The flight was planned to be a photography exercise, documenting the terrain of the New River Basin in Virginia and West Virginia. The forecast called for sunshine, light westerly winds in North Carolina, with a breezy day in the Virginias.
I set off from Lincoln County Regional Airport, outside of Charlotte, North Carolina, in my Piper PA–11 with a Continental O-200 engine. It is a simple aircraft with no electrical system. The route of flight was straight over the Brushy Mountains and north into the Blue Ridge Plateau in Virginia. The ascent itself into Virginia was uneventful, except the wind was absolutely howling with moderate turbulence in the higher terrain.
After 20 minutes of flight in these conditions, it became clear that there was no way I could pull off any successful photography. I turned around at Hillsville, Virginia, returning along a similar flight path.
The turbulence was continuous and annoying to manage while still in Virginia. My ascent up the Blue Ridge Plateau had been uneventful, so I planned a similar descent. I decided I would get a little closer to the terrain right at the ridgeline—as there were no buildings, vehicles, or people—and I could glide off the ridge into the Piedmont if the engine quit. I was paying close attention as I descended toward the ridgeline to the activity of the trees responding to the wind, and it appeared to be a lee-side area with much quieter conditions.
Upon getting 250 feet past the ridgeline, I encountered a mix of severe turbulence and wind shear unlike anything I thought was possible with flyable wind speeds. The aircraft was almost instantly rolled 110 degrees to the left, partially upside down, while about 300 feet above the ground.
I instantly applied full right aileron and heavy right rudder. The roll rate in a Cub is unimpressive, and my return to proper orientation to the sky was aided by getting rolled harshly 70 degrees to the right, along with vertical turbulence. I hit my head multiple times on the frame above the seat, and gear was flying around the cockpit with a vengeance.
During the violence, I was fighting the airplane like it was a misbehaving fighter jet, using all of the agility I had to control my upper body and keep my vision pointed out the windshield. There was only one quick glance possible at the airspeed indicator, which read 60 miles per hour with cruise power in a descent. A brief lull afforded the opportunity to pull the waist belt extremely tight and lower the airplane to maneuvering speed before the next round of vertical turbulence—yet again I managed to bang my head on the ceiling. The accessories in the baggage area that were not secured were getting thrown around, and I used the next calm window to reset the ELT, just in case.
At this point, I thought I was getting away from the turbulence, as I was no longer close to the escarpment. I noted that, in the melee with the wind, I had lost 1,000 feet of altitude, despite being trimmed for cruise. I tightened the waist belt as hard as I could, just in case, even though I thought it was over. One final bang still managed to knock my headset off, and I responded by tightening the shoulder belts as hard as they would go. After a consistent and mild downdraft away from terrain, the wind calmed to 10 knots with sunny skies. My flirt with death quickly became an insultingly idyllic afternoon.
With a 60-minute flight ahead of me, I had plenty of time to think what on earth went wrong with this little charade at the state line. I am familiar with rotors, mountain waves, and downdrafts, and I have never been in a situation this vulnerable. Here, for the second time in my flying career, I was caught in a vulnerable situation—not in epic spires of rock at 14,000 feet, nor the highest peaks over 6,000 feet in North Carolina, but rather at 3,000 feet in the Southeast.
The weather phenomenon was not something I expected; it was turbulence and wind shear. My best presumption is one current of air was moving fast over the plateau, and another was stationary in the air mass below over the Piedmont. Two differing airspeeds were most pronounced by the ridgeline, which created a strong shearing force. The reason the windward side did not feature this kind of danger was because of a longer fetch where the two air masses could mix.
I am thankful for three factors that I could control, and which worked in my favor. The first was the fact that I had the bulk of the gear in the aircraft strapped down. Second, I did not follow untrained instinct, which is to pull “up” when rolled over, thanks in part to having read a fine article in AOPA Pilot magazine about it in the not too distant past. Being so close to terrain behind me would have been a quick death. The last thing is my personal belief that panic and out-of-control fear has no place in an airplane. While I do not like being turned over, nor do I like getting literally beaten up by the wind, I was still many hundreds of feet from the nearest object. The matter of focus at that moment was not the emotional magnitude of “what if” something worse happens, it was what needed to be done to get out of the situation. An airplane needs to be commanded, and not the other way around.
The most important lesson of the event is to take a cautious approach when getting close to terrain, evaluated daily based on the weather. That’s my standard rule, and I ignored it. The second lesson is that terrain is terrain, regardless of how unimpressive the elevations are related to sea level. By thinking I was safe down at 3,000 feet mean sea level, I missed obvious clues and found myself upside down.
Garrett Fisher is an author and blogger. He recently published Above the Summit: An Antique Airplane Conquers Colorado’s Fourteeners.
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