost faster than this inexperienced pilot could comprehend. One minute we were level at 5,500 feet, with good visibility — the next minute we were, literally, in the clouds. Fortunately, I could see the ground, so down we went, to 5,000, and then 4,500, eventually leveling at 4,000 feet as the cloud bases lowered. Feeling very uncomfortable by then, we watched our situation go from bad to worse. It started to rain, turning very quickly to sleet.
With visibility severely reduced I thought, "We need to get out of this." Climb? Not an option. Land? Where? Only as a last resort. "Turn around," I hear all of you cry. Now, this really was the option I would have preferred, but how would I know where the sides of the valley were? I couldn't see the mountains anymore! I didn't want to risk turning into them. I could see that the area directly in front of me was granite free, so I reasoned that was my direction of choice. Down too low with high terrain surrounding me, I couldn't raise flight watch on the radio, so we were on our own for this one.
Then a break: "There's the highway," my wife called. She grabbed the sectional from me and set about figuring out exactly where we were, leaving me to fly the airplane and keep us over the highway.
For 20 minutes we followed every curve and turn of that highway, over rising and falling terrain, pulling far steeper turns than I was comfortable doing that low to the ground — just to stay over the road. At one point I lost the road for five or six seconds but my trusty copilot spotted it again, and on we went, one eye on the road, one eye on the gauges, with a quick glance to the wings for signs of icing. Finally, we flew out of the clouds and precip (now snow), and continued on to land, uneventfully and with some gratitude, at Helena Regional.
I learned much in that short trip. Never trust the weather, and from now on, my wife and I have agreed, no trip anywhere is worth risking that again. If either one of us feels uncomfortable, we turn for clearer skies well before it's too late. A new personal minimum for me: If I can't see the mountaintops, I don't fly near them. No more trusting that the valleys will be clear. I believe I've had a whole career's worth of luck in that one trip and I do not intend to push it again.
Jerry Spiller, AOPA 4110188, is a private pilot. He has been flying for four years.
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