It’s really weird how certain memories stick like fish in a hot iron skillet. So it is with a memory from my past, early in my flying career.
“Miserable” is the only description that fits for that Gulf Coast summer morning in July 1985. Don’t get me wrong: The sun was shining brightly, but the temperature and dew point were the same, and both were in the upper 70s. Anyone who is a pilot knows that, when those two numbers are in the 70s and low 80s, it is a recipe for boomers. I had a long day ahead, six legs and all single-pilot. I was to leave PNS (Pensacola, Florida) and fly to MSY (New Orleans, Louisiana) for the first leg, MSY to PFN (Panama City, Florida) for the second, then to TPA (Tampa, Florida) for the third, JAX (Jacksonville, Florida) for the fourth, back to PFN for the fifth and finally back to PNS.
The first leg is the only one that went as planned. It was to be a 12-hour duty day, long by today’s standards with two pilots, insane as a single pilot. I knew it would be difficult, but I also knew that it would be great PIC time that I desperately needed if I ever wanted to land an airline job. By the end of the day, there existed one very broken airplane that would more than likely never see the air again, and one frightened, young pilot who was very thankful to be on the green side of the grass!
High pressure off the coast of Florida dominated the Southeast, pumping in very wet air from the Gulf of Mexico. There was a fast-moving cold front extending out of a strong low pressure approaching from the west; the “bull’s-eye” was centered between PNS and MSY, my route for the first two legs.
The Piper Navajo Chieftain’s huge Continental TSIO-540s roared to life right on cue and right on schedule. A quick taxi to Runway 16, followed by systems and run-up checks, and my long day was under way. I had only five people, minimum luggage and a scant fuel load (IFR minimums plus reserves). But, even with this light load, I was surprised how sluggishly the airplane climbed in the hot and humid Gulf Coast summer air.
At my cruise altitude of 8,000 feet, autopilot engaged, I switched on the weather radar for a test. Test pattern … check! Tilt control … check! There’s already a cell 40 miles away at my 2 o’clock position. Using my tilt I’ll see how high this thing is. Hmm ... this radar will not paint that cell even at this distance. No maintenance in New Orleans; I’ll write that up when I get back to PNS.
I scanned the skies, where the cumulus clouds were rapidly becoming towering cumulus and still building, 30 minutes into a one-hour-and-15-minute flight, and I was already dodging the tops. By the time I descended into MSY there was a line of storms behind me, east of my position and west of my next destination.
Buildups were rapidly turning into cells and super cells, requiring wide deviations during the approach and landing. I called dispatch for a weather briefing, and to discuss the radar situation and negotiate the next route of flight to Panama City. Had I known at that time what I know now, I would never have left MSY with broken weather radar. I was young and st … uh … inexperienced, with just over 1,500 hours total time, just enough to exercise privileges of ATP, and just enough also to learn how nasty a super cell can be! My dispatcher was a person in an office with a telephone to Flight Service. Looking back, I should have called for a weather update myself from the company phone in New Orleans; I would have asked the right questions.