(December 2011) Hutchinson, Minnesota, had been covered in snow, ice and arctic temperatures all winter. A week earlier it had been 24 degrees F below zero. This week brought a 45 degrees F above zero temperature and melting snow. Since the temperature was warm, the moon was full and the stars were out, I decided it was a good time to take my not-so-fond-of-flying wife on an evening flight. I had hoped to show how beautiful the winter landscape is at night and help her gain an appreciation for spending time in our Vans RV-9A.
After arriving at the airport and getting my sweetie comfortably settled in her seat inside the heated hangar, I did one last check on the weather: 10-mile visibility, light winds, temperature 39, dew point 36 and clear. We departed Runway 13 and I planned to fly over our hometown of Hutchinson just southeast of Litchfield.
As soon as we lifted off and gained some altitude, I could tell that the weather wasn’t quite as good as advertised. The visibility seemed a bit hazy, but still good. I climbed to 3,000 feet and did a lazy arc around Hutchinson. We passed south of the Hutchinson airport as we turned north to head back toward Litchfield. The conditions at Hutchinson were good and we had an excellent view of the airport. As we turned north, I could see that the path we had just traveled had deteriorated in a big hurry. With a tailwind, I headed north to Litchfield with a 185-knot groundspeed, planning to end our evening flight before the conditions really turned sour.
By the time we returned to Litch-field, about 20 minutes after we left in clear conditions, I couldn’t see the ground through the cloud deck. Fortunately, we had a full moon and clear skies above, which provided good VFR conditions on top. As a VFR-only pilot, I needed to find a place to land. It is my practice to always leave the ground with full fuel, so I pulled the throttle back to 2,100 rpm and felt some comfort in the fact that I had at least 3½ hours to find an airport that was still VFR. We headed south hoping to land back at Hutchinson, but the cloud deck had also engulfed Hutchinson and well beyond. We couldn’t see any ground lights in any direction.