Surprise Adventure

I could barely see far enough ahead to fly, much less divert around strong storms


Elaine, my 21-year-old-daughter, was a senior in college and was to get married in less than two months. She and I have shared that special close bond that is unique to dads and daughters, so we planned one more father-daughter adventure before she tied the knot.

She had one day open on her busy pre-wedding summer schedule, so I cleared my schedule too. I just hoped the weather would be VFR for our planned flight to Ocean City, N.J., a place that holds many great memories for my wife and Elaine.

The evening before the flight I checked the weather forecasts on the AOPA website and filed a flight plan as well. We planned to lift off at 5:45 a.m. to arrive at Ocean City by 7 a.m. Breakfast was planned at the great on-site restaurant when it opened.

The next morning, however, there was less than three miles visibility due to haze at all points between my home base and the shore. The haze was expected to burn off around 8 a.m., so Elaine and I arrived at the airport at 7:30, pre-flighted the Cessna 152, and took off in three miles visibility at 7:45.

We flew the 115-mile course without incident, avoiding the busy Newark airport area. The transponder seemed to be acting up, giving replies but no altitude indication, but that wasnt a reason to abort the flight. The club had recently bought a Garmin 195 GPS, and I was happy to have that plugged into the cigarette lighter.

Elaine was a good co-pilot, watching for traffic, and handling some of the extraneous duties, but she soon fell asleep.

I was thankful for the GPS, because landmarks were difficult to see in the haze. When we were 10 miles from Ocean City I tuned into the CTAF and found that the winds were 5 knots, right down runway 6. The GPS helped me to line up for a 45-degree entry to a left downwind at a strange airport without missing a beat.

We had a great time that day, sightseeing, shopping and eating, but finally by 4 p.m. it was time to go back to the airport and head for home.

I called the Millville FSS for a weather report and learned of a line of severe thunderstorms 30 miles west of Harrisburg, heading southeast directly into our path. I asked the briefer if she thought we could beat the line of storms and she responded we probably could not do it. Strong winds and hail were predicted to cross our flight path.

Another pilot was getting ready to fly a 172 with two passengers to Reading, near our destination, and thought he could easily make it. I thought if he could do it, so could I. The wind had kicked up into a nearly 90-degree crosswind at 18 knots, with gusts in the 20s. My Cessna 152 was actually shaking and straining at the tie-downs from the gusts, but the winds were supposed to be mild inland.

Elaine and I had jobs to get to the next morning, and we succumbed to the get-home-itis. My gut was nagging at me as I did the preflight, set up the GPS and followed the 172 down the taxiway to runway 24.

Once in the air the Cessna did an immediate crab into the wind and bounced around until about 200 feet, and then the air smoothed out. Elaine later told me the takeoff was frightening.

I lined up on course and found deteriorating visibility due to haze. By the time we were approaching our first check point, the Milleville, N.J., airport, visibility had dropped to marginal VFR and I was almost flying by instruments alone. Thank goodness for the GPS.

I called Milleville Unicom and learned the storms were already approaching our home base. I could barely see far enough ahead to fly, much less divert around strong storms, so we decided to land at Milleville.

We landed on runway 14 in a much gentler crosswind, taxied around closed taxiways due to construction, and tied down the plane.

We were stuck in a strange place for the night. Even though it was after hours at the FSS Central stationed there, we walked in and a briefer showed us that the leading edge of the storm was now at our destination. We settled into a nearby motel and called home, saying we wouldnt be there until the next morning.

The next morning at 5:00 a.m., I checked the weather and knew from the temperature/dewpoint spread (zero) what Id see when I looked outside. I called the FSS and they predicted the fog would lift between 8 a.m. and 10 a.m.

We went to the airport just before 8 and visibility on the ground was about three miles. A few minutes later, the local AWOS confirmed my estimate. We departed in marginal visibility, using the GPS to navigate. I could see the ground around us but could not see far enough ahead to pick out checkpoints.

Fortunately, the haze burned off shortly and the rest of the trip was uneventful.

The GPS really saved the day for us. I must say, however, that because of the GPS I flew in conditions below my previous weather minimums. I would not have normally flown with such limited visibility on such a long trip to an unfamiliar location without 10 miles line of sight to see landmarks.

I also learned that the desire to get home at any cost can be a very dangerous thing if common sense and good judgment are not used in the decision-making process. We both were pulled by that urge, and it made me push things to the edge of safety. Yes, we spent an extra $100.00 in motel, taxi, and food expenses, but we are not another statistic on the NTSB list.

The GPS is a great piece of electronics, but it can also lead you into situations beyond your abilities. I flew with a written flight plan and had sectional landmarks and the VOR frequencies indicated along the way in case the GPS quit or I suddenly got into IMC. Filing a flight plan and opening it is only basic common sense on longer flights.


Paws Off My Tiger
I was on my way back from New Orleans Lakefront Airport, where I had dropped off my first-ever Angel Flight patient.

The mission was to pick up the patient at Raytheon at Houston Hobby and fly him to New Orleans. The trip went off without a hitch and was very rewarding.

I had a pilot friend of mine ride along to help with the trip. We started off from Sugarland Municipal, where I briefed him on the systems in the Grumman Tiger we were flying for the mission. I pointed out that the fuel selector was left-off-right and that there was no both, because he was used to Cessnas.

We agreed that I would handle the flying and fuel management and he would navigate. We were on our way back, flying up the coast to Beaumont, then up the Interstate 10 corridor to Houston.

Let me tell you a little about the country side at night between Beaumont and Houston: nada, nothing. All you see are the cars beneath you and maybe an airport or two otherwise its pitch black nothingness.

Houston couldnt give us flight following, so once we were out of Beaumont Approachs space we were on our own. After maybe 10 minutes we were able to get in on the Houston frequency and get flight following to SGR, and we were told to go through the corridor as expected.

We were flying along and I remember scratching my head while looking off to the left into the night. I lowered my arm and hit something next to my left knee. All of a sudden the engine started running really rough. I pitched for best glide speed (first thing I did, honest!) and checked the ignition and master switches.

They were good, fuel pump on, carb heat on, mixture full rich, throttle full, fuel on the right tank. I also remembered topping off the tanks at Lakefront and knew we had fuel in both tanks.

My friend then said I just switched the tanks. I stared at him for what seemed like a minute with a surprised you did what? look on my face, but it was more like a nanosecond, and then I switched back over to the left tank.

The engine came back to life. We both gave a huge sigh of relief, but we still had that look of oh crap on our faces. After we got ourselves situated again and were near Baytown Airport I switched back over to the right tank just to see and of course nothing happened. Business as usual.

What had happened was my friend decided to help me out and switch the tanks for me since it was nearing time and I had been busy with approach.

What I hadnt mentioned to him during our preflight discussion of duties is that the detents for the selected fuel tank positions were very slight. A little to the left or right of the desired tank and you get what you get, a running, rough running or stopped engine, depending on how open/closed the valve is.

When everything was back to normal I said See why I said Id handle the fuel? I think I should have told him a little more about the Tigers personality quirks as well as the black and white checklist. Definitely go over the planes known quirks with your co-pilot, because you never know how important they really could be.


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