WEATHER, OR NOT
By Captain Nancy Aldrich
I am not a meteorologist, so this is certainly not going to be a lecture on weather. It is rather, going to be some stories about how the weather affected me and my flying. I’ve had some interesting run-ins with the weather demons. The old saying, “it is better to be on the ground wishing you were in the air, than to be in the air wishing you were on the ground,” is certainly true when the weather turns bad.
As a student pilot the only problem with the weather came when it caused me to have to cancel lessons. That was frustrating because I was anxious to learn and wanted to fly every day. Later I learned to respect the weather and became very aware of its power.
One evening, I was flying home from having taught a class for King Schools in Des Moines. As I was flying through Nebraska the clouds and turbulence began to build. I thought that I would land at Grand Island and get a thorough weather check with Flight Service. It soon became clear that was not going to happen. As the clouds closed in on me, I saw the Hastings airport and decided to get on the ground. I taxied in and got the airplane firmly tied down. The good people at the airport suggested a nice restaurant within walking distance so I went there for dinner. When I returned to the airport I called Flight Service. They were not encouraging, saying the storms were continuing to build.
The airport staff said they were going home, but that I could stay and sleep on the couch, if I left during the night, just lock the doors.
I slept fitfully. About every half an hour, I would get up and call Flight Service again, for another weather briefing, hoping I could get to Denver. Finally, around 1 a.m., they said the storms were breaking up, but would build again around daybreak. I figured I could make it to Denver before daybreak, so I filed my flight plan, preflighted the airplane and was airborne around 1:30. I had an uneventful flight and landed at Tri-County Airport, just north of Denver at about 4:30, parked the airplane, went home and went to bed. The next morning when I went back to the airport, they were receiving many phone calls about someone flying around in the early morning. I kept my mouth shut!
Years later, I was sitting in position on runway 26, in a Boeing 757, at the Denver Airport. The Control Tower called, saying they were stopping all movement on the airport because a tornado was sighted at the north end of the field. I looked out the right window, and sure enough, a tornado was on the ground, moving south. I called the tower back and requested immediate clearance to take off. “You want to take off with a tornado on the field?,” was the reply. I called back “Yes, we can outrun the tornado.” I saw no reason to sit there on the ground and wait for a tornado that was still 3 miles away. The airplane behind me, said, “We want clearance, too,” and the one behind him also called for clearance. We got our clearance, and were off, leaving the tornado far behind!
My worst experience with weather occurred while I was flight instructing. It is a story I tell in my book, “Flying My Dream.” It happened one Sunday morning, several years before micro-bursts were recognized and understood.
I was ‘in the pattern’ with Maureen, a student who was ready to solo. As we flew around, there was a little burble in the air as we turned from crosswind to downwind. It was noticeable, but nothing she had trouble flying through. After making 4 or 5 circuits in the pattern, I told her to taxi off the runway and come to a full stop. Then I asked for her student pilot certificate so I could sign the solo endorsement. She said she was not going to solo that day. She explained that she had no interest in flying and was only going to solo to win a bet with her husband. Once she soloed, she would not fly again. She wanted her husband to be there when she soloed, to take pictures.
We parked the airplane, and I moved to the next student. This was a new student taking his first flight lesson. As soon as we were airborne, I knew we were in real trouble. I had little, to no, control of the airplane. I was so glad that Maureen had refused to solo!
Had I had more experience, I would have simply flown away and come back after half an hour or so. However, then, I just wanted to get back on the ground. The student had the good sense to sit quietly with his hands in his lap and his feet on the floor. I managed to get the airplane on final, but could not get close to the ground as the airplane was being tossed around. There was also a Bonanza, and a Mooney, at the airport, and none of us could get on the ground. On my third circuit, I was a mile out on final, 400’ AGL, and on speed. It looked like a good approach. With the power at idle, I had climbed 600’ as I crossed the threshold, and at the middle to the runway, with full power on, I could not keep the airplane from slamming onto the runway and immediately bouncing back in the air! I heard the propeller hit the runway! Now, I was back in the air, but had no idea how much damage had been done by the prop hitting the runway. Suddenly, the winds were completely calm! I very gingerly managed to get the airplane back on final, landed, and taxied in to the parking area.
