The weather was not looking too great - low clouds, rain showers, and grey skies were the first things I saw when I woke up. After checking the weather a little more closely, I called and cancelled my only student for the day. Our planned flight time of 3pm would put us squarely in low visual conditions and scattered thunderstorms. In anticipation of a relaxing day off, I ran over to the airport to pick up my paycheck.
When I walked in the door about 11:30am, the chief mechanic called me over as he was hanging up the phone. "Hey, one of the other pilots is out in the (Cessna) 414 and when he tried to start the left engine, it had some oil pressure problems. He is stuck in London, KY. Want to go pick him up?" In pilot-speak, he had pretty much just said "Hey, take an airplane and have fun all day doing what you want, the company will pay for it." Of course I accepted.
The first thing I did was to go over the weather in a lot more detail. Most of the crap was pretty far south and moving due east. Nothing was going to build too soon, and cloud bases were reasonably high above the ground for the entire route with good visibility underneath. I decided that as long as I didn't waste time, I could get down there and pick the other pilot up without worrying about the weather too much. He had the Garmin 396 handheld GPS with him, so we could use it's XM weather feature for strategic storm avoidance on the way home. I immediately started to preflight an airplane and file a flight plan. The plane I decided to take has a cruise prop on it, so it goes a hair faster and uses less gas than the others. It also has a Garmin GNS430 in the radio panel - an IFR-certified GPS. This tool makes IFR work a lot easier. As I was doing the pre-flight, my first private pilot student, Francis, came to the airport. He had just stopped by to drop off a check, but after I told him what I was doing he asked if he could go. I told him to check the weight and balance, and he could go if it was OK. It was OK, but just barely, and he decided to stay on the ground.
Only after I fueled up and started the engine did I remember that this plane has been having problems with the navigation radios - it wasn't legal to fly IFR. I ended up having to call Flight Service back and cancel the first flight plan and file another one, with a more complex routing. Then I had to put the first airplane away and do the entire preflight-fuel-setup the cockpit-game on a second plane. I finally got my clearance and off the ground, but I was about 35 minutes behind schedule.
This is a picture shortly after takeoff. You can see the wings are level, airspeed good, positive rate of climb, and right on course. You can also notice that the only thing to see out the window but a big grey nothing.
This picture is looking out the rear side window during the climb. You can see three states, Ohio north of the Ohio River (the bigger one), Kentucky to the left, and West Virginia to the right. KY and WV are separated by the Big Sandy River, which is smaller than the Ohio River.
At my cruising altitude of 6,000 feet, I was between layers of cloud and had about 15 or 20 miles of in-flight visibility. I could see scattered columns of cloud rising out of the floor below me and into the ceiling above, it was a very cool, and somewhat spooky, sight. I flew about 80 miles when I saw my in-between area of clear end, about 20 miles ahead. I was about 15 miles from London. I continued to get closer to London, but the wall of weather stayed where it was. The Air Route Traffic Control Center (ARTCC, or center from now on) advised that they were showing an area of heavy to extreme precipitation ahead of my position, about 5 miles west of my destination. This was the crap I had seen on radar before takeoff and wanted to avoid. I would have made it with time to spare had the first plane been servicable. Not having on-board weather of any sort, I decided to take Indianapolis Center's advice and go back the way I had come. Being IFR with embedded storms and extreme precip is not where I want to take myself.
I set course for the Hazard, KY airport, about 30 miles east of my destination, London. When I got in the area I noticed the weather was a bit worse than it had been as I passed through earlier. The space between layers was still there, but the undercast was now solid rather than broken and a light rain was falling from above. From directly over the airport I turned west, outbound on the VOR approach, and began to lose altitude. Several miles later, when I turned inbound and crossed the final approach fix, I started trying to spot the airport. As the distance measuring equipment (DME) counted down the remaining miles to the airport, I began to think I might miss the approach - there was a large cloud ahead of me. I entered the cloud about 1 mile from the missed approach point. Just as I reached the MAP, I broke out of the other side of the cloud, spotted the airport, and landed at Hazard.
Here is another picture of some unnamed and unknown locale along the way. Notice the upper and lower cloud layers I mentioned earlier. When IFR, real-world locations don't really mean anything. The only reason you know you are moving is because the needles and numbers of the navigation equipment move. That and, well, airplanes can't exactly stop in mid-air.
After shutting down, and a quick dash through the rain, I found myself in a mostly-deserted and very typical small-airport FBO. My cell was dead, which made things difficult, but I got it to turn on long enough to get some phone numbers out of it. I called back home and let Megan know I was on the ground. Then I called home base to make sure I still needed to complete the trip - the pilot who was stranded with the 414 is also an A&P (airframe and powerplant mechanic). I was told that he was working on it, but still stranded, and the problem looked fairly serious, so I could continue if able. A quick glance at the radar confirmed that I was unable to continue for now. Every place between Hazard and home was clear of storms, but just north of London, there were scattered storms coming one after the other. I decided to take a crew car, drive into town, and get a bite to eat.
Town turned out to be a bit more than the advertised 10 minutes away from the airport. As I drove, I started to wonder if this sort of stuck-in-BFE-all-day-by-myself is fairly common for pilots. I suppose it is, which is OK, but sometimes I'd rather be home - especially when its supposed to be my day off. The valleys the road is built in were full of cloud and mist, and a light drizzle really made the entire day seem melancholy - especially because of the dilapidated-dirty-poor-coal-mining-area scenery. Not a cheerful place to live, thats for sure. After a quick bite to eat, I headed back to the airport. I was only gone for an hour. When I got back, I looked at the radar, decided it was time to go south, and called back home just one more time to be sure I should go. As it turned out, they had gotten the 414 repaired just before I called, and had departed London headed home just 10 minutes earlier. Aw hell.
I called Flight Service, filed the 12th flight plan that day, jumped in the plane, picked up my clearance, and headed for home. By this time, the weather south was flyable and the weather along my return route north was getting much better. The day's heat, which drives such storm patterns, was waning - it was almost 6pm!
Here is some cloud on the way home. Notice the layer dead ahead and same altitude - I punched right through that, but for the first time all day you can also see blue sky.
Local Approach was really friendly, as always, and offered me a localizer approach to get in. I accepted, and as I was starting to get radar vectors, they told me the ceiling was high enough that I could probably just get in by descending to the minimum IFR altitude and getting under the cloud deck, which was rising anyway. I told them that would be fine, and it would save about 15 minutes. The plan worked well, and I arrived home just as the last of the rain was clearing out. After cancelling my IFR clearance, I tuned to the UNICOM frequency for the home field and was surprised to hear someone answer me from the office. She had waited around for me to get back, and I was truly grateful. It was a fun day, but long, and I really got to exercise my decision-making and IFR flying abilities.
I took this picture right after I arrived. You can see the edge of the cloud layer - the last little bits of scud - moving away from the airport.
In retrospect, I did many things well, and a few things not so well. My first mistake was in getting delayed by about an hour. I missed my window for an approach to London by about 5 minutes. The second mistake was circling to land at Hazard. I should have started to slow the plane a bit earlier and landed more normally. Or I should have just headed for home. Neither one a big mistake, but things to think about next time I'm up in the soup. I made a lot of decisions that I was proud of, however. The decision I liked best was the decision to divert once I knew the flight could not be completed, and not before. I diverted to a relatively close location with known facilities and known flyable weather, rather than just turning tail and going home.
It was a fun, challenging day, and I got time in actual (which is very valuable experience-wise). My biggest complaint is that Francis didn't go with me, since I never did actually pick anyone up.