Towers and Terror

I didnt realize I could get so disoriented in less than 10 seconds


With about 125 hours in my log book, I decided to fly with my wife to Tulsa, Okla., for a short summer vacation.

On the way we had many new and exciting experiences: smooth as glass 50 knot tailwinds, cheap fuel and scenery the likes of which we had never seen before. Flying is easy, right?

About 125 miles west of Tulsa, flying at 9,500 ft. we came upon cloud cover unlike anything Id ever seen. The solid deck extended as far as the eye could see north and south, with tops at 6,500 ft.. Not knowing how far east this condition existed, we started to do 360s to think about it.

I called Flight Service and was told the cloud deck extended past our destination. Then I decided to land and checked the chart for the nearest airport. When I called for a landing advisory, another pilot answered and said the ceilings were around 2,000 feet agl and visibility was good.

During the descent, I told him we were enroute to the Pogue airport. He said he had just come from the Tulsa area and that there was no reason not to continue the flight under the deck.

When we got down under the deck, we discovered he was right. The visibility was excellent. Suddenly my wife pointed off our left wing, where radio towers pierced the clouds. A quick review of the chart showed more towers between us and Pogue, but we didnt think it would be a problem as long as we were paying attention.

In California, we had never even heard of towers that tall on flat ground, theyre all on the tops of hills or mountains where they belong.

After we landed at Pogue, they topped the plane off and towed it to a tie down for free. The next morning on the news we learned a tornado had passed within sight of the airport and went to the airport to look at the plane. It suffered very slight hail damage. We were told then that we could have parked in a hanger for less than we were used to paying for tie-downs in California, but it was a little late at that point.

The clouds hung around for the whole week we were there, and when it came time to depart at 8 a.m. the clouds were at 300 to 500 agl and predicted to clear in an hour or two. By 1 p.m. we were still listening to Tulsa ATIS and getting a case of get-home-itis.

An IFR rated oil company pipe chaser is getting ready to depart and we asked if he would tell us what it looks like up there. ATIS was reporting 800 to 900 feet, but the pipeline pilot said it looked great.

We took off and turned left crosswind. I started trimming the nose down to stay out of the clouds when my wife pointed out the towers off our right wing and about two miles away. I glanced at them quickly and before I could even turn my head back around we were inside that solid deck of clouds.

I started to panic and thought about pushing the nose down, then thought of those towers out there. Suddenly my wife asked why we were flying sideways. I looked out her window and briefly saw the ground. I didnt realize I could get so disoriented in less than 10 seconds.

At that moment a pearl, a gem, a gift my instructor gave me came to life. If you ever get yourself into trouble, turn on the autopilot.

We where in a 30 degree right-hand bank when the auto pilot took over, and I was able to get the airplane back under control. I called Tulsa Approach and confessed my situation. I got a squawk code and climbed above the clouds at 5,500 feet.

We headed home shaken without a doubt, but a whole lot wiser.


Go/No Go, First Time Around
As a fairly low time pilot (180 hrs) hoping to make a career of it, I spend most of my flight time training instead of taking weekend trips. I had never really felt that burning desire that says go no matter what. I always wondered how I would handle that type of situation.

I recently demonstrated the skills worthy of an instrument rating and, with my confidence level a notch higher, I looked forward to that opportunity to conduct my first true solo IFR flight. I decided to fly from Charleston, S.C., to Gainesville, Ga., for a weekend at my parents house and a birthday celebration.

The trip down on Friday afternoon was uneventful. At around 4 p.m. Sunday I obtained my first weather brief for the return trip. A line of thunderstorms was moving over the departure airport and was tracking directly along my route of flight. I put off my departure until later, hoping that the weather would dissipate as the afternoon progressed.

I obtained my second weather brief around 6 p.m. and found the line of thunderstorms dying out around Augusta. However, a second line of thunderstorms was moving through following the same route as the first.

Somewhere inside me the pressure of needing (wanting would be a more accurate description) to get back home began to bubble toward the surface. I had to be at work early Monday morning.

I received a third weather brief around 8 p.m. and determined that the departure and enroute weather was OK, but now there were heavy thunderstorms over Charleston.