The propeller had indeed hit the runway. The tip of one blade was bent forward! The mechanic on duty said he had never seen a prop strike when only one blade hit. The blade being bent forward was evidence that the power had been on at the time of the strike, but I knew that.
Now, we know and understand microbursts, and that was exactly what I had experienced. I found out later that my student was quite famous in the music world. He was a world famous concert pianist, and a Van Clyburn Award winner. I’ve never quite figured out if I nearly killed him, or saved his life!
On another occasion, I was flying in a Grumman Cheetah, from Denver to Dallas for King Schools. Now, the Cheetah is a great little airplane, but not really intended for instrument conditions. As I flew south, the weather began to worsen. I had filed an IFR flight plan. As I talked with ATC, they suggested I climb to better weather. I was already at 9,000’ and that little Cheetah didn’t want to go much higher. When the told me there were sighted tornadoes between Amarillo and Dallas, I decided to park the airplane. I flew an ILS approach, with a 30 degree crab on final. The Amarillo airport is shared with the military, and as I taxied off the runway, three young service men ran up to hold the wings down, and help me tiedown. When I stepped out of the airplane, a tall, red-headed, young man wrapped his arms around me, and in a deep southern drawl, said, “Ma’am, I’m not gonna turn loose of you until you promise me you won’t go flying again in this weather.” I laughed and promised.
When I walked into the Flight Service Station, and asked for a briefing, the briefer handed me a telephone. He would not give me a briefing until I had called and make airline reservations into Dallas. I made the reservations, and got my briefing. About 3 hours later, after the weather calmed down, I was able to continue my flight into Dallas.
Again, coming home from Billings, Montana it got a little interesting. Billings was in blizzard conditions. I called the airport and asked if they would pre-heat my engine before I came out to the airport. They assured me that they would. A couple of hours later, I headed out to the airport. When I arrived they told me the airplane was nice and warm inside the hangar! That was not at all what I wanted. I was sure water was lurking between all the control surfaces, and could refreeze making it impossible to move the surfaces. I had lunch and waited a couple of hours until I felt that the airplane had time to dry thoroughly. Then I filed my flight plan. I told the tower I wanted to copy my clearance over the phone. Once out of the hangar, I wanted immediate clearance to take off. I did not want to sit around on the ground letting snow build up on the wings. The tower agreed.
I copied my clearance, fired up the engine, taxied as quickly as I could and took off, heading for Denver.
I had filed for 10,000.’ Once I reached altitude, I tried to level off. The trim was frozen, nose up. It took both hands, with stiff arms to maintain level flight. Because of the trim, I could not use the autopilot. This was going to be a little more than a 3 hour flight, so I knew I was going to get very tired holding the yoke with both hands. After about an hour and a half, I needed a restroom! There was no way I was going to land an take off again in this blizzard. I was above the clouds and planned on staying there!
Now, I’m no contortionist, but somehow, I managed to find and fill a ‘sick sack,‘ while holding the airplane in level flight. But, now, I have a full ‘sick sack‘ that I needed to do something with. I was in a Piper Dakota, so I opened the side window to throw the sack out. Needless to say, the sack ripped apart in the wind, and all the contents hit me in the face!
The good news is that as I flew past Cheyenne, the weather cleared and the rest of the flight was uneventful.
I could go on telling weather stories, but I will just go into one more. I was returning to Denver, on a nice clear night. As a matter of fact, it was a beautiful night for flying. At least, I thought it was. As I approached Tri-County Airport, in Erie, Colorado, I was confronted with a solid wall of cloud. I was only about 15 miles out. I called ATC and was cleared to fly a VOR non-precision approach to the airport and circle to land in the opposite direction. I flew the approach and had the airport in sight. As I entered downwind for my landing I cancelled my flight plan and changed to the airport frequency. While I was doing that, all the runway lights went off. I screamed into the mike, “Who turned the runway lights off, turn them back on!” A voice called back saying they didn’t think anyone would be up in this weather and were shutting down the airport. They turned the lights back on for me, and I landed safely!
I’ve got about 10 other weather related stories running around in my head wanting to get out, but I will save them for a later blog.
Well, now, you might ask why I got myself into such circumstances. That would be a good question, and I would certainly ask it of someone else. However, I had noticed that most applications for serious pilot positions always asks, “how many hours do you have of actual instrument flying?” By the time I was otherwise qualified, I had plenty!