Terrains, Dopes And Aeroplanes

The ink was just beginning to dry on my Private Pilot's License when I got the urge to take a long cross-country flight. It was early August, the skies were gentle and I had two week's of annual leave approved. The Cherokee I'd used throughout most of my flight training was available and adventure beckoned us aloft. My wife and I spent hours poring over maps in search of interesting places with nearby airports. We finally agreed we would head eastward, turning down the coast toward Myrtle Beach, Charleston and maybe into Florida. Hence, early one sunny morning, bags packed, we drove out to our local airdrome, loaded the Cherokee up and taxied out. With winds wafting straight down the runway, we rolled off and drifted skyward. This was the halcyon beginning of what would later become a harrowing journey...but this day was perfect. The world at our feet, we set a course for our first fuel stop in Pittsburgh.

Arriving over Myrtle Beach, it was obvious we were going no further. Rain and thick haze ringed the Grand Strand; concealing a line of thunderstorms moving in from the West. Inexperienced as I was, I still knew the safest place to ride out such conditions was on the driver's seat of a rental car. The airplane secured at North Myrtle Beach Airport, we drove off to find a hotel and some dinner.

Did you ever consider the imaginary world depicted in VFR Sectional Charts? All blues, sunshine yellows and magentas; they depict a bucolic realm of Spring green countrysides and beige ridges; belying the darker realities that may await those who lack the capacity to see them. As I blundered blithely along, the VFR Sectional would lull me into a state of aesthetic complacency. But not just yet.

In the coming days, we made two attempts to reach Charleston but were never able to get much further than Georgetown. Sooner or later we'd always encounter the ubiquitous clusters of clouds that seemed to roam the coastal lowlands every day. Too tall to top, too wide to skirt and way too menacing beneath; they'd eventually convince me to just turn around. By day three we gave up trying and decided to enjoy Myrtle Beach for the rest of the week.

By Saturday morning, we were ready to head for home. Our route would take us just west of Wilmington, N.C. and northward toward Gordonsville, Va. From there we'd overfly the Linden VOR and land at Front Royal for fuel. Things went well through most of the flight. Although a bit hazy, it was still decent VFR flying weather at 4,500 feet. My wife got bored with looking out the window and eventually fell asleep.

Then, somewhere near Gordonsville, I took the Cherokee down to 2,500 feet because of some low-hanging cumulus clouds. Visibility was still good as I looked down on the Virginia countryside. The descent was nearly a fatal error but I flew on obliviously. Somewhere south of Linden and tracking inbound, I noticed my flight visibility decreasing somewhat. This didn't concern me though because I still had good visual contact with the ground. If I'd kept better visual contact with my VFR Sectional I might have noticed the rising terrain ahead and the clearly marked minimum safe altitude for this area. But no.

Near as I can tell, I was in the vicinity of Sperryville and Washington (see chart below) when the cloud bases sunk even lower. I descended to stay below but could see ahead that it was getting worse. That's when my situation became copiously clear. I was headed into an area of increasingly high terrain and was having to descend to stay below the clouds. My wife slept on as panic crept in. I glanced left and right; hoping to find a way of turning around. By now I could barely see a mile in any direction so a turn could have simply been a quicker way of running into something. I realized there was only one remaining option. I had to get the Cherokee up to 3,500 feet as quickly as possible.The Linden VOR was still somewhere off the nose of the airplane, along with the mountain range it sat on. Cloud bases were immediately above me. Fragments of my Private Pilot training came back to me as I pushed the throttle forward and pulled back on the yoke. My eye went immediately to the attitude indicator. I was climbing - good. Airspeed was well above a stall - good. Wings remained level - good. Outside the window was nothing but gray - frightening.The altimeter slowly added to my last known altitude. Although I was climbing, I had no idea how close I was to the surrounding terrain. Now above 3,000 feet, I remained in solid IFR conditions. If I made it to Linden and was still in the clouds; what would I do next? I had no clue.

At 3,500 feet I was as yet alive and climbing when I noted station passage over Linden. Front Royal Airport would be somewhere off to the left but I was afraid to descend. Should I continue climbing, in hope of punching through the cloud tops? And how far up would that be? My hands were soaked in sweat. The gray outside the windows grew brighter. Then, in an instant, I was in full sunlight and could see for miles. Just ahead, the airport was clearly visible. I woke my wife up and told her we'd be landing in a few minutes.

There isn't much more to say about this. Every mistake I made was a stupid one and every break I got was a lucky one. I'll never know just how close I came to shredding that airplane as it sliced through the treetops and hit the mountainside. I do know this flight could have ended up as a kind of 'Ground School' for dopes - the kind nobody ever walks away from.

© NLA Factor, 2010

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