Never Again

The safe decision

February 1, 2005

My brother and I woke up excited in our slope-side suite at Mammoth Mountain, California, ready for another day of epic skiing. The trip had gone well so far. Yesterday's flight was in picture-perfect VFR conditions, three hours from Long Beach around the west side of the Sierra Nevada and into Mammoth Lakes. I had earned my instrument rating a week before and was coming up on my 250th flight hour.

A quick glance out the hotel window revealed weather rolling in. I called Riverside Flight Service for an abbreviated route briefing just to get an idea of what was coming. Ceilings and freezing levels were dropping fast and the weather was coming in to stay. We could either split now or be stuck for three days.

We hustled to the airport, and I utilized the pilots lounge to begin my flight planning. There are two ways to get to Long Beach from Mammoth Lakes in a Piper Archer. First, to the west along Victor 230 over rugged terrain, with 13,000-foot-high peaks on both sides. Instrument flight in this direction was out of the question, as the minimum en route altitude was 15,000 feet, well out of reach of the Archer. My own observation as well as the briefer's put V230 deep in the soup and ruled it out as a possibility. Second, we could stay VFR to the east of the Sierra Nevada and follow U.S. Highway 395 south through Bishop to China Lake, then on to Mojave for fuel and an IFR clearance to Long Beach. This was looking like our only way home now.

At noon, the weather was deteriorating quickly. I had driven Highway 395 in the past, and the VFR charts showed some mountainous terrain nearby. The METARs and TAFs showed 2,500-foot ceilings at Bishop and 1,900-foot ceilings 105 nautical miles south at China Lake. I had a road to follow and could put a decent amount of altitude between the cars and me. I tapped a local pilot for his thoughts, and he felt that I was making a good choice, along a route that he had taken many times before.

The loaded Archer struggled to climb on our downwind departure from Mammoth at 7,128 feet msl. We settled in at about 1,500 feet agl and smiled as we passed car after car. It was almost like that daydream we all have when stuck in traffic and wish we could fly over everyone. We encountered intermittent rain and temps of 5 to 10 degrees Celsius. I kept a close eye on the engine, almost daring carb ice to appear. It never did.

When we were 86 nm south of Bishop, the weather started to drop. I was now at 1,000 feet agl. The clouds were lower ahead. I started to hear the regulations calling: "Five hundred feet from any person, vessel, or structure." The road ahead sloped upward into a tight valley with obscured peaks on both sides. The point of no return. If I were to fly low into that valley and get caught in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), there would be no room to turn around without clipping a ridge. Beyond the valley, the flat desert floor drops to 2,500 feet. But the road was sloping upward into obscurity; this wasn't going to happen.

As I made my decision to turn back to Bishop, I realized that the weather had rolled in behind us, too. I had to put this airplane on the ground quickly before all my options were fogged in. On my left was a dirt strip that appeared to be freshly graded. I took two passes and determined that it was intact. I had never landed on a soft field before. I put the Archer down as gently as I could, avoiding what appeared to be a few flowerpots along the centerline. We rolled out to the end and took a deep breath.

Now that our safety issues had been resolved, we hopped out and tried our cell phones. Nothing. Assuming that we would be waiting on the weather, we made our way over to the farmhouse adjoining the runway. The couple answered the door with a look of pleasant disbelief. For starters, no one had ever knocked on their door unannounced. Compound that with an aircraft landing on the driving range. The flowerpots were the yardage markers.

Fred and Sarah explained to us that they were caretakers of the 1,200-acre ranch. The property belonged to the members of a duck-hunting club. A few of the members were pilots but seldom used the runway. The couple happily showed us around and put us up in the ranch house complete with DirecTV, a fireplace, and very comfortable furniture. When it became apparent that the weather was not going to break before nightfall, Fred and Sarah made us feel at home. Tri-tip steak, mashed potatoes, green beans, and great company were followed by a glass of the best scotch I had ever tasted.

The next morning the weather had broken locally, and after a hearty ranch breakfast our hosts escorted us on all-terrain vehicles to view 14,000-year-old Indian carvings. I returned the favor by taking them on a sightseeing flight around the beautiful property. (Fred caught the flying bug and I see a private certificate in his future.)

We departed at about noon with a flyby and wing rock to say goodbye to our new friends. Our journey continued VFR over Highway 395, to Mojave for gas and a clearance, then IMC and clearance amendments all the way home. We broke through the clouds over the ocean at 1,600 feet and rode the ILS into Long Beach/Daugherty Field where we circled to land on Runway 7 Right.

The next day I opened a magazine by chance and read a story about a 6,600-hour airline pilot who, while pushing north along that same route in similar conditions, struck a ridge almost exactly where I had decided to turn around.

I was aware that the reporting stations were far apart, and I was planning for a forced landing continuously. I never felt jammed up because I always had an out planned. However, I had a serious case of get-home-itis and knew it. I did not want to land and sleep in the cold, in the airplane.

Making the decision to put down where I did took some self-convincing; had I been alone I may have pressed on. Having my brother as a passenger added responsibility to make the safe choice. In the future, I'll never be so hesitant to make the safe decision. If my gut tells me it's unsafe I'll listen. Sometimes the unexpected stops are the most fun.


Mike Donoghue, AOPA 4966267, is a commercial pilot who recently started flying for Ameriflight in Beech 99s.


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An original "Never Again" story is published each month on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/never_again/), and you can see an index of "Never Again" articles published in AOPA Pilot ( www.aopa.org/members/files/pilot/idxna.html).