I decided to head for the airport, reasoning that the thunderstorms over Charleston would be gone by the time I got there. I did mention that feeling of needing to get home, right?

Luckily I had identified that I was suffering from get-there-itis after my second weather brief. Nevertheless, I thought I was being appropriately cautious. When I arrived at the airport for departure, a thunderhead had just moved southeast of the airport, right along the route of flight. I could have departed farther to the south toward Atlanta and avoided the storm, but the lightning helped me decide that the ground was the best place for me at that time.

So, I got to spend a little more time with my parents. After a nap, I received my fourth weather brief around 12:45 Monday morning. As anticipated, the convective activity had dissipated. I departed Gainesville just before 2 a.m. and arrived in Charleston by 3:45. I had gauged my naps right (I slept in Sunday) and was adequately rested for the flight, but as you can imagine, I was pretty tired after a complete day of work.

Since the completion of this adventure I have hangar flown this trip with several friends and instructors. The obvious question is should I have waited and left Monday morning after a full nights sleep? That, of course, would have been more conservative than I was. Did I really overcome get-there-itis?

I have come to the conclusion that I did. Thats not to say I couldnt have been more conservative, heck, I could have driven a car for the weekend.

I realized that an instrument rating doesnt mean I can fly in all conditions. Im positive thunderstorms exceed the limits of my skill and those of the well-equipped C-172 rental aircraft I was flying. I was able to identify the symptoms of get-there-itis and take that into account during the decision making process.

Once I realized that Plans A, B, and C wouldnt work, I developed Plan D and prepared for it as though it were Plan A, since it was.

Experiences such as this allow a pilot to test or define a personal limit. Theres always room for improvement, but now Im that much more prepared for the next time. This is an example of a situation that instructors can talk to you about forever, but you learn your real limitations on your own.


That Babys All Mine
I am not exactly what you would call an overly seasoned person, but I am approaching late middle age. Experience dictates that I should have learned something along the way, and one of those somethings is Always expect the unexpected.

It is not likely that the following unusual circumstance will happen to you, but it does reinforce the fact that we all need to be alert 100 percent of the time for anything and everything.

I had planed an airport hopping flight locally to visit with some of my friends around Toledo. My plane was based at Toledo Metcalf, and on the day in question I arrived at the airport around 8 a.m. After opening the hangar doors, cleaning the windows, and pre-flighting the aircraft, I was ready for a day of hanger talk.

I departed Toledo Metcalf from runway 22 and picked up a course direct to Toledo Suburban. The sky was a bit hazy with visibility at 6 to 7 miles, with slight winds from the north-northwest.

I climbed to 2,500 feet as planned, and just as I started to level out, I found my heart in my mouth. I had never even thought of, much less heard of, the near-miss that just transpired.

A small white weather balloon with approximately four feet of cord hanging down had flashed by. The balloon and the cord may not have been so bad to hit, but the payload it carried could have been disastrous: a red building brick. I passed less than 50 feet from the object.

Birds are always a concern, and birds normally try to move out of your way, but this balloon did not divert an inch. There is no doubt in my mind that this object could have been as devastating as a brick released from an overpass on the highway. Even though my small Piper Colt was massive compared to the brick, there was no doubt who would win the war if we should collide.

The balloon startled me; I only had it in sight for 2 seconds at the most, with little or no time to react. With the sky being filled with haze, I was not interested in turning around and examining it at a different angle and distance. I was not going to give the floating Sky Mine another chance to ruin my day.

Scan! Would I have seen the Sky Mine soon enough to provide a wider margin of safety? Not likely, but my experience does reinforce the fact that remembering to scan all of the time, only needs to pay off once to show its true value.


Where Did That Pesky Horizon Go?
I flew in the same haze that may have killed JFK Jr. but I did it in daylight and a staid and stable 172. The flight was full of lessons that the headlines I saw on landing really drove home.

I have about 120 hours and had thus far confined my flying to clear conditions. The morning after my first overnight trip, flight service told me, Winds calm, sky clear below 12,000, 10 miles visibility. A few minutes later I was taking off into the blue sky overhead. It was immediately apparent that the haze was very thick. The details of the landscape were disappearing at 2,500 feet and I leveled there instead of my planned 4,500. The sky blended seamlessly into visible edge of the land about six miles away. It was like flying in a twelve mile diameter barrel that moved along with the plane. There was no horizon formed by the top edge of the haze.

