March 1, 2005
The sky was bluer in Winston-Salem, North Carolina, that spring Sunday morning than I could remember. Forecasts for our destination of Tri-Cities, Tennessee, for broken-to-overcast ceilings did not seem possible. The one-hour flight in the Cessna 337 would be a piece of cake, even over the mountainous route. I loaded our three small children into the backseat and belted them in, and my wife got in the right seat.
Flying in the Tri-Cities' weather for the past couple of years had caused me to consider going ahead with an instrument rating, but with making a living and all, I had not gotten around to it yet. I had become comfortable with mountain flying, anticipating the frequent turbulence off the ridges whenever there was a strong wind, and having learned of the propensity for thunderstorms to form over the mountains because of the rapidly rising winds thrust upward by the slopes. Every summer, seemingly without fail, there were reports of VFR pilots from Ohio or some other Midwestern state bound for Florida getting caught in the unexpected and quickly developing weather over the mountains. And in winter, the high minimum en route altitude over that route caused VFR types, trying unsuccessfully to stay on top of overcasts, and flatland IFR pilots to get into icing situations.
After takeoff from Winston-Salem, I quickly climbed the Skymaster to 8,500 feet, a standard cross-country VFR altitude westbound, and tuned in Holston Mountain VOR. On reaching the eastern slopes of the Blue Ridge, I saw a low level of broken undercast, which was sometimes solid for miles. But that sort of thing was commonplace, and it didn't matter anyway unless those conditions extended on to Tri-Cities, or unless both engines were to quit. It was beautiful on top and smooth; this was what flying was all about.
Tri-Cities Regional Airport lies about 13 miles west of Holston Mountain at an elevation of 1,519 feet. Between Tri-Cities and Holston Mountain, the terrain rises steeply to the crest of Holston Mountain, where the VOR station sits above 4,000 feet. Approaching Tri-Cities from the east, therefore, requires a rather rapid descent from altitude. On occasion, in fact, clouds make it necessary to throttle back and gently circle down to pattern altitude. To the north of the airport a series of ridges lie parallel to the mountains, which run in a generally southwest to northeast line. The airport itself lies in a relatively flat and broad valley to the south of the ridges, with no significant terrain between Tri-Cities and Knoxville, which lies about 80 miles farther to the southwest.
As I approached Holston Mountain VOR, the undercast was solid and it did extend to the west, where the airport lay. I flew a course from the VOR to a point where I thought the airport was, but it was solid underneath and continued as far west as the eye could see. The reported ceiling at the airport indicated that the overcast was thin, perhaps 2,000 feet, and it was VFR below the overcast. To the north I could see breaks in the clouds, wide clear areas through which a circling descent could be made. I mentally calculated that these breaks might be over the area of ridges lying north of the airport; I had flown over this area many times VFR, and I thought I knew it pretty well.
I proceeded north, and there was an open spot that would allow a gentle circling descent. I figured that once under the overcast I would fly the short distance southwest back to the airport and land. I reduced speed, put out some flaps, and circled down. As I was descending, I thought it looked more like a sucker hole than I wanted to admit, but the overcast was supposed to be thin, so on down I went.
The view underneath was not what I expected. The clouds were no longer beautiful; they were dark, ragged-looking clouds that dropped down almost to the tops of the ridges. I looked back for the hole (that's what it was, I now admitted), but it was gone. I was in a narrow valley bordered on both sides by ridges. I desperately wanted to slow the airplane, to have a chance to think, but the airspeed indicator showed that I was already down to 80 knots.
The space between the bottom of the overcast and the ridge tops to the west, the direction I had to go, was about 200 feet, so I banked left and climbed up over the nearest ridge, easing down into the next valley. I didn't recognize anything on the ground. I was confused about where I really was. The overcast seemed to be getting lower, or else the ridges were getting higher, and I noticed light rain on the windshield. Visibility was getting bad. If I could just keep easing over the ridge tops, between them and the bottom of the overcast, I thought I would find myself in the broad valley where Tri-Cities lay. But where was it?
I made another sideways move over the next ridgeline, but this time I had entered a valley with sides that extended all the way up into the overcast, and the ground was rising in front of the airplane into the clouds. With absolutely no other options open, I advanced the throttles and put the 337 into a climb into the overcast, praying that I could keep the wings level long enough to break through the cloud cover, and that the Skymaster would climb fast enough to clear any unseen peaks ahead.
I strained at the altimeter as the big hand began to move up. I willed the artificial horizon to remain level as the world turned dark gray outside. Interminably the seconds passed as the Skymaster labored on, impervious to the clouds that enveloped us. At last, glimpses of light, then blessed brilliance broke over us as we emerged out of the overcast, back to where we were only 10 minutes before. Just 10 minutes in time, but an eternity of uncertainty and regret.
I set a course on top of the overcast to the southwest, toward Knoxville, where the weather was reported as scattered clouds. On reaching the end of the cloud layer, I descended in clear air and reversed course on the airway between Knoxville and Tri-Cities, with plenty of VFR-flying room beneath the overcast.
Droning along in the Skymaster, I wondered how I could have been tempted by that sucker hole. I listened to the hum of the engines and reflected on what a reliable airplane the 337 was, how much gas was still in the wings, and how I should have made this longer VFR approach to Tri-Cities in the first place. I thought about the ILS sitting there at the airport and how, as a VFR pilot, it was a foreign and useless thing. I realized that the only real weakness in the system was me, and I vowed to fix it.
An instrument ticket is not easy to come by, like most other things of value. It takes motivation, time, and commitment, but it gives back a sense of accomplishment, control, and confidence. I got mine in December 1974, not long after this incident. Every time I happen to see a sucker hole on my way to the ILS, I think of that day.
Harry Lawrence, AOPA 440109, is a commercial pilot with instrument, multiengine, seaplane, and glider ratings. He has more than 2,500 hours and owns a Piper Super Cub.
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