Saturday, October 31, 2009

Another Mostly True Flying Story

As most people know, my lovely wife, Lynne, is a very talented writer. Several years ago, she had the opportunity to attend a writer's seminar at our alma mater, Wheaton College. Since her employer would pay for the seminar under the guise that it was continuing education and she would still get her regular pay, she decided to go. It was my job to get her to Wheaton on time.

Initially, I thought I would just drive her up there and drop her off at the college. When I mentioned this to my dad, he volunteered that we would fly her up there in the Cessna 310 and I could log some instrument time as a bonus. As my dad and I never turned down the opportunity to go flying, particularly when we could rationalize the trip as being "useful," we were set to go.

At six o'clock that evening, we drove out to the airport, strapped in, and took off for Dupage County Airport, which is about 25 miles southwest of Chicago and about 3 miles from Wheaton. Under normal circumstances the flight would take about 45 minutes, but as you will read, the flight was anything but normal.

The weather as we departed Kokomo was pretty good. We had a 5000 foot ceiling with about 5 miles of visibility. The weather guessers predicted that we would have light rain showers later in the evening, but nothing of any great concern to aviators like us. Lake Michigan, it turned out, had other ideas.

Once airborne, we requested an instrument clearance to Dupage. What this means is that we submitted a flight plan that had us flying from radio station to radio station, eventually arriving at a point close to Dupage, at which time we would begin our approach to land.

Flying from radio station to radio station is a lot like one of those connect-the dot pictures you made when you were a kid. You drew a line from one number to the next and eventually the picture was formed. Similarly, on an instrument flight plan, you fly along the course until you reach your selected station and then turn to a new compass heading which takes you to the next station. The concept is simple. Sometimes, however, it is not so easily done, given difficult weather.

The first half of the trip was uneventful. We were cruising at 8000 feet on an IFR clearance, making about 220 knots. What this means is that we were on instruments with a clearance. Chicago Center was talking to us, monitoring our progress and waiting to hand us off to Chicago Approach, who would line us up for Dupage and then hand us off to the tower at Dupage, who would control the landing. We could not see the ground, any lights, or the horizon. With no visual references, we were "in solid" as aviators say.

Flying on instruments is one of life's great pleasures. It is difficult to describe to a non-pilot, but I will try. Go out to your garage and get in your car. Put dark towels over all the windows, so you can't see out. Turn on the instrument lights, which will be readily visible. Now back out of the garage and go for a drive. Can't do it, can you? The difference between your car and an airplane is that you know your car is always on a relatively flat surface and you are driving in two dimensions. In an airplane you are traveling in three dimensions. Airplanes have instruments that tell the pilot how high he is, whether he is going up or down, what direction he is traveling, as well as how fast he is flying through the air. All of these instruments must be constantly checked during the flight, about every 15 seconds, or control will be lost over the airplane. The information received from the instruments is constantly changing and must be continually re evaluated by the pilot. Throw in monitoring the engine gauges, changing radio frequencies on two or three different radios and talking to the controllers, and you can be a pretty busy boy. Factor in nighttime and howling weather and it can become quite challenging to say the least. But as we say in our family, "Mere child's play, for men like us."

Seriously, instrument flying is a challenge for most pilots to learn. Consequently, the training is broken into segments, so you learn to perform one task and then go on to another, the multi-tasks piling up, until you can multi-task it all. If you can't do it, the airplane gets "ahead of you," and you are in life-threatening trouble. After all, the ground never loses.

So there we were winging our way to Dupage. When we were about 75 miles from our destination, we noticed that the air was getting bumpier. Nothing out of the ordinary, much like driving on a rutted gravel road. It also started to rain. No big deal. Since it was dark out, our blinking strobe lights on the wingtips outlined the rain smashing into us at 220 knots.

Chicago Center called us and handed us off to Chicago Approach, who would keep us from running into another airplane. Flying in the Chicago area is particularly worrisome as Midway and O'Hare are the busiest airports in the world.

It was about this time that our radio made a startling sound I had never heard before (and only once since). It went Whoop, Whoop, Whoop! Then a very stern voice said, "This is a sig-met. (Significant Meteorological Notice) All aviators in the Chicago area are advised that severe weather is predicted for the Chicago area. All aviators are advised to land at the nearest available airport." Now, that will get your attention!

Since I was flying, I picked up the map and began searching for an airport. Dad looked over at me and asked, "What are you doing?"

"Finding an airport, so we can put this bird on the ground," I replied.

"We are not going to do that, we're fine and we are going to Dupage," said Dad, who had a lot more flying experience than I did. Who was I to argue? On we went.

