I had recently purchased a Robinson R22 helicopter and thought it would be a great idea to acquire a commercial license. Not that I ever intended to exercise those privileges, but I figured the added training would add to my depth of knowledge. I decided to travel to the same airport and school that I had flown with the prior year. I had flown quite a lot with a particular instructor and wanted to continue with him.
The plan was for me to fly both dual and solo for several days prior to my check flight, which we had initially set up for the following Wednesday. As things so often turn out, neither the weather nor the check flight schedule worked as planned.
Then, while reviewing the prerequisites for the commercial checkride, we discovered that I lacked a documented dual night cross-country flight. That meant that we had to fly either Friday, Saturday, or Sunday night. All day Friday a weather front was hanging in the area, with fog and low scud and for most of the day—the entire local area was IFR.
Late on Friday afternoon we looked at the weather, called Flight Service for en route weather, and shortly thereafter, departed at dusk in marginal VFR conditions. It wasn’t too many minutes after takeoff that it became apparent that the weather was not as good as we expected; in fact, we had to stay below 1,000 feet agl to maintain VFR.
As we progressed along our 50-mile outbound leg, it became darker and the weather more erratic. Our departure airport field elevation was 50 feet msl, while the elevation at our “turn-around” airport was 1,200 feet msl. With the terrain slowly rising below us, the cloud bases didn’t rise in a like manner. Fortunately, our route of flight was directly along one of the busiest interstate highways in the United States. With the early Friday night traffic, there was a never-ending bright ribbon of 12 lanes of white and red lights to follow.
After about 25 minutes into the flight, at about 700 to 800 feet agl, I was noticing an occasionally light layer of scud passing beneath us. This was disconcerting, especially when I looked forward again and saw that my bright ribbon of light was rapidly becoming obscured. Where just a few minutes ago I could see maybe five miles ahead, now the visibility seemed less than a mile. It was totally dark by now. With the bright lights from the interstate below us and the lighting from shopping malls and car dealer lots lighting up the bottoms of the cloud deck we were flying under, it was obvious that the ceiling bases were very ragged and seemed to be squeezing us into a smaller space between the clouds and the ground.
We were now passing very near an airport that was at 500 feet msl and we were flying between 800 and 1,000 feet msl, to stay even marginally VFR. At times, we would approach lower scud and had to temporarily descend below 300 feet agl. We flew on; hoping that the weather would get better as we progressed—even though it certainly wasn’t doing that right now. (We could always do a one-eighty, right?) To add to our agony we knew that in this particular area, there are a number of very large power lines crossing the interstate, stringing from the hills on both sides. The power lines’ position was only a guess, but we were looking as hard as we could for them, while flying as high as possible and avoiding flying into solid clouds.
At times, the lights below us all but disappeared for a few seconds at a time, leaving precious few visual references.
At this point, it was overwhelmingly obvious that we were making a continual string of extremely poor decisions. I should have known better. But, hey, I was flying with a seasoned instructor, right? Not only that, but I probably had more experience flying in weather at night than my instructor had total day VFR time. But that experience was in a fully instrumented, IFR-certified jet airplane, not a little VFR-only helicopter. My strong gut feeling was both of us were in over our heads, but we pressed on anyway. We should have done a one-eighty probably before we even left the home base Class D airspace. But we hadn’t, because we “needed” a dual night cross-country.
After about 30 more minutes of extremely stressful flying, the cloud bases began to rise, allowing us to cruise at a very comfortable 800 feet agl. We arrived at the turn-around airfield, made a landing, and started back home. My instructor said he didn’t want to go back the way we just came because of the weather situation in the canyon area. He said we’d head west for a few miles and then follow another major highway back home. We started west, but about 10 miles in that direction, the weather started looking very bad. We radioed a control tower at a field we would be flying over, about 10 miles ahead. They reported a 300-foot overcast with one-quarter-mile visibility in fog.
My instructor then decided that we’d turn around and go back the same way we came. I knew that route would be no fun-again—and I hoped that by some stroke of good fortune, the weather had improved. So we set a heading to intercept our course home over the busy interstate in the vicinity of the airfield at 500 feet. As we flew that direction, “relaxing” at about 700 feet agl, we could see the rotating beacon at the airport. I thought about suggesting to my instructor that we go there and land, but didn’t.
The closer we flew to the highway intercept point and the turn toward home, the worse the weather got. As we approached the highway, the clouds thickened and lowered. At times, we had to descend to an estimated 400 to 500 feet agl to maintain any sense of visual reference. When we arrived over the interstate and turned toward home, flying about 500 feet agl, suddenly all the car lights on the interstate and lights from roadside businesses faded out. We were flying in a pitch-black night, a few hundred feet off the ground with extremely marginal visual references. To make matters worse—as if they weren’t bad enough—there was no way to predict what we would be facing next: clearing or a total blackout. At this point, I thought but again didn’t say it: “We should be finding the closest suitable surface and park this chopper on the ground—as soon as possible.”
Since I had been flying, I quickly said, “I’m going lower,” and started a fast descent to regain some semblance of visual references. “Maybe we can climb and fly on top of this stuff,” my instructor said. “It’s OK to fly on-top.” I quickly replied, “No way! If we do that, we’ll find ourselves above the scud, in the clouds with zero visibility!”
I’ve often thought about that brief conversation: If that course of action had been taken, I would not be writing this story. There is no doubt that shortly thereafter, we’d have come tumbling out of the clouds in the night sky.
With a quick descent, visibility began to pick up to at least a “survival” situation. We had a straight path of about 17 miles to our home airport, directly along the interstate, and we were now flying about 300 feet agl in order to maintain visibility. As we progressed, we were forced to fly even lower, at times maybe 200 feet agl. We seemed to just skim over the taller roadside car dealer signs and high-intensity lighting towers.
We approached the closest Class D airspace reporting point and obtained a Special VFR clearance, but we knew this was going to be a problem because it required us to make a 90-degree left turn to the airport and we would be losing the highway lights. As we started the left turn, we lost virtually all visibility. It was all I could do to get quickly turned back to the highway, at about 200 feet agl.
At this point, there were several areas, including a lighted high school field, that we could have made a safe precautionary landing but didn’t. We were now only five miles from home!
Reversing course, flying back along the interstate and then along another busy road, we approached the Class D airspace area from a different direction. No better. So what did we do? We flew lower—probably 100 feet agl, basically flying from one housetop to the next, one residential street to the next, for the four miles until we picked up the airport high-intensity runway lights and landed.
In all my flying hours, including Vietnam combat missions, with all the times I was fired at, this was the scariest and most hazardous flight I have ever made. It was also the flight where I allowed myself to make the worst flying decisions of my 50-year flying experience. No, not bad decisions—stupid, serious, deadly decisions. It was a combination of “get-home-itis,” flying in conditions well known to be fatal, disregarding common sense and regulations, and failing to wait for better weather.
Yes, I’m lucky to be here today. It certainly isn’t because of my good flying skills.
For several weeks after that, I was nervous to even drive a car at night.
Roger Daisley, AOPA 1606286, has logged more than 4,950 hours over 42 years of flying both fixed-wing aircraft and helicopters.For more Never Again, read the February issue of AOPA Pilot. See how a pilot’s quick action saved a Piper Malibu after an engine failure.