I Learned About Flying From That: Into the Gloom

When everything fades to gray.

I Learned About Flying From That Barry Ross Aviation Art
To see more of Barry Ross' aviation art, go to barryrossart.comBarry Ross

Standing on the ramp, glancing at Runway 17/35 at North Houston Airport (9X1), I took a deep breath as I ticked off items on the preflight checklist for N9271U, the 1976 Cessna 150M that had been my primary trainer so far. The brutal heat and humidity of the Houston-area summer had not yet set in, so in relative terms, the late-May morning air was “crisp.” Still high off my first solo flight the prior month, I was going into work late so I could do some solo pattern work. The flight school owner, an experienced airline pilot who was also one of my instructors, brought out the flight school credit card and told me to top off the fuel. After fueling and completing the preflight, he took a long look toward the sky around the airport and sent me on my way.

I taxied to the hold-short position for Runway 17, completed a quick run-up, and excitedly announced my departure before rolling onto the runway and advancing the throttle. I was, as I still am every time I fly, overcome with indescribable exhilaration when the wheels left the ground and I rose into the sunlit morning sky, staring toward the five immense runways and tall control tower of Houston Intercontinental Airport (KIAH), which is a mere 8 miles south of 9X1. I turned downwind, reached pattern altitude of 1,000 feet, leveled off, and started thinking about the steps to prepare for landing — but then my dreamy state of mind was swiftly and decisively interrupted by what I saw.

At first, I noticed a few wispy white clouds race below me. Then they turned puffy and more solid. As I started losing sight of the ground, I got on the radio and called to the flight school owner in my most confident voice, “I’m seeing a little IMC up here. Do you have any advice?” My call was met with deafening silence; he had not yet made his way back to the office where his base radio squawked my increasingly concerned calls. In hindsight, I could have made a dive for midfield through holes in the puffy clouds, but I had not made emergency descents yet in my training, and I didn’t even know such a maneuver was “allowable.” Also, I had no idea how bad it was going to get as the fast-moving fog and cloud bank quickly rolled in, which often happens in the Houston area this time of year.

“I’m seeing a little IMC up here. Do you have any advice?” My call was met with deafening silence.

I later learned the airport manager had to pull off the road while driving to the field that morning as the fog rapidly engulfed her car. And now I was engulfed. Out the windscreen, I saw only gray. Out the left- and right-side windows, I saw only gray. And out the rear window — you’ve got it, gray. I immediately knew I was in trouble, but I wasn’t scared — yet. After all, I was in Class G airspace, and I knew this pattern well. I’d flown it VFR dozens of times with my instructor. I’d just use my internal clock to time my turns and find my way back to the field. I made a turn to base “at the right time” and then to final “when it felt right.” I had to be close, but with the soup now at 300 to 500 feet above the field, I saw nothing.

Then, the panic started to set in. Where am I? I can’t keep flying south; I’ll stray into the Bravo and hit a landing 737. I should turn back north but — now what? There’s a 1,300-foot radio tower north of the field! Where’s the tower? How far away am I? All I see is gray, and it’s getting darker. For the first time ever, I was scared in the airplane.

I thought back to sixth grade in the small town of Grove Hill, Alabama. My mother worked at the State of Alabama Highway Department where I was waiting in the lobby for her to get off work after school. A helicopter pilot who had flown some state officials in that morning was reading a newspaper. He told me how hard it was to find his landing site in the fog that morning (an omen?), after which I asked if he could give me a ride. In those days before liability concerns, he looked at his watch and said, “Sure, we have enough time.” One flight over my hometown and my own house with that pilot, my mom, and another administrative assistant, and I was hooked. I wanted to fly.

Then, the panic started to set in. All I see is gray, and it’s getting darker. For the first time ever, I was scared in the airplane.

I put off my dreams of flying due to my effort to get through college and later due to cost, but I never forgot. So, after a flight from Houston to Port Arthur with a work colleague in his 1998 Piper Saratoga in 2011, I decided, I’m going to do this; I’m going to learn to fly. And now, here