Never Again

Never give up

November 1, 2006

Descending on final, the nose of our Cessna 152 was pointed 30 degrees to the left of the runway. Moderate turbulence bumped us from side to side. The short and narrow runway at Tekoa, Washington, appeared impossibly small from half a mile away. My friend Erik transitioned the aircraft into a sideslip, using full right rudder to battle the powerful, gusty wind. But it pushed the aircraft to the side no matter what.

While on downwind preparing for another approach we silently reviewed our options. Drizzle mixed with snow spat on the windshield. We had been in the air for a little more than three hours. Erik's voice crackled over the intercom. "If we can't make it after two more tries, we need to go somewhere else."

"You're right. Let's see what happens," I replied.

The problem: There was nowhere else to go. Weather had trapped us on three sides, with mountains on the fourth. We didn't have much fuel left and the weather in our immediate area was deteriorating fast. This was a bad place to be — especially for two low-time, noninstrument-rated pilots. We were in over our heads, and we knew it.

How did we end up here?

It all started when Erik asked me to accompany him on a flight as his safety pilot. He needed two more hours of simulated instrument time before his instrument-rating checkride, so we planned an easy flight from our home base of Walla Walla, Washington, to St. Maries, Idaho — approximately 70 miles to the northeast.

The weather looked like a typical southeastern Washington day in late fall — a bit chilly, with a high overcast and a light breeze. A few minutes after takeoff, I noticed that the cloud layer had lowered slightly. Our route was forecast to be VFR for the entire way, with conditions improving to the north.

But as we drew closer to St. Maries, low clouds blocked our passage through the mountain valley. So we opted instead to head for Coeur d'Alene, Idaho, which was about 30 miles farther to the north and in VFR conditions. The flight to Coeur d'Alene was uneventful except that the clouds kept creeping lower — not lifting higher as forecast. After a touch and go in Coeur d'Alene, we headed back on course to Walla Walla.

About halfway home, we ran into a wall of low visibility. Sleet and snow whipped by our wings and pelted our windshield. At first I thought it was only a small, localized shower, but it quickly became apparent that the weather would only get worse if we continued to the south. Erik initiated a one-eighty while I contacted Seattle Flight Watch. The weather briefer informed us that a winter storm system had just reached the Walla Walla area. The forecast now predicted winds to top 40 knots, with low visibility in snow and rain.

We thought of diverting to Pasco, Washington, about 35 miles to the west of Walla Walla. But as we looked toward Pasco, a mass of precipitation blocked our path there also. We then decided to return to Coeur d'Alene, only to find that another wall of sleet and snow had blocked our route. Could we reach Spokane, a major city to the northwest? No luck there, either — just more sleet and snow.

We were trapped. The wind was picking up and visibility was going down. The storm had blocked our path to the north, west, and south, with poor weather hanging over the mountains to our east. We needed to get on the ground now. Any airport would do. Tekoa — about 10 miles away — appeared to be our best bet. We headed directly to it.

Ten minutes and one go-around later we rolled onto final at Tekoa. As we descended through 500 feet, some turbulence started buffeting us again. The turbulence persistently jolted us during the descent, and at 5 feet agl we were still fighting the powerful wind. At about 1 foot above the runway surface, the fuselage finally locked on to the centerline and we were able to land. As we taxied, the windsock jutted sharply straight out. Rain and sleet crackled louder and louder on the aluminum airframe.

This incident taught me how truly unpredictable weather can be — an element of flying that must be continually assessed and approached with caution — and that it requires good preflight and in-flight decisions for a successful outcome of the flight. I saw how swiftly the weather can change from fairly pleasant VFR to unforecast, cold, nasty, marginal VFR, and then to worsening conditions. Although my flight training taught me how dynamic weather can be, that wisdom did not sink in until this flight.

A friendly mechanic based at the field allowed us to stay in his hangar until the weather cleared. Early the next morning, the sun finally poked through the lifting fog layer. We arrived home safely — two wiser pilots.

Jameson Hilliard, AOPA 5041002, is a college student and certificated flight instructor.

Visit the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's online course Weather Wise: Ceiling and Visibility. You will be armed with tools to cope with two of the most challenging weather phenomena — low ceilings and restricted visibilities. You can minimize the risk these conditions pose, and qualify for the safety-seminar portion of the FAA Wings program by completing the course.

An original "Never Again" story is published each month on AOPA Online. Additional information on weather avoidance is also available on AOPA Online.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts should be typewritten, double-spaced, and sent to: Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701; or sent via e-mail to [email protected].