The air was getting more and more rough. Dad and I were strapped in with seat belts and shoulder harnesses. Lynne, who was pretty much oblivious to what was going on, was loosely strapped in by her seat belt and was reading. I commented that the air was getting more turbulent. Dad said it was only "light chop" and no big deal. On we flew.

And then it happened. We took a shot from a ferocious downdraft that picked Dad and I up off our seats. Lynne bounced her head of the top of the cabin and was now paying attention. Instantly, Dad and I had both of our hands and feet on the controls in a struggle to maintain control of the airplane, which was being slammed by updrafts and downdrafts, one after the other.

The flight instruments were reading erratically because of the violence of the weather. We quickly reduced our airspeed to "maneuvering speed," which is a speed that the engineers say you can fly at, taking severe turbulence, without exceeding the airframe's design limits. Theoretically, the wings will stay on.

It was taking all of our strength and skill to keep the airplane upright and on course. The powerful turbulence would shoot us up at 2000 feet per minute and then slam us down. It was like being on a maniac roller coaster in three dimensions.

At about this time, we heard this radio transmission:

"Chicago Approach, this is Delta flight 246, we are declaring an emergency at this time." An airline pilot was in trouble.

"Roger, Delta flight 246, understand you are declaring an emergency. Are you requesting immediate landing?"

"Affirmative, Chicago Approach, we are experiencing severe turbulence and are requesting vectors to the nearest available runway."

Then I heard another radio transmission. "Chicago Approach, this is American flight 123, we are declaring an emergency. We are in severe turbulence. Requesting instructions for an immediate landing." Then I heard yet another distress call. "Chicago Approach, this is United flight 867, we are declaring an emergency."

"Roger, Delta flight 246, American flight 123 and United flight 867, standby one for instructions."
This was when Dad got upset. He looked over at me and said, "These people need nurses to look after them." Then he called Chicago Approach and said, "This is six niner five seven five, a light Cessna twin, inbound to Dupage and we are not declaring an emergency. We intend to fly our flight plan."

Chicago Approach then said, "Anybody else want to declare an emergency or are you going to put your big boy pants on fly like men? How about you 123 and 867? Still want to go with the emergency?"

"I'll pass on the emergency. Cancel me," said 123.

"I'm out," said 867.

"All right, then," said Approach. "Let's see if we can get everybody where they are going tonight".

Chicago Approach then said, "six niner five seven five, contact Dupage Approach for the instrument approach."

We changed radio frequencies to call Dupage and checked in. "Dupage Approach, this is six niner five seven five in bound for the ILS.

"Roger, six niner five seven five, report the initial approach fix and you are cleared for the ILS to runway 36. Report intercepting the localizer."

What this meant in pilot jargon was that we were to fly to an imaginary point in the sky designated by the crossing of two radio beams, turn to a prescribed heading and fly that path until we hit the glide slope which is another beam coming up at us from one-third down the runway. Picture an "x" made by two criss-crossing radio beams. We were to fly to the point they intersected, then turn to a course that would fly us into, the beam coming up from the runway, then fly down to beam, known as the localizer or glide slope. As always, the concept is simple, but it's easier said than done, particularly in ferociously bad weather.

We reported that we understood the directions and began the landing checklist. This was when we got another interesting call from Dupage Approach.

"Six niner five seven five, we have lost all electrical power to the field. We are transmitting on backup generators. We have no runway or taxi lights and we have lost the glide slope. Say your intentions."

If there is no glide slope, then you cannot intercept it and fly down it to land. If there are no runway lights, then we would be unable to see the outline of the runway and might also have depth perception problems figuring out how high we are off the runway, if we could find it. This was not good. All of my flight training to that date taught that we needed to regain as much altitude as possible, make a 180 degree turn and get out of there as fast as possible. But then, that would not be completing the mission, would it?

"Roger, Dupage Approach, understand no lights and glide slope. How soon will they be online?" asked Dad.

"Uncertain. We are working on it. The runway lights and glide slope are on separate systems. We might get one before the other. What are your intentions?"

"Dupage Approach, six niner five seven five, inbound for landing as filed and cleared," said Dad.

"Six niner five seven five be aware that we have winds at 270, at 25 knots gusting to 40 knots in heavy rain. Say your intentions."

"Roger, Dupage Approach, inbound as filed on the ILS, understand cleared to runway 36. Will report the field in sight or declare a missed approach." said Dad as calmly as he was ordering a hamburger at the drive thru.

"Dad," I said, "we've got no way to identify the glide slope and no lights. Let's call it a night and head home. I will drive her up. Besides, the crosswind component is exceeding the structural limits of the landing gear."

We were going to land to the north. The 40 knot wind was coming from our starboard or right side, tending to blow us off to the left of the runway, even if we could find it. To counteract the drift to the left, you bank the airplane to the right, so that the starboard wing is down into the wind. You then feed in as much left rudder as needed to keep the airplane tracking straight ahead. When you land, the right wheel hits first and then you throw out the right bank and left rudder and let it sit down on the left main gear. The problem is that if the landing is not made perfectly, you can twist or tear off the landing gear. Bad form as the British would say.

The maximum crosswind component in the Cessna was 17 Knots. Since the crosswind was gusting between 25 and 40 knots, we were going to be 8 to 23 knots over the maximum. This was clearly not going to work.

"What are you going to do?" I asked.

"Look, Son. We are flying into Dupage from the South. The wind is blowing us from the right. The initial approach fix is 10 miles from the airport due south. We are going to slow to 100 knots. We will report the fix, then crab into the wind to the right for about five minutes on a heading of about 30 degrees and we ought to line up with the runway, if we can see it. Simple."

"But we still have no lights. We won't be able to see the runway to land," I squeaked.

"Well, maybe, in which case we will shoot another approach and do better. It isn't going to be any harder than a night trap to a carrier deck. We've got plenty of fuel. We will see what happens."

"Even if we get the runway, the crosswind is too strong for the landing gear. We are still out of luck, Dad," I said.

"Son, the controller said the wind was gusting. It is not constant. If we get the field, we will look for a break in the wind and land. If we don't get one, we will go around for a second pass and see what develops. No problem." I couldn't believe we were going to shoot this approach.

Shortly thereafter, we reported passing the initial approach fix. Both of us clicked on our very manly pilot chronographs to time the five minutes inbound. May I remind you that we are both still having to jointly control the airplane because of the turbulence in the black rain.

Dupage Approach called again to confirm that we were still inbound and they had no lights. Onward we flew, hurtling toward what I thought would be a certain, fiery death in the black rain.

At four and three-quarter minutes, I said, "Times up, pull up and go home."

"Not quite yet, son, we are not beat yet. I have a good feeling about this approach."

At that exact moment, 200 feet off the ground at 100 knots, the runway lights came on. We were about 400 yards to the right of the runway. Unbelievable!

"Six niner five seven five, our lights are operational. You are cleared to 36."

"Roger, Dupage, on final to 36." Well, we had the lights, but there was still the crosswind problem. We immediately turned left to line up with the runway.

We came over the end of the runway, banked to the right with full left rudder deflected. The airplane was still drifting to the left despite our corrections. We banked almost 30 degrees to maintain the center line. Down the length of the runway we flew.

"It's not working, declare a missed approach and go around," I pleaded.
"Not yet, son, observe and learn," said Dad calmly.

And the wind stopped blowing for a few seconds. Dad deftly flicked the airplane level, neutralized the rudder and gently greased it on to the runway between gusts. He made it look simple, like anyone could do this. Not true. It was a brilliant demonstration of Naval aviator training, consummate flying skill, coping with the weather, and completing the mission, despite formidable obstacles.

As we taxied to the terminal, he looked over at me and said as he did after every flight, "Piece of cake, son. Cheated death one more time."

"Mere child's play for men like us," I replied.

Lynne's ride was waiting for her. We refueled and flew home. No problem.

Mike Out


  1. Holy cow Mike. Holy cow. I salute your Dad for his prowess in the cockpit and you for relaying the story like a true pundit. Your missive sure dredged up a few memories of my aborted crosswind landings in my little 140 taildragger. Great story - thank you for having taken the time to relay it for posterity. Gabriela out.

  2. I flew a bad flight with Dad one time, in fact it was the last time I had the opportunity to fly with him. We had a missed approach to a fogged in closed country airport in the dark. Although frightened I also felt safe. Dad would put that plane on the ground if there was any way humanly possible. He did, I jumped out over the wing on the tarmac and then he flew off into the night wings wagging. Dad could make me feel so alive. Your story made me sob and I will always miss him. We were lucky to be his children. Thanks Michael.

  3. Great story, Michael! My only question is how did you ever doubt that God has you and has always had you in the palm of his protective hand?

  4. Your dad was agreat guy. I know my dad loved him alot. I wish our families could have been closer over the years, but God had a differnet plan I guess. Anyway here is an interesting article written by a friend the day before his cancer surgery.
    Know that we are praying for you and your family regularly
    Your cousin Dan H

  5. What a magnificent blend of training, experience, intelligence, ingenuity, etc your dad exhibited. Your story has made me even more in awe of our veterans and the "greatest generation". Thank you so much for your writings. I look forward to them. God's Peace. Patti

  6. Your stories of "special" flights with your dad are rich. I got nervous then laughed out loud at the "big boy pants" comment. What an awesome memory and so well told! You were blessed to have the experience, and I was blessed to read about it.