I had always considered myself a safe and conscientious pilot.
I read the safety articles, accident reports, analyses of accidents, and have even had articles on aviation safety published in a magazine devoted to the topic. I’m a knowledgeable, careful, cautious pilot, right? Unfortunately, no, I’m not. And here’s why: A few years ago I took a cross-country trip during which I made so many mistakes and errors of judgment it’s a wonder I am still here to write about it.
It all began with the decision to fly my Piper Warrior from central South Carolina to visit family in upstate New York. I started with careful flight planning, using the appropriate sectionals and IFR enroute low altitude charts. I made a conscious decision to fly up the spine of the Appalachian Mountains, a direct route that would avoid the infamous Washington ADIZ. The downside, of course, was the paucity of airports and suitable off field landing sites posed by the mountains. I chose Morgantown, West Virginia, as a fuel stop since it was roughly half way and had an on-airport restaurant. Since I didn’t have the approach plates for Morgantown Municipal (MGW) I went to several local airports but failed to find any in stock. This was not a big problem though (or so I thought) since weather was scheduled to be VFR for the entire trip up and I would pick up the plates at MGW when I stopped for fuel.
We left South Carolina in beautiful spring weather and arrived in Morgantown ahead of schedule. While the tanks were being topped off, I went into the FBO to ask about approach plates. Surprisingly, they didn’t have any.
We arrived in Oswego to surprisingly warm 80-degree weather. At the airport, I asked about approach plates for MGW, but they only had plates for the New York area. Not to worry, though. I had allowed a three-day window for our departure, so we wouldn’t be tempted to launch into bad weather because of get-there-itis. Sure enough, on Thursday, the first day of our window, a severe storm blew in from Lake Ontario, toppling trees and power lines. The next morning, I awoke early to check the weather. The abnormally high temperatures that had greeted our arrival were gone, leaving a 40-degree morning chill and a windy, severe clear day.
In South Carolina, such a day usually means that high pressure has swept the low out to sea, but radar showed a strange weather pattern. To the west, over Indiana and western Ohio, a pencil-thin line of severe weather stretched west to east and was moving eastward at 35 miles an hour. The tip of the pencil was pointing directly at Morgantown and even at 7 a.m., there were numerous lightning strikes.
Here is where stupid starts. Looking back, I had several options. I could have chosen to spend an extra day in Oswego. I could have revised my flight plan to follow a more easterly route over lower terrain and giving us a few more hours to avoid the weather to our west. But I went with my original plan and never seriously considered altering it. I announced that we would head to the airport right away, so we could beat the weather into Morgantown.
We took off heading southeast in cold, clear air making 130 knots across the ground. When we intersected Victor 35 south of Syracuse and headed in a more southwesterly direction, our ground speed began to decay rapidly, down to about 105 knots. The low line of clouds that formed on the horizon loomed as we got closer and soon we flew between layers and picked up our first light rain. It wasn’t long before the layers merged together and we were in the clag. The rain intensity increased, but the air remained glassy smooth. Our groundspeed was now down to 95 knots.
After what seemed like ages of steady rain and a cockpit so dark I turned on the instrument panel lights, I called flight service and checked the weather at MGW. I was relieved to hear the winds were light, visibility was four miles with scattered clouds at 600 feet, broken clouds at 1,300 feet, and overcast at 4,000 feet -- well within my ability and comfort level.
As the minutes passed with nothing but gray and rain outside, we began to experience stronger and stronger thermals. The autopilot was flying the airplane, but I had to saw the throttle back and forth to try and keep rpm as constant as possible. By this time our groundspeed was down to 85 knots and inching lower. It wasn’t long before I found myself unable to hold our assigned altitude. ATC provided a block altitude of 8,000-to-9,000 feet. All morning the airwaves had been eerily silent. I guess nobody else was foolhardy enough to be out in this weather besides us. Finally, Cincinnati Center turned us over to Clarksburg Approach, and the weather was the same as before: light winds and a 1,300-foot ceiling. A few moments later, ATC cleared us for the ILS 18 approach and told us to contact Morgantown Tower. Then he added, “A King Air landing about 10 minutes ahead of you reported going to minimums.”
Suddenly, the situation wasn’t looking all that good. In my limited experience I had never flown an instrument approach to minimums except under the hood, and certainly not at a strange airport in the mountains. This is a good time, also, to remind you about the approach plates I didn’t have. I did have a Garmin GNS 430 in the panel coupled to the autopilot, but I never considered briefing the missed approach procedure on the Garmin. Did I consider abandoning the approach and asking for an alternate with better weather, preferably to the east? No. In other words, I had effectively left myself only two options, land, or die trying.
I contacted the tower, was cleared to land and asked to report over the DIXIN intersection. My non-pilot passenger was dozing contently in the right hand seat. While the autopilot thankfully flew the localizer portion of the approach, I fought the thermals to try and keep us as close to the glideslope as possible. I woke up passenger and asked him to watch out the window for the runway. As we slid wetly through the gray fog that had been around us for hours, I watched the airspeed, glideslope and localizer needles, and the altimeter as the distance and height above the invisible runway counted down to the airport elevation: 1,248 feet msl.
Finally, as the altimeter dipped below 1,500 feet, I saw the greatest sight in the world: approach lights, followed by the runway numbers. As I flared and greased a near perfect landing, I could see the tower and low buildings to my right, but not the end of the runway, or the hills I knew loomed directly ahead. As we taxied in through steady rain, the tower asked at what altitude we broke out. I knew we had flirted with minimums, so I fudged a little and said “sixteen hundred.”
We parked directly under the tower and were met by a man with a large golf umbrella who commented on the great weather. The ramp was deserted except for the King Air. I took a seat at the terminal next to the King Air pilot in the briefing room and called to file the next leg of our flight plan. Did I consider spending a quiet evening at a motel in beautiful downtown Morgantown, waiting for the weather to improve? No.
The briefer told me about heavy rain moving into Morgantown, just as I was looking at it on the computer screen. It looked as though we would only have about 20 miles of rain before breaking out into better weather to the south, so I filed the flight plan, rounded up my passenger and once again headed out to “beat the weather.”
The weather at the airport was below IFR minimums and, if we had a problem we might not be able to return to the field. Taxiing out, I watched the King Air go screaming down the runway, lift off and dissolve into the gray. The ceiling couldn’t be more than 100 feet, but I pressed on.
We spent another two hours in the clouds, battling thermals and headwinds. With the afternoon heating, the ride got much bumpier. Finally, just north of Charlotte, we broke out into hot, humid, summer weather.
That night, the glow of my good approach and landing in terrible weather faded and the awareness of the awful consequences I had avoided only through pure luck hit me. I ended up mentally beating myself up for all the mistakes I knew other pilots had made, and that I repeated. I could have easily become a sad statistic.
Frank Dougherty, AOPA 01386912, is an instrument-rated private pilot with about 600 hours flying experience. He resides in South Carolina.