We headed eastbound over Lake Michigan, which was a mutual decision — the last storm had departed the area and the skies were clear and beautiful. We climbed up to 7,500 feet. There were some scattered clouds way down below but we were in severe clear. At the show, I had bought a Garmin 496 with Nexrad weather (after the morning flight, I had to have it…). We were watching it paint plenty of weather ahead of us, over mid-Michigan.
Initially we were thinking of staying high and maybe flying over the weather all the way to Detroit, or we felt we could pick our way around the weather. While we were humming along discussing our options, we never gave any thought to daylight, but the sun was quickly dipping down and would soon leave us in the dark. If we had considered the time change, we would have realized that it was working against us, having left at 8 p.m. CST, which is 9 p.m. EST, and we would be flying in the dark for most of our trip.
It kept getting darker by the minute, which didn’t seem to bother either one of us until it happened — complete, total darkness over Lake Michigan. It was like the lights were turned off, and we were caught by surprise. I know that sounds silly — that it got dark and it surprised us — but with our location, over probably the midpoint of Lake Michigan, we had no lights or horizon to reference out of the windows. Steve was flying, and after a brief discussion we decided to start a descent to make sure we would be below the upcoming clouds before reaching them.
Sometime during our descent I realized we were making a shallow right turn and at that moment were heading southwest, back toward the middle of the lake instead of toward the eastern shoreline. One look at Steve and I instantly realized he was nervous and disoriented. A sick feeling came into my gut. I asked him about our heading and he was confused. Right away, I knew I could not count on him to bring this flight to a safe conclusion, and internally I visualized we were writing the beginning of an NTSB report. I decided right then and there that I would break the accident chain and take charge of the situation. I asked Steve if I could take the airplane, and he said sure. We couldn’t see anything out the window — it was pitch black.
I decided we needed to get on the ground as soon as possible and get ourselves together. I contacted Muskegon approach and asked for vectors for landing. I descended to 2,500 feet msl to ensure we would be below any clouds and trudged along. I told myself to make a video game out of the situation and used the artificial horizon, altimeter and GPS to keep us on course to MKG and maintain my altitude. Fortunately, it was easy to do because there was no turbulence — in fact, it was eerily smooth. I kept thinking about my wife and child at home and was determined to keep it together even though the windows were filled with blackness and I knew the water was below us. The controller told us that there were thunderstorms east of Muskegon but we should be able to beat them to the airport. The minutes went by slowly and then finally it happened — lights came into view. The pressure instantly lifted as we began to make out the shore lights.
We brought it in safely to Muskegon. Of course, on short final the landing light blew out to top off our night! We landed with few minutes to spare as the thunderstorm rolled over the airport, and the rain started when we tied down the airplane. We waited in the FBO for at least an hour, but the storm wouldn’t budge, so we called for a hotel room and stayed the night.
We finally got to bed around midnight. I was exhausted but I didn’t get any sleep. On this trip, I was lulled into a sense of safety because I was with an “experienced” pilot. I thought he would personify everything I had learned in training to be a pilot. I’m sure Steve’s no dummy, but I don’t fly like he does. At the time, I didn’t know what I didn’t know. I’ve done a lot of flying since then, and I’m always trying to learn more. I’m almost ready for my Instrument written test. I learned a lot on that trip. I learned about flying from that.