I Learned About Flying From That

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"Always be ready for the unexpected." That is what Donnie Underwood, my friend and flight instructor (private through instrument), always told me. Be aware of what is going on around you and be ready to respond accordingly. This is good advice. On one particular flight, we would experience a good example of what he was talking about.

To celebrate my recent successful instrument check ride, I was treating Donnie to dinner at Lambert's, a well-known fly-in destination in southeast Missouri. Known as the "Home of Throwed Rolls," Lambert's is especially gracious to pilots. Special treatment, from shuttle service from the airport to being escorted through the kitchen to avoid the bus loads of people standing in line (usually a one-to-two- hour wait), makes Lambert's a favorite of the hundred-dollar dinner crowd. Hot sourdough rolls thrown to any raised hand doesn't hurt either.

Donnie offered to fly this time. I had just gotten off work and he wanted to introduce me to the world of complex airplanes. I own a beautiful Cherokee 140, but I had been noticing the limitations of the airplane in the IFR environment. We would be making this trip in the club-owned Mooney. While not the prettiest Mooney around, it was fast and well equipped. On this trip, I would be introduced to RNAV as well as speed and complexity. Donnie would be PIC, and I was going to relax and learn from the master.

The weather was perfect on this beautiful summer evening. The flight to Sikeston was uneventful. Donnie told me that Flight Service had warned of the possibility of some weather for our return trip. The usual summer buildups becoming scattered thunderstorms were forecast. I was looking forward to getting some "weather seasoning" with a veteran at the controls. It would also be a great opportunity to learn to use the Mooney's Strike Finder. I was hoping to see a little weather on the way home.

A wise person once said, "Be careful what you wish for." On the way back from the restaurant, we could see the weather was deteriorating. It was amazing how fast things changed. In an hour and a half, we went from blue skies to people sitting around the FBO wondering if they were going to get home that night. Donnie called Flight Service while I checked the DTN. There was a substantially sized cell just northwest of us and it was headed our way. It was dark now and the thunderstorm was putting on an impressive fireworks display.

Donnie got off the phone with the briefer and came over to look at the DTN. I thought we were camping out in Sikeston for a while, but Donnie said, "The briefer thinks we can make it if we get out of here pretty soon.

"I've already filed, so let's go take a look," he added.

We had a long taxi, but we knew that if we could get going before the thunderstorm got too close to Sikeston, we would have decent weather all the way home to the southeast. We departed with plenty of time to spare. The Strike Finder showed lots of strikes behind us, but nothing in front of us. This agreed with everything we saw. I was glad we were not in my Cherokee.

We opened our IFR flight plan and climbed to 7,000 feet. The trip back to Centerville would take about an hour in the Mooney. The weather was getting better all the time. We could see the ground and a bright moon peeked out occasionally. Center advised us of a Cessna 182 at 8,500 feet at our 2 o'clock and five miles that would be dropping jumpers over Paris, Tennessee. We reported having the traffic in sight. We heard the Cessna pilot also acknowledge having the tally-ho.

As we neared Paris, it was obvious that both airplanes would be over the airport at about the same time. Donnie and I were both getting anxious about the situation. Donnie had his finger on the talk button ready to say something when Center announced to the Cessna that we (the Mooney) were directly over Paris airport. We could see the Cessna in the bright moonlight. It was nearly overhead.

For a moment I was relieved that Center had reminded the pilot of the jump plane that we were below them. Seconds later, just as the Cessna was directly overhead, we heard, "Jumpers over Paris, 8,500 and below." The controller let out an obviously strained, "What!" We spent the next few moments looking for objects to avoid. Luckily, we never saw any.

The silence was broken by the Cessna pilot who announced (almost too casually), "I would appreciate it if you would stay out of my way when I am releasing jumpers." Nothing else was said over the radio about the incident. Neither of us spoke for several minutes. Finally, Donnie and I went back to being flight instructor and student. We spent the rest of the trip (and many hours since) figuring out what we could have done better.

We agreed that there was plenty of blame to spread around. My feeling is that something went wrong in the jump plane. One cowboy jumped without the green light is my guess. In my mind, there is no way the pilot intended for his passengers to jump. He had much better options available. He could have requested that we deviate when he saw that there would be a conflict. Flying past for one minute and returning to a clear drop zone would have been the obvious thing to do.

The Center controller obviously wished that he had given us a detour around the airport. At the very least, he should have gotten the Cessna to confirm that he would hold his cargo until we were clear. It seemed obvious that they would have to wait, but nothing was ever said to confirm it. As for us, we were guilty of not going the extra mile to ensure our safety. I am forever reminded of the parachutist hitting the tail of a passing airplane and breaking his leg. The airplane's tail was damaged, causing it to crash with no survivors.

We were in IFR mode. We were waiting for ATC to tell us what to do. We should have been proactive, asking for a deviation to assist the Cessna. At the very least, we should have gotten confirmation that the jump plane would wait for us to pass underneath before releasing his cargo. I will never intentionally be underneath a jump plane again, whether he is over his target or not.