Clear-Weather IMC

I turned left to a heading of north and, oops, found myself in a black hole


I rented a Cessna 182RG from a local flight school in Houston to fly a couple of buddies down to Scholes Field in Galveston one night. The weather was perfect, with no wind to speak of and the visibility was about 3,000 miles. Temperature was about 55 degrees. There was not a cloud in the sky and no moon. In short, they were the kind of flight conditions every pilot would love to fly in – especially to view the skyline of a large city like Houston.

I departed David Wayne Hooks about 9:30 p.m. for the 20 or 25 minute flight. The flight down was really terrific with all the city lights. We passed just north of the large downtown buildings through what is known as the I-10 corridor (an area that allows VFR traffic outside the Class B). After a gentle turn to the right around the San Jacinto monument, we had Galveston in sight.

I executed one of my better landings and off we went to see the night life. After about four hours on The Strand (during which time I drank only water with lemon on the rocks), we hailed a cab back to the airport.

Winds were about 8 knots because of the ocean breeze coming off the Gulf, but nothing to worry about. The departure runway was 17, which takes single engine planes out over the water well before you get to 500 feet.

Here comes the fun part. After departing and climbing to about 800 feet, I turned left to a heading of north and, oops, found myself in a black hole. With a bank angle of approximately 30 degrees in a high wing aircraft, a quick view to the left and down gave me a great view of the underside of the wing and black below, a quick view straight out and to the right was black sky with only a few stars coming into view as my eyes adjusted to the dark.

With no horizon, I was instantly in what could only be called instrument conditions. Fortunately, I had just completed my instrument training, so I put the new rating to work. I quickly switched to instruments and discovered that I was still turning left and the bank angle was increasing. It could have been disastrous had I not corrected for it, especially since the airplane was climbing and at a relatively slow airspeed.

Soon the shoreline came into view and I was again VFR. My passengers never knew and still dont know what I had experienced since my correction for the overbanking was smooth and uneventful. The ride back was the same as going over with all the accolades such as Good job, Great landing, and Boy, youre a good pilot. (Like many pilots, I think my passengers compliments stemmed more from the pleasure of being back on the ground than my actual technique.) It was fun, but it scared the daylights out of me.

This is a story I have shared a few times with instrument-rated and non-rated pilots alike, encouraging the non-rated to get an instrument rating and to use it as often as possible. Remember, IMC doesnt necessarily mean in the clouds. IFR doesnt mean in the clouds either.

It takes good judgment, and lots of it, to get you in the sky and safely back down and keep you in the loop swapping stories. If you dont have the time or money for a complete rating, at least get some hood time now and then. Its cheap insurance and it might save your life and your passengers someday.


Cleared, but Not as Filed
I was flying my family in my Comanche to Opa Locka Airport in Miami, cleared as filed on V97 to PIE, then the Fortl Three Arrival into OPF.

Jacksonville Center called me with an amendment to my flight plan when we were about 70 miles south of Tallahassee. The new route took me to the east over the coast to Cross City and Ocala, then down V157 to La Belle, thence the Cypress Three Arrival into OPF. I read back the clearance like this: Okay, let me see if I have this straight: You want me to make a 90-degree left turn to Cross City, fight my way through the towering cumes with tops above FL280 down to Ocala, and then if my wings are still attached, V157 to La Belle, and then into Opa Locka by the Cypress Three Arrival, which isnt even authorized for non-turbojet aircraft. Is that my clearance?

Long pause.

Well, when you put it that way, the controller admitted, that doesnt seem right. Let me check on it.

Shortly after I completed my turn to Cross City, the controller came back with the explanation that Tampa Approach wanted all traffic rerouted to avoid the Class B airspace there because it was saturated.

I told him I understood their predicament, but I would need wide deviation authority from my new route to avoid thunderstorms all the way to south Florida. I also told him that I was extremely displeased with this clearance, nothing personal, and I again requested direct to St. Pete as soon as he could work it out. I told him Id accept any altitude up to 11,000. A few minutes later, just as I crossed the coastline, the center controller came back with my new clearance to St. Pete direct at 9,000 and the Fortl Three Arrival to Opa Locka. I thanked him sincerely for going to bat for me.

The new route inland would probably not have compromised safety or I wouldnt have accepted it at all, but I couldnt predict how it would go 200 miles farther on. At the very least, it would have meant a rough ride and a lot of wasted adrenaline.

My destination was IFR so I wasnt inclined to cancel IFR en route. Im not a controller, but I suspect Tampa Approach played the saturation card in order to clear V97 and V35 for air carrier departures to the north through clear skies – at least thats what the radio traffic sounded like to me as I neared Tampa.

True, the controllers sounded busy, but not tense, and I only had one traffic point out while they handled me.


Let There be Light
A couple of years ago a lifetime dream of owning my own airplane finally came true.

I purchased an Ercoupe with a little over 800 hours TTAF and, after a checkride with a CFI, flew it home.

The aircraft had little more than a needle and ball, airspeed indicator and altimeter, so I proceeded to upgrade the aircraft to my requirements. Although it did have nav lights, I almost immediately had a landing light and a strobe installed. My A&P questioned this decision, since I dont fly at night. The only thing I could think was that it went back to flying before transponders were required. When you reported your position from five miles out, ATC would instruct you to turn on your landing light so you could be identified.

A few weeks after the lights were installed I was on a local VFR flight when I had to divert around a squall that had formed. About 15 to 20 miles from the field, the sunlight suddenly dropped to near twilight conditions. Fortunately, the lighting was sufficient that I made an uneventful landing. As I taxied to the ramp, I saw my mechanic standing there smiling. I returned the smile and said, Now you know why I wanted the landing lights and strobe installed.

Although this incident can be chalked up to poor flight planning on my part, there is another lesson to be learned. Be prepared. A landing light may not be a big thing, but you never can tell.

My upgrading of my airplane continues constantly, with new avionics, upgraded generator, new carbs, new magnetos and much more. That may seem like a lot of work to put into a 1946 Ercoupe, but the thing I try to remember in making maintenance/upgrade decisions is that its my butt up there.


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