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Weather and Flight Experience

Which Way is Up?

It started off to be a quiet Saturday morning with nothing to do the whole day but get my annual done on my 1939 Cessna 140. I had made an appointment with my mechanic for 8 a.m., wanting to get it over with so I could spend the afternoon helping some buddies learn how to fly remote-controlled aircraft. I had spent a good deal of Friday afternoon going over the annual check list to make sure anything that I could take care of would not slow down the inspection.

I had been flying for almost three years and a lot of times these early morning flights had to be delayed because of ground fog. This morning was no exception. Looking out at my 2000' grass strip I could not see the pine trees along the far end. It was already a little after 8:00. I called my mechanic and since he wasn't but about two miles from me he had the same situation and said, "Just wait it out, I'll be here all day."

After a couple hours the trees at the far end started to appear. But I also noticed the fog appeared to be hanging around the tops of the trees. So I was going to wait for a while longer. Then I noticed a buzzard in flight just above the trees toward the north. He looked like he might have been a couple hundred feet above the trees.

After another quick preflight it looked like the time to go. Even with a low ceiling I figured it would be no problem to take off, stay low, just above the trees and drop in at his field. Usually I no sooner get leveled out than I have to start a decent to his strip.

With no wind I took off in the direction towards my mechanics field. After leaving the ground I was going to level out at just above tree top level, however as soon as I cleared the end of the runway, the ground, the trees, and everything went total white. OK, no problem, just fly the airplane, climb a little until clear of the ground fog, then head for the airport. My local airport is only five miles away and also in the direction of my mechanics field.

My aircraft has minimum flight instruments and I was not instrument certified.

Climb, I thought, get out of this, but stay close so you'll have some idea where you are.

Climbing ever so slowly and in a shallow left turn I watched the altimeter climb, 2000, 2500, 3000. All this time telling myself, stay calm, fly the airplane, and trust the instruments. Maintaining a slow but above stall speed airspeed I leveled out and was starting to call for help when the attitude gyro started spinning like crazy. Panic started to set in and the thought of calling someone disappeared.

Which way is up? Are the wings level? Has vertigo taken over? What now?

For the past ten years I had also been flying radio controlled aircraft and have taught a lot of people to fly them. One of the things I would always stress is, if they get the plane in an attitude they can't handle, to just take their hands off the controls and let gravity righten the plane and the wings will be on top, (of a high wing type).

I thought about the advice I had given and hoped it would work for me in the real thing. I kept one hand on the throttle and other in my lap and pulled my feet back away from the pedals. Pulling back the throttle ever so slightly I could feel, I thought, the nose drop and I was going down.

Looking at the instruments nothing seemed to be working as it should. The gyro was still spinning. There was no way I could trust any of them. The airspeed seemed to be working but who knew, I had to trust something. Glancing from airspeed to windshield I remember saying, "OK God, its up to you now".

After what seemed like a really long time and all the while imagining my airplane and I scattered all over a hillside, the white started turning a little darker. Now what? I started really straining and hoping I wasn't going to see rain or it didn't get any darker. Whoa, what was that, I thought I could make out a shape. Then I broke out just above the trees, down in between some rolling hills. The nose was down to about 30-35 degrees and the left wing was down about the same. I leveled the wings, pulled the nose up and added power. Flying just above and in between the trees I started looking for a landmark or anything that looked familiar. As it turned out I was near a road I recognized and was just a couple miles from home but still in the pine trees. I made it to my field and landed safely. I immediately called my mechanic and told him I would have to wait and try it later that afternoon, if the fog lifted, and with no mention of what had happened. It wasn't until four months later when I first spoke of it and then only to my wife.

Around 2 p.m. that same afternoon I got back in the plane and flew to my mechanic's field. I told him I wasn't going to help this time and he offered to give me a ride home. "Thanks, I think I will walk." Walking the four miles back home, needless to say, in some very deep thought.


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