Never Again Online: Yes, overconfidence!

October 1, 2004

As I remember, it was a Friday afternoon in early October when I looked skyward over Van Nuys Airport in California. Weekends were open since my wife and son were still back East, busy selling our home on Long Island, New York. They were targeted to move to Los Angeles just prior to the holidays. I started a new sales job and patiently awaited their arrival. Friday afternoon was generally a slow time for making sales calls, perfect for getting away to build more stick time.

My brother had just bought a factory-new American Champion Citabria and offered me the airplane for the weekend. The Citabria had little more than ferry time in the log, most of which was generated from flying the airplane to the West Coast. Big brother was anxious to get air under its wings while the airplane was still under warranty. A little run up to Las Vegas was just what the doctor ordered.

The Los Angeles Basin weather showed ceiling and visibility unlimited in every direction. Looking about, there was no point in bothering the guys at flight service. I had a radio and could always get an update en route from flight watch if the desert winds picked up.

From Los Angeles to Las Vegas looked like an easy trip on the chart. According to my current sectional, I would head over the Newhall Pass, turn right to Palmdale, continue on to Daggett, and then fly a simple 100 miles or so into Las Vegas.

Years ago, North Las Vegas Airport had a convenient, inexpensive motel next to the airport transient parking area. It was also an ideal place to rent a new Dodge sedan for $25 a day, considerably cheaper than using local cabs for running around town. Rubbing my hands together, I was ready for the weekend.

It took only minutes to pack an overnight case, make a run to the bank for cash and on to fire up the Citabria's 150-horsepower Lycoming. While performing the runup, I checked over my shoulders to see that both wing tanks showed over three-quarters full, ample fuel to make the trip. Van Nuys Tower provided an immediate takeoff on Runway 16 Left. The air was smooth as I climbed to 7,500 feet and motored along effortlessly in a northeasterly direction. All checkpoints worked out according to my wristwatch and the chart. The Citabria was on time and on course.

Upon reaching the Daggett VOR, a little left stick and rudder brought me onto the Victor 394 airway with a proposed heading of 030 degrees. The air became choppy as the Citabria progressed. Typical, I thought, when flying over the desert. I called flight watch to give them a pirep of sky conditions and light chop at 7,500 feet. The controller seemed appreciative for my sharing of this "vast" meteorological knowledge. If I had used common sense, I would have asked for weather information for Las Vegas. With a calculator in hand, I checked the groundspeed. We seemed to be peddling along in the area of 80 mph. I figured the Citabria was bucking a 25-mph headwind.

Looking toward the southeast, I spotted a group of dark clouds forming. These beauties appeared far enough away that it was of no immediate concern. However, it was still a good idea to keep one eye on the chart and the other on the buildups. Looking closer now, I noticed they seemed to increase in size at a rapid rate and were defiantly coming my way. The air too became more turbulent. Reviewing my situation, I still had some 60 miles to go before entering the Las Vegas Class B airspace. "Ah, no sweat, that's only another 35 to 40 minutes more!" I said out loud.

The Citabria continued on course, but the chop was now becoming more severe. The once-distant clouds were getting closer. The question: Should I do a one-eighty and go back to Daggett or continue on? The weather before me was still relatively clear. "Ah, press on!"

It is difficult to comprehend how fast storm clouds can move. I no sooner made my decision than rain droplets began to form on the windscreen of the airplane. Scattered patches of clouds slipped beneath the wheelpants. It was possible that, in a very short time, I would be in instrument meteorological conditions. The panel before me had no more than "needle, ball, airspeed" and a compass for instruments. This was not what I expected! Looking down, I estimated my position at 30 miles or so from Las Vegas' McCarran International Airport.

Although still a little too far out, I called approach control to let the world know I was there. I waited for a reply, but no answer. Streams of water were now rolling past the side windows.

Again, I called. After a long hesitation, the man finally spoke in my headphones. "Citabria Three-Four-Five, this is Las Vegas Approach." His words were reassuring — at least I wasn't alone!

"Las Vegas Approach, Citabria Three-Four-Five. Present position 30 miles inbound on Victor Three-Niner-Four. I'm at 7,500 and descending. Destination North Las Vegas. I'm running into rain showers from a storm approaching from the southeast. Can you give me a steer? This stuff is getting worse."

"Citabria Three-Four-Five, squawk Zero-Four-Five-Four and ident."

Now bouncing around like a broken cork in a bottle, I transferred the control stick to my left hand to tune in the transponder with the other and hit the Ident button.

"Citabria Three-Four-Five, we have positive radar contact. Be advised a large thunder squall is moving in your direction. Reduce altitude immediately to 5,000 feet. Be sure to keep VFR at all times. At no time lose sight of the ground!"

Visibility kept dropping. I cut power, added carburetor heat, and slowed the craft to 75 mph. The rain continued at a steady rate. My feet were getting wet from an unidentified cowl leak, but this was no time to worry about the warranty!

"Citabria Three-Four-Five, Las Vegas Approach."

"Citabria Three-Four-Five, Las Vegas Approach, do you read?" said the man again in a firm tone of voice.

"Ah! Yes sir, I read you. I was a little busy. Sorry for the delay. This air is mighty rough." I'm sure he detected a quiver in my voice as my situation was deteriorating rapidly.

Again, he came right back. "Say altitude Three-Four-Five, pilot's name and number of people on board?"

"I'm at 4,800 feet, pilot's name Rick, I'm alone. Forward visibility is decreasing. I don't like this too much." "OK, Rick, now you take it easy! You're only 12 miles from the airport. We don't want to have a problem here. Now, do we? Are you still VFR?"

"Yes sir, but barely!" I replied.

"Now look! Your job is to fly the airplane; my job is to get you there. Make a left turn heading 010 degrees. Don't lose sight of the ground. Reduce altitude to 3,000 feet," said the man in a more reassuring tone of voice. "Rick, you're doing fine. Maybe you're a little wet, but you're doing fine. Now, make a right turn to heading of 070 degrees. The North Las Vegas Airport is directly in front of you. Let me know when you have the runway in sight."

Someone in the tower put on the runway lights. I felt like The High and the Mighty as I made my bumpy approach fighting a nasty crosswind.

"Las Vegas Approach, Citabria Three-Four-Five has the runway in sight. Thanks for your help. I'm done holding my breath."

"Congratulations, radar service is terminated, go to tower, One-two-five-point-seven. You did a good job, Rick! Enjoy your stay; don't spend all of your money on the tables, my friend."

With a quick push of the frequency knob, I contacted the tower. The man cleared me for an immediate landing on Runway 7. Wind was from 090 degrees and gusting to 25 knots.

The Citabria bounced and twisted itself in the air before finally settling onto the runway. I no sooner turned off the active with rocking wings when the sky opened into a torrential downpour. The ground controller directed me to the tiedown next to the motel. I sat with knees shaking for another 10 minutes waiting for the rain to subside. I remember looking through the upper greenhouse window, taking a deep breath and saying thanks to the man upstairs that guides foolish pilots through thunderstorms.

While sitting there, I thought about how stupid I was not to check the weather in advance. This old pilot should have made the proverbial 180-degree turn while he had the opportunity instead of running into storm conditions. Also, I didn't file a flight plan, and, finally, I pushed the safety envelope of my flying ability to its limit. I call it overconfidence.

Richard C. Schnepf, AOPA 211621, is a private pilot with single- and multiengine ratings and more than 2,500 hours. He is the owner of a 1976 American Champion Citabria.

Additional information on thunderstorms may be found at the following links:

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Posted Wednesday, October 06, 2004 10:25:29 AM