I kissed my wife on the way out the door. This was going to be a big day for me. In my wallet was my newly minted pilot certificate dated March 16, 1986. The past two months had been dedicated to obtaining that certificate, sacrificing time at my business and with my family to build hours, flying almost every day.
The rush to get my certificate had a twofold purpose. I intended to use my 1972 Lake Buccaneer in my yacht repair business to fly marine parts to yachts on the Tennessee-Tombigbee Waterway. The other reason was that even though I learned to fly in my Lake, I had never wet its bottom and was anxiously awaiting the trip to get my seaplane rating at the Lake factory in Kissimmee, Florida.
Never before has a cross-country trip been so thoroughly planned. I spent days poring over charts measuring distances, researching airport information, plotting VORs, and making notes of everything. This would be my second solo cross-country ever. The first was completed during my training. This was a 3.5-hour flight with one fuel stop from my home airport in Fairhope, Alabama, to Kissimmee. I was most concerned about fuel. I calculated I had only 3.5 hours on board and my first fuel stop at Cross City Airport was 2.75 hours away. The last hour of my first leg would be over water with no alternates. If I encountered a headwind I would need to land before the last alternate passed under my wing. I must have calculated 10 different scenarios for altitudes and headwinds to make sure I had enough fuel.
The day before I left I topped the tank, and that evening I went back to the airport and looked into the filler neck. I was able to squeeze in an additional quart, filling the tank to the very top. I called flight service the evening before and again the next morning. The weather was going to be perfect for the entire flight, except for some ground fog in the morning. My mind was so fixated on the fuel that I dismissed the fog warning altogether. My plan was to be airborne as soon as it was light enough to see.
As I was driving to the airport, I encountered several areas of fog on the road. Undaunted, I was hopeful the airport would be clear, but at 6 a.m. as I pulled to a stop next to my airplane on the ramp, the runway was hidden in fog. I loaded my luggage, untied the airplane, did my preflight, and began to wait impatiently. By 8 a.m. the fog was still stubbornly shrouding the runway. I paced, greeted the airport employees as they arrived at work, tried to sit in the pilots lounge and drink a Coke, but found myself peeking out the front door every five minutes hoping the fog would go away.
By 9 a.m. I could barely make out the end of the runway. The runway at the time was about a mile long and since I could see the end, I assumed "visibility" was about one mile, legal for VFR flight. I could look up through the fog and see some blue sky, so I assumed it should be OK to take off.
The Fairhope airport is nontowered, so I climbed in and taxied to Runway 19. I completed my checklist, announced my intentions on 122.8 MHz, and pulled onto the runway.
At rotation, to my shock, the windscreen turned completely white with no outside visibility at all. Suddenly the familiar visual references for altitude, heading, and attitude were gone. My brief 45 hours of experience yielded nothing to help me in this situation.
For the moment, I froze, thinking it better not to do anything than to do the wrong thing. I couldn't land, because I couldn't see the ground to land on the remaining runway, so I decided the farther from the ground, the better at this point. I let the airplane climb and tried to remember the little time I had under the hood. The normal cockpit duties like raising the gear and flaps and turning off the fuel pump were forgotten as I wondered what to do about my sudden launch into IFR.
Fortunately, before I could make any decisions, my airplane popped into clear air above the fog. I was on top of a beautiful white blanket, with unlimited visibility, but there was no sight of the ground anywhere. My first thought was what would happen if the engine quit, and the second was, with no familiar ground reference, what heading should I take.
I finally got around to raising the gear and flaps and tried to adjust the trim for climb. I was so badly shaken that I accidentally switched off the hydraulic pump instead of the fuel pump. This situation, unknown to me, caused the gear to only partially raise before the hydraulic pressure bled off. The flaps and trim also use hydraulic pressure.
I noticed the trim didn't respond to nose-up and I had to hold back pressure on the yoke to maintain climb. It was then, as I glanced out the window, that I saw my gear hanging there in a precarious position. I looked at the hydraulic gauge; it was close to zero. It didn't take me long to realize my mistake and correct the problem, but this didn't help my confidence in my ability to complete this trip.
I couldn't waste fuel wandering around south Alabama, guessing the direction I should go, but this was one part of my flight that I didn't plan. To travel in an easterly direction I had two choices: go north of Eglin Air Force Base or follow the coastline on the south side. My plan had been to follow the coastline, which required little preparation except to head 15 miles southeast, avoiding Naval Air Station Pensacola, call Pensacola Approach for flight following, intersect the coastline, and head east.
I turned to a southeast heading and waited for a little more altitude before trying to call Pensacola Approach. I had heard about VFR on top and although I wasn't sure I had gotten here legally, at the moment I was legal, but I wasn't sure of my status about flying along the coastline. What if I couldn't see the coastline? I would have to continuously calculate several VOR angles to keep me from straying into Eglin's restricted airspace. I wondered if I might be the only pilot to lose his certificate within days of earning it. My experience with air traffic controllers was limited and intimidating. I avoided controlled airspace whenever possible. I couldn't imagine what reaction I would get if I conveyed the situation I was in to someone in authority.
With a shaking hand, I picked up the mic and called Pensacola Approach. I gave them my estimated position, altitude, and destination, and asked for flight following. The controller was very accommodating, maybe because I was the only one flying in his airspace at the time.
Once radar contact was made, I took a deep breath and asked him if he could help me get to the coastline because the ground was obscured. I was braced for, "How did you get up there?" and "Do you want to declare an emergency?" To my surprise and delight, he replied with vectors to the coast. Once I was there, he offered vectors along the coast.
As I neared the coast the fog was dissipating and the beach was visible in between patches of almost-transparent clouds under me. The controller's hospitality and some ground reference calmed my nerves. By the time I was an hour into the flight all traces of the fog were gone. At 5,500 feet a nice tailwind carried me to my fuel stop with 1.5 hours of fuel left on board. The remainder of my flight to Kissimmee went uneventfully.
I returned home a week later with a fresh seaplane rating on my ticket. And 1,400 hours later I'm still flying a Lake, but I never forgot that experience with fog, and fog will never again be something I take lightly.
David Walter, AOPA 1101421, is a 1,400-hour private pilot with single-engine land and sea ratings. He builds artificial reefs and owns a 1978 Lake Amphibian LA4-200.
"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts may be submitted via e-mail to [email protected] or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.