I managed to stay calm and stay focused on flying the airplane. I didn’t want my wife to begin to panic, so I tried to exude confidence even though my grip on the stick had tightened considerably. I tuned the radio to the ATIS at Flying Cloud, a controlled airport (FCM) on the southwest side of Minneapolis, and the report was encouraging: seven miles and clear. I tuned the GPS to Flying Cloud, but as we approached I could tell that conditions there had deteriorated as quickly as they had where we had been. I got to within five miles of Flying Cloud and reported to the control tower that there was a solid undercast and I was VFR only. The ceiling at FCM had dropped to 1,000 in a very short time, and I was beginning to wonder how far I would need to have my son travel to pick us up.
The FCM controller had checked with Anoka-Blaine airport on the north side of the Minneapolis metro area. It was still reporting seven miles and clear. FCM handed me off to Minneapolis Approach and they vectored us to Anoka. Once again I got a knot in my stomach as the cloud deck stretched endlessly before us, even though we were only a few miles from Anoka. I reported the conditions to Minneapolis, and the controller suggested that we head farther north, possibly to Princeton, Minnesota.
As we passed over the Anoka airport covered in a solid blanket of cloud, we could see lights on the ground just north of Anoka! I radioed back to MSP that I thought I could descend under the cloud deck, now at about 1,000 feet, and land at Anoka. The visibility was actually very good, about seven miles under the cloud deck. With the runway lights on high and the flaps down, I made one of the smoothest landings in a while. I didn’t want my wife to experience a bumpy landing and put her off flying. After being airborne for 1½ hours, we both breathed a sigh of relief as we taxied to a stop.
The Anoka controller normally closes the tower at 9 p.m. but stayed on duty until we got safely on the ground at about 9:20. I must say that the three controllers who helped us were calm and professional. It was very reassuring to have their help. I noticed my normally precise communication to the towers deteriorate into normal conversation about my situation. I secretly hoped the controllers would get the message that “I am in trouble” without having to say the words.
In retrospect, I should have listened to my instincts when the weather conditions were much different than reported. I also should have been suspicious of a massive amount of melting snow combined with cooling night temperatures. However, in 24 years of flying I have never seen conditions change so rapidly. I learned about flying from that.