As an aspiring professional pilot living in southern Florida I had committed myself to building actual instrument time. I flew in the system, had flown several approaches to minimums as pilot in command, and achieved my commercial ticket at a great flight school. By August I had acquired about 500 hours' experience and felt confident I could handle or avoid most weather situations. My friend Jerry was an aspiring instrument pilot who wanted to observe flight in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) and travel outside the state for once. He and I were coming back from a long cross-country trip to Colorado as Tropical Storm Bonnie lumbered through southern Georgia. I found myself peering at the radar that morning. I called flight service to file from Moultrie, Georgia, back to southern Florida in a tired but well-equipped (I had a Garmin GPSMap 296) Cessna 172, which was supposed to be back that day. The briefer remarked, "I can't believe you're actually considering flying today." With a season of southern Florida pop-ups under my belt, I felt that ahead of me was weather of the same intensity I had grown accustomed to dodging, just a lot more coverage area; so in my inexperience, I decided to give it a shot. The owner of the fixed-base operation, dressed in bright yellow, pulled us out of his hangar into the driving rain and we were off. Needless to say, the ride home was awful. I requested and received a 2,000-foot block of altitude because of the severe turbulence we encountered in IMC. The bad part lasted about an hour and once we were in it I had no choice but to tighten the shoulder harness. When we were handed off, a friendly Southern drawl on the other end at Jacksonville Center chuckled and asked me how that ride was. Like a low-budget aerial version of Dumb and Dumber we finally popped out. As we went into visual conditions, I glanced at my avocado-colored friend clutching the armrest in the fetal position, in silence. After our arrival home the owner asked us how our first tropical storm was. He later admitted watching us on a flight-tracking Web site. I remember joking about writing a "Never Again." Little did I know how prophetic those words were.
The following week, Jerry and I were again in the same airplane, this time flying out to Montana for more time building and a free place to rest during our adventure to the mountainous west. Hurricane Jeanne was bearing down on the Florida Panhandle, so rather than trying to fly through it, fresh off my Bonnie experience, I was going to go around it. We arrived in Concord, North Carolina, about 10:30 p.m., four hours off schedule because of a routine maintenance hang-up. We took on fuel, got an update on the storm, and filed. I quickly hatched a plan to fly up to Kentucky, which, if successful, would position us outside of the storm's path for the next day. According to my last glance at the radar on the FBO's weather computer, it appeared our route of flight would keep us just north of the still-hurricane-force outer bands to the south. As we leveled off at 12,000 feet I heard a regional jet reporting turbulence described as severe at 12,000 feet over the Snowbird VOR. I cannot recall his destination, but when the controller let him know that the two previous company flights were unable to complete approaches and opted for the alternate, he promptly followed suit without attempting the approach.
My 296 pointed to Snowbird VOR and the altimeter read 12,000 feet. I was heading right to where the previous aircraft had reported severe turbulence. In the understatement of my life, the controller said, "You have level 1 and 2 returns just ahead of you, and it gets worse from there." I responded, "Roger." It did not occur to me that I was flying directly into a hurricane. In my ignorance, I was still referencing the hour-old radar picture in my memory.
About 15 miles from the Snowbird VOR I encountered 10 seconds of rough air but continued, reasoning that the aircraft in front of us had passengers on board and that they probably wanted to keep them from having a bad ride. From that point on I noticed our groundspeed slowing from the normal 110 knots to 39 knots on the 296. I remember remarking to Jerry, "Man, we might have to rethink our destination if we keep this up." Jerry sat silent and I promised him we would divert if it got too bad.
Like a sucker punch from the left, the aircraft violently yawed about 80 degrees. The groundspeed from glance to glance went from 39 knots to 179 knots with the throttle now at idle. Jerry hit his head on the frame of the door, and I knew if I hit another shear the aircraft could easily come apart. Additionally, I had given up approximately 2,200 feet in the process. I called Atlanta Center and requested immediate vectors for the nearest instrument runway. I was promptly vectored to Tri-Cities Regional airport, in Bristol, Tennessee. Somewhere along the way I asked for 9,000 feet with the thought that the lower altitude might offer lower wind velocity and less of a shear, improving our chances of survival in the event we got hit again. Upon reaching 9,000 I could barely maintain altitude.
Atlanta called me and said, "We show you at 8,900 feet; do not descend below 8,800." He called again, "You cannot descend below 8,800." There was a trade-off I had not fully considered: terrain. I was tired in the worst flying conditions on the planet at midnight over rough terrain, and we were fighting for our lives. I began praying, my arms trembling uncontrollably, with the engine backfiring and choking. As I warmed the engine with carb heat, without my asking, Jerry somehow managed to grab the approach charts out of my flight bag in back and get himself strapped back in. I recall thinking to myself, "This is really stupid, and why am I up here? How did this happen? I could be in bed right now but I am not." The controller had to ask my heading three times in 15 minutes that night, as if I had a choice. I was relieved when I began to see intermittent lights through the holes below. The air never smoothed out that night and the rain never stopped. I received vectors for the ILS and broke out in sheets of rain to a big, beautiful instrument runway. I remember thanking the controller and asking God to bless him right on the frequency: That controller was there for me and at times coaching me when I was fighting to keep the aircraft upright. After our 50-minute-seemed-like-eternity terror ride, I had almost full throttle on landing to combat the storm, and I am sure I was hydroplaning, but I did not care. We were in one piece and had copious amounts of glorious runway in front of us.
Torrents flowed around us. We could not see, as there was little visibility when the airplane came to rest; remarkably, an official in a Transportation Security Administration (TSA) truck was kind enough to shepherd us to the FBO. I was the one who got out to tie the airplane down in the downpour. I deserved it. I remember the TSA agent saying, "I can't believe there are people flying up there in this." I did not respond.
My raw adrenaline turned to anger. I was ashamed. I had come to a place in my entire being where I really had some soul searching to do as it relates to my aeronautical decision making. As it turns out, the hurricane wound up becoming a stationary storm for the next 48 hours directly over our position on the map, which was good since neither of us wanted to get back in the plane the next day.
When I take stock of my brush with a hurricane, I come to the conclusion that I am alive today because of the grace of God. The gyro could have tumbled, the tail could have separated, and any limit could have been exceeded. I allowed my desire to get around a major storm affect sound decision making. I was tired. I had overconfidence in my skills to the point where I was willing to gloss over risks.
Ultimately my skills were tested in a life-and-death situation that was completely avoidable. As pilots it is our responsibility, not ATC's, to pilot the aircraft. Today, I am a better pilot because I can honestly say that Never Again will I let the mission get in the way of sound judgment.
Brock D. Stefan, AOPA 2297878, is a commercial pilot with single- and multiengine and instrument ratings.
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