I thought of turning back, but the view of the ground was sufficient to provide a solid reference and I was already a quarter of the way to a wide open, easy to locate airport. Trying to go back and find the small unattended strip I had just left seemed a poorer option. In addition, there were several other airports on my route, which was over a complex series of coastal islands that I am intimately familiar with.

I was unable to raise Center on the last frequency I had used, so I had to look up alternate frequencies. I also had to start planning for more precise piloting than I had expected. I wanted a continual update on the straight line course for the nearest airport in case the air got thicker.

Several times, I looked up from my cockpit tasks to find the airspeed climbing and the plane in a 600 fpm decent. I realized that, when I got absorbed in the lap navigation, I was instinctively putting the nose of the plane on the line between land and haze. Since this apparent horizon was only about six miles away, I was pushing the plane into a nose down attitude.

Maintaining attitude while looking ahead was not a problem. I trimmed the plane with airspeed and the VSI, picked a new horizon reference low down out the side window, and flew without difficulty. As soon as I went back to navigation tasks however, I would find myself losing about 200 feet of altitude and have to climb back up.

I came to a bay where the land was invisible ahead. I had a good view of large islands to either side so I could orient myself just by turning my head.

By now, I had gotten used to maintaining straight and level flight with the horizon in its new location. I kept the corner of my eye on the VSI and altimeter when looking at the chart. A couple of times however, I looked up from cockpit tasks to see a windshield picture, with the horizon very low, much like that half way into a stall. Instinctively, I pushed forward on the yoke and the plane went to fractional G loading. I experienced a moment of intense vertigo as my brain tried to reconcile the horizon location with my inner ear feelings. As soon as I remembered that the horizon was in a new place, I snapped right out of it and it was easy to resume level flight.

These events were happening in perfectly level and controlled flight. I was upsetting the plane. Again I learned that there is almost never a need in cruise to make a sudden attitude change. There is time to take a breath, look at all of the available information, instruments, horizon, and then take any necessary action calmly and deliberately. A moments hesitation and thought would have spared me these momentary disorientations that could have easily escalated into loss of control if there had been poorer visibility or other complicating factors.

Returning full focus to the view ahead, I found my brain convinced that the plane was flying severely nose high. Trimming for steady airspeed, level VSI, and keeping the haze horizon steady under the cowl made level flight easy to maintain. I just let my brain think what it wanted and continued on for the few minutes it took for the land to come into view ahead. I used the AI for the first time but only as an aid and convenience.

This was perfectly legal VFR. There are times when maintaining control in VFR requires the same concentration and understanding of the attitude references as IFR. Even though the ground still provides all the references necessary for controlled flight, disorientation is only a couple of clumsy moves or distractions away. Fly with the same smoothness, attention, and organization as the IFR pilot and be prepared for a graceful exit to the nearest airport if the visibility closes in.


When in Doubt, Ask About It
I flew out of Nantucket with a right turn out to do some sightseeing and aerial photography over the lighthouse on the east side of the island, then continue around the island clockwise and return to Marthas Vineyard. That part went well.

I was monitoring the Nantucket tower and heard an aircraft depart with a left turn out intending on doing the island perimeter counterclockwise. I knew he was coming my way, so I stayed alert. I heard the tower ask the other pilot if he was at 2,100 feet over some landmark I didnt recognize, and the other pilot said he was approaching it at 1,800 feet. I looked at my altimeter and I was at 2,100.

Suddenly I saw a plane in the left half of my windshield crossing in front of me and about 50 to 100 feet below. We were so close I could see the white polo shirt the other pilot was wearing.

This near-miss happened so fast there was no time for fear. I dont know if the other pilot in the Piper saw my Skyhawk. You can never assume the tower will help with separation on the outskirts of its airspace, and I will bust in next time and ask for the location of the aircraft I knew was out there somewhere. At an uncontrolled airport I would not have hesitated to ask his position.


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