had a whopping 105 hours of private pilot experience, no instrument
rating, and five hours in the C177 Cardinal when I departed at 5:45
A.M. with two passengers and baggage from Phoenix Sky Harbor for
a flight to Rapid City, South Dakota. Normally, I would have just
gone to sleep, but not this day. The "band" had two days
of gigs in Sturgis, South Dakota after which all three of us needed
to get back immediately for work.
flight was not too bad. Aside from the turbulence and the dodging
of an occasional thunderstorm, we made it to Rapid City in about
six hours flying time. I could go through the horrendous events
of the next two days in detail but to sum it all up, we got about
an hours sleep per night. You see, during the annual "rally"
in Sturgis, the motorcycles never stop, day or night. Our tent seemed
to us to be a good place to sleep, but to the other people in Sturgis
it was a great place to park their motorcycles. We also had no transportation
(we were supposed to have been provided a vehicle), which meant
we had no way to get food. Needless to say, we hardly ate anything
for the two days we were there. To top it off, the last night we
were there, I, the pilot had an enormous fight on a pay phone with
my then girlfriend, which lasted into the wee hours of the morning
we were to depart back to Phoenix.
we were driven to the airport that morning at 6 A.M. we could tell
the lack of food and sleep was taking its toll. Even for the early
morning hour it seemed very dark out which was probably due to the
storm that had moved in while we slept. By the time we got to the
airport it was raining hard and on the verge of snowing. I was worried,
but I did see an occasional hole in the clouds and figured we just
might get out. We "had" to be back to work so we "had"
to leave. I called Flight Service and got a briefing which sure
didnít match the weather I saw outside. Flight Service said after
the front passed the outlook was VFR-no problems over my route.
So, we loaded up, a few pounds shy of gross weight, and headed for
one of those "holes" in the clouds.
stretching the VFR minimums we cleared the first layer of clouds,
but alas, there was another layer above us. Two layers of clouds?
This was the first I had ever heard of, more or less, seen such
a thing. Thinking they would stay two separate layers I pressed
on. After about twenty minutes the two layers started merging together
and I got nervous. Just then, I saw a hole in the lower layer through
which I could see a town. Pulling the throttle back and pointing
the nose down, I dove for the hole only to pop out about 200 feet
over main street of some small town headed straight for a small
hill whose peak was in the clouds. I threw the throttle forward
and did a 180į back through the hole feeling lucky to still be in
thought to turn back at this point but Rapid City was now IFR as
were all other airports in the vicinity. There I was, stuck between
two layers of clouds wishing I was on the ground. It was here I
should have declared an emergency, or flew east and found an airport
ahead of the front, but we "had" to be back for work.
So, I headed west thinking it might get better. It got worse. After
about another thirty minutes the two layers became one at 5000 feet.
There was a massive hole in the lower layer through which I could
see a beautifully flat farmerís field just perfect for a precautionary
landing, but, I waited too long to make the decision. You see, I
didnít want to upset my passengers and I didnít want to face the
farmer after landing in his field. I felt I had no choice at this
point but to climb.
clouds had closed in all around me and I was dangerously close to
the northern edge of the Rockies as I pointed the nose up and all
turned grey. I told my passenger to watch the turn and bank and
tell me when it was not level, and I watched the artificial horizon,
the DG, and the airspeed indicator. Something on the order of a
millisecond after entering the clouds I went into sheer panic. I
thought this was it. It was all over. Precisely what was going through
my mind was an article I had read giving statistics that something
like 99% of VFR pilots lose it within the first minute after entering
IMC. I thought if I could just make it through the first minute
We would be O.K. I also thought of my passengers, one of whom was
a new "daddy" by about five days. "Take me God"
but spare them, I said to myself. I knew it was my fault but I didnít
want them to have to suffer because of me.
the first minute passed and we were still there. I was convinced
my prayers were answered and I was no longer flying the plane. We
were climbing into a layer of clouds not knowing the ceiling but
hoping we would pop out before we reached the service ceiling of
the Cardinal. After 11 minutes in the clouds, we finally saw the
sun as the altimeter reached 11,000 feet. Amazingly, we managed
to miss the mountains, which in that area range from 11,000-14,000
feet. But, now we were completely lost. The artificial horizon in
the airplane was a little off which meant when I had the instrument
level, the airplane was in a slight left turn the whole time we
were climbing. I took a couple of minutes to relax and ease my shaking
and then got out the map. By this time my brain was ready to shut
down, which didnít help in trying to tune in VORís to get a fix
on our position. On top of that, some of the VORís in the area were
out of service.
the end of the cloud layers to the west, we headed in that direction
while managing to get what we thought was a good fix on our position.
Seeing an airport ahead that we thought was Rawlins, Wyoming, we
descended and began calling the tower with no response. We rechecked
the map and the terrain checked out but we still got no response
from the tower. I had no choice but to fly over the field and see
if I could determine its name, which, I did - Laramie, Wyoming.
Only about 100+ miles southeast of where we were sure we were at.
We landed uneventfully and took a well needed break.
for us, this was not the end of the trip. With the headwind we had
it was going to be a nine hour trip with most of it in 110į heat.
By the time we reached Page, AZ I was feeling very sick. We stopped,
and I was so beat I couldnít even rest. So, we took off again for
Deer Valley, AZ, where I always bought cheap fuel. Feeling like
it was finally over as we turned final, I felt very relieved. The
touch down was as smooth as glass, the best landing I had ever made.
Just as I let myself relax, the left wing tipped up and the airplane,
on two wheels, started to turn left. Right rudder and left aileron,
I thought. No, left rudder and right aileron. No. No aileron and
both rudders. I couldnít even think as the right wing tip came within
inches of the ground and the airplane careened into a drainage ditch,
flattened out a few small cacti, and jumped up the other side only
to come to a complete stop perfectly centered on the taxiway.
to say, my passengers werenít as happy as I was as I called the
tower to inform them of the "wind shear" on the runway.
ATC reprimanded me and said I wasnít supposed to have proceeded
to the taxiway before calling ground. Obviously, they had missed
the whole fiasco. After thoroughly checking the airplane for damage,
we got fuel and took off for our home field watching the sky turn
this adventure I took a few months off from flying, and then got
my instrument rating. The moral of the story, well, there are many.
What did I do wrong, well, what didnít I do wrong? I should have
never flown without sleep or food. I should have never left the
ground in Rapid City to "play" with the weather. Countless
numbers of times I should have stopped and not continued the trip
until the conditions, including mine, got better. But, next time
I will know.