The following story is from my Confessions of a Thankful Pilot series.
My first attempt taking the IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight test was on June 14, 1994. But with only about 15 minutes of flying left, the flight examiner discontinued the test because of bad weather conditions. My second attempt on August 23rd succeeded and I became an FAA certified instrument rated pilot, approved to fly through clouds.
Fourteen days later, on Tuesday September 6, I filed my first IFR flight plan as an instrument rated pilot.
Byron (Fuji) Hasegawa, a fellow Willoughby firefighter, wanted to go to Kalamazoo, Michigan to spend a few days with his wife Faith who was on a work assignment there. Instead of a 4 1/2 hour drive, he opted for a 1hour and 45 minute flight with me.
The plan was to fly him from Cuyahoga County Airport (CGF). to Kalamazoo-Battle Creek International Airport (AZO) on the 6th, then come back on Saturday, September 10th to pick him up and fly him home.
Although I had been flying a Grumman Tiger (fixed prop, fixed gear, and 180 hp engine) after transitioning from a Piper Tomahawk flight trainer, I was currently working on getting a log book endorsement to fly the Piper Arrow. The Arrow is considered to be a complex high performance aircraft that has a 200 horsepower engine, an adjustable pitch propeller and retractable landing gear. In order to fly it, I had to complete 10 hours of training with a flight instructor. Jeff Davis, also a Willoughby firefighter, had been my primary IFR flight instructor and was now teaching me the intricacies of flying the Arrow. I asked Jeff if he’d like to go to Kalamazoo. Then I reserved 3700Q so I could build time toward the endorsement while helping Fuji. It was a win-win.
I woke up the Arrow’s 200 horses, taxied to the run-up area and performed a systems check. At 11:12 a.m., Tower cleared us for takeoff, I lined up on the runway, and pushed the throttle full forward.
The ceiling over CGF was overcast at 5,000 feet, visibility was 3 miles in haze, and winds at 6,000 feet were 11 knots out of the northwest. Kalamazoo currently had an 800 foot ceiling with 2 miles visibility in fog with a gradual improvement forecast for our expected time of arrival.
I had filed an IFR flight plan with the intent of joining Victor Airway 14 and heading to the Dryer VOR (radio beacon). From there, we could join Victor 30 which would take us to LEROY intersection, just 9 miles east of AZO. Cleveland Approach, however, amended my flight plan, vectoring us over Lake Erie immediately after takeoff, to keep us out of the way of the heavy air carrier traffic coming into and departing Cleveland Hopkins International.
We popped out above most of the cloud tops as soon as we reached our filed cruising altitude. Because I was now an instrument rated pilot, I could deviate around the clouds that rose higher than our altitude or I could simply fly through them. I exercised my new superpowers and stayed on course.
Near the SKY (Sandusky) VOR, I peered down through one of the rare holes in the undercast below and confirmed we were back over land. Crossing over SKY, I made a lazy turn to 276 degrees, to put us on Victor 30.
“Three-Seven-Zero-Zero-Quebec, contact Toledo Approach on One-Two-Zero-point-Four-Five.”
I acknowledged the handoff then tuned in 120.45 MHz on the comm radio.
“Toledo Approach, Piper Arrow 3-7-0-0- Quebec, level at 6,000.”
Forty-four nautical miles west of SKY, we crossed the VWV (Waterville) VOR and I banked the Arrow right to 308 degrees to continue tracking Victor 30. Although there were no signs floating in the sky to welcome us, according to my chart, we flew over the Ohio-Michigan border about 26 nm after crossing VWV.
The Arrow droned on at 140 kts as we flew the remaining 36 nm to the LFD VOR (Litchfield) without incident. Upon crossing Litchfield, I nudged the airplane left to 293 degrees to stay on Victor 30. Soon after, we were handed off to Chicago Center.
Before we reached LEROY intersection on V30, Chicago handed us off to Kalamazoo Approach. They were now providing radar vectors to line us up on the ILS (Instrument Landing System) approach to Runway 35. I was now even more focused on flying the relatively new (to me) airplane and conducting my GUMP check.
“Gas,” I said aloud for Jeff to hear as I reached down and moved the red fuel flow lever from the right tank to the left tank, then flipped the fuel pump rocker switch to on.
“Undercarriage,” I called out next, and pulled the white Certs-like landing gear extension switch out and then down. I waited patiently to see a triangle of three green lights before continuing.
“Mix.” I pushed the red-tipped fuel mixture lever on the far right of the power control quadrant forward to full rich.
“Prop.” I reached over to the blue-tipped center lever in the power control quadrant and set the rpm of the variable pitch prop to full.
The altimeter indicated I was holding 2,800 msl. Good.
The vertical needle of the CDI (Course Deviation Indicator) on the VOR display was almost centered. Good.
The horizontal needle of the GSI (Glide Slope Indicator) had dropped from above to almost centered. Good.
The blue annunciator light with a black O on the audio control panel suddenly lit up and began flashing. The visual alert was accompanied by the distinctive high pitched beep-beep, beep-beep, beep-beep. We were over the outer marker located 5.6 nm from the end of the runway.
“Kalamazoo Approach, Zero-Zero-Quebec is inbound crossing the final approach fix.”
I pulled back slightly on the black-tipped power lever with my right hand and thumbed the electric trim button on the left horn of the yoke until the VSI (Vertical Speed Indicator) showed a stable 500 feet-per-minute descent.
Approach Control had taken us to the final approach fix and the tower had cleared us to land. It was up to me to do the rest.
I watched the altimeter unspool and scanned outside. I wasn’t cleared go below 1,060 feet msl unless I could at least see some part of the airport.
Like Brigadoon, the clouds softly parted and the airport appeared. I continued descending through 1,060 msl toward the big white 35 ahead.
I managed to make a respectable landing, then taxied to the ramp. Faith met us outside the terminal and drove us all to lunch at the local McDonalds.
After lunch, Faith drove us back to the airport where Jeff and I said our goodbyes.
I completed the preflight checks on the Arrow, filed our IFR flight plan for the return trip, and soon we were back in the clouds and headed toward Cleveland. Unlike when we left CGF, we didn’t pop out of the clouds at our assigned altitude of 7,000 msl, but continued to remain immersed in a heavenly pearl-white, other-world dimension, effectively blind as we cruised along at 140 kts.
As firefighters, Jeff and I were used to working blindly inside structure fires, peering out of a clear plastic facemask and seeing nothing but grey smoke. Unlike being blind in a dangerous environment on the ground however, we were safely nestled in an airplane’s aluminum cocoon, listening to the reassuring pulse of the Arrow’s strong engine, and tracking Victor 30 over Indiana.
Suddenly the heavens arounc us turned black.
I turned my head to look at Jeff.
The Arrow started bucking like a wild animal. A torrent of hail assaulted its thin aluminum skin and threatened to break through the plastic windscreen in front of my face. Rain poured into the cockpit through the overhead air vent as if we had somehow become submerged in a lake.
I had never flown an airplane through severe turbulence and blinding lightning bursts in a thunderstorm. I managed to avoid such hazards by listening to the warnings of flight briefers and Air Traffic Controllers, or by visually seeing cloud buildups and flying clear of them. I don’t know why there had been no warnings from the briefer or ATC today (had I somehow missed them?), but flying inside a solid cloud layer had made it impossible to see and avoid this embedded thunderstorm. I had flown us into its belly.
With very little experience in flying the Arrow and no experience flying in a thunderstorm, I didn’t object when Jeff offered to take the controls.
“I have control of the aircraft,” he said as calmly as if he flew through thunderstorms for a living.
I’d read many accident reports about unfortunate pilots who strayed into thunderstorms. Even commercial airline pilots give them a wide berth. More than a few small aircraft like the one we were currently being tossed around in had been spit out with their wings torn off. Frankly, I couldn’t figure out how why the severe turbulence hadn’t flipped us over, or why the Arrow wasn’t already torn apart. And considering the massive amounts of rain and hail, I was also surprised that the air filters hadn’t been overwhelmed and the engine hadn’t quit. Simply put, I didn’t understand why we weren’t dead already.
I scanned Jeff’s face and listened to his voice for some confirmation of how bad a predicament we were in, but he looked and acted as if there was nothing unusual happening. So I asked outright.
“How bad is this storm compared to others you’ve been in?”
Jeff continued working the yoke and scanning the instrument panel before saying evenly, “Oh, this one’s not too bad.”
Well if he didn’t view our situation as a dire ride to certain death, then neither would I.
We tried multiple times without success to make contact with ATC and get vectors out of the monster that had captured us but the radio was jammed with other pilots who were also caught or trying to deviate around the beast.
Suddenly, the storm spit us out.
After being uncontrollably pushed up and down thousands of feet at a time, we had emerged at 9,000 feet into an oasis of sunshine surrounded by vertical reaching cumulus clouds and a solid cloud deck below us.
“You have the controls,” Jeff said as he released the yoke and leaned back in his seat.
I deviated around what adverse weather I could see but still had to plow through a few clouds and contend with some bumps. Although we had survived the storm, there was still plenty of white knuckle flying for me to do.
About an hour-and-a-half after leaving Fuji in Kalamazoo, and managing not to stumble into another storm, we were cleared for the ILS approach to Cuyahoga County Airport. I wrestled the Arrow through the strongest crosswinds and turbulence I’d ever encountered during an approach to landing. Although the actual touch-down wasn’t one of my best, I was just grateful to be on the ground in one piece.
After Jeff and I pushed the Arrow back into its hangar, I admitted to him that I’d been more than a little worried when we were inside the thunderstorm until he’d indicated there was nothing to be worried about.
Jeff’s trademark grin slowly spread across his face as he turned to look at me.
“That was the worst fuckin’ storm I’ve ever flown in. I didn’t think we had a hope in hell of coming out of it in one piece. There was nothing to do but keep flying the airplane (and hope we weren’t torn apart, he didn’t have to add).”
He paused a moment as we both took a breath.
After entering 3 ½ hours of cross country flight time in the Arrow and 1.5 hours of actual instrument flying, Jeff signed my log book.