September 1, 2004
Mooney Four-One-Seven-Five-Sierra, cleared to Denver. Climb and maintain 13,000 feet." I repeated the clearance back to the flight service station with my most professional voice before I taxied onto the runway. It was a clear day in central Wyoming and Colorado with only scattered clouds forecast. The preflight briefing two hours earlier reported no problems with weather and even promised a modest tailwind to speed our trip.
Reaching the desired altitude, we leveled off and found just a few billowy white clouds at our altitude ahead. We two newlyweds nestled in for a brief flight. With nearly 2,000 hours of flight experience and a recent instrument proficiency check, I was confident, relaxed, and pleased to escape to the omniscience of altitude.
Pilots and passengers are easy to separate from each other. Passengers think of the destination as where the airplane lands, while a pilot reaches his destination hours earlier when the wheels first part from the ground.
The higher I climbed, the more the problems that consumed me on the ground came into perspective. The clash of egos, crying children, and the unhappiness of exhausted mothers that crowded my medical practice seemed less able to dominate my thoughts. My concern for my patients was not less because I was flying, but I did not have to ache over their problems. Now I was cruising in clear blue skies, a happy (and sleeping) wife at my side, with an adventure that Denver was going to provide just ahead.
A few of those cottony puffs started creeping into our path, neither dark nor threatening. We were already quite high, and climbing to avoid a few small clouds seemed unnecessary. Descending to avoid them would place the mountain peaks in our way. It seemed easier to just fly through them. I poked my nose into the first little wisp of a cloud. The expected little shift in the airplane occurred upon entering, and a firm bump heralded our exit. I knew it wouldn't be rough.
Without any warning, our happy universe changed, and I was overcome with pain. My head hit the roof of the cabin; my feet hammered onto the floor. The entire cabin was shaking uncontrollably. Despite my seat belt, my head repeatedly hit the cabin roof and my extremities were being thrown about like a rag doll's. I had crashed! I was certain that a mountain peak had surreptitiously buried itself into one of the innocent white clouds, and that I had crashed into that mountain. Just after the painful first bump, we entered another cloud. The windshield was gray and provided no attitude reference. The airplane was shaking so violently I could not see any of the flight instruments that moments earlier had brought me so much delight. I struggled to gain my sense of up and down, with my neck still bent nearly 90 degrees by the cabin ceiling's abutting force. The attitude indicator was barely visible because of the intensity of the cabin's vibration. My right knee began to ache.
The airplane shook like a boxer's opponent in a fight's final flurry. Anything loose in the cockpit became cabin projectiles. My wife's purse, the maps and flight computers, the oxygen tank, and the oxygen masks floated around the cabin. The suitcases from the rear baggage compartment floated momentarily as their flight path transiently matched that of the airplane's. When that bump was over, they collided like intra-cabin cannonballs. The dirt from the floor became a smoky haze. My leg and knee ached more.
We were still in a cloud, or so I thought. I could see nothing outside the cabin because of restricted visibility. I kept looking for the trees or rocks that would finally crinkle our plane like tinfoil used at a campfire. Inside the cabin, the instruments were shaking so severely that interpretation was nearly impossible. Finally, I could see that the airspeed was high and I cut the throttle, despite thinking that the airspeed gauge needle would bounce to high airspeed indications given enough direct force on the case. I concluded that the high airspeed was from the tremendous force of hitting the mountain. I was certain we were no longer flying.
I struggled to gain control of my body parts as they continued to flail around me uncontrollably. The pain in my leg was now sharp and unrelenting. Declare an emergency, I thought while attempting to reach for the handheld mic. Despite all my effort, it took me three tries to grab the mic. "Mayday, Mayday!" My hand could not keep the mic to my lips to say, "We've crashed."
The intense buffeting of the cabin continued. I wanted to check my wife to see that she was unhurt, but I could not see her eyes. All the absolutely perfect flights that we had taken together now were tarnished by today's tragedy. No more perfect security for her, no more invincible confidence for me.
As suddenly and unexpectedly as it started, we exited that little white cloud with a huge final bump. We were still flying! I could still control the wings' bank, the nose's pitch. The buffeting had lessened enough that I could reliably grab the flight controls and mic. "Denver Center, emergency descent!" I repeated that message three times, because I sounded like that boxer was still pounding me in the stomach.
The airplane had slowed enough that I could again add some power. That provided my wife her first glimmer of hope. When I had reduced the engine's power, she thought we had physically lost the engine, that it had fallen off the airplane. She began to believe we were going to live. And so did I.
I looked outside the airplane; the wings were still on, the engine was running, and I once again felt like I was in control of our destiny.
We landed prior to reaching Denver. We needed to escape what a few moments ago had seemed like our coffin. My weather report was two hours old when we departed from home. Just after receiving the briefing, a sigmet warning of severe turbulence was issued. Never had the National Weather Service been so accurate. That was turbulence, all right. Had I obtained a truly current weather briefing, we may not have flown that day, or at least may have taken a different route. The gentle tailwind we were promised had generated mountain wave-induced vortices, a vertical tornado of sorts. We had blundered into severe turbulence with no lenticular clouds standing as a warning in the dry air.
My wife will forever believe that clouds equal turbulence. She is tortured by flights in even the calmest of gray skies. I lost my sense of invincibility that day, along with my wife's willing participation in flying. As we taxied to the parking ramp, my leg pain finally relented. I looked down to see my wife's death grip on my leg finally relax. She said only, "Don't you ever do that to me again."
I made several promises to myself that day, promises that influence what I teach to students and the conditions in which I will fly: Always secure the items that you don't want hitting your head during unexpected turbulence; beware of invincible confidence when flying and prepare to be humbled by the unexpected; and fly only with the most recent weather information. If flying is an important activity that you and your spouse share, I plead that you carefully protect your spouse's sense of safety in the airplane by choosing the right flights with the best weather over the least threatening terrain. Once his or her trust is lost, it can never be regained.
Loren Bauman, AOPA 373490, is an airline transport pilot with more than 3,700 hours. He currently owns a Beechcraft V35B Bonanza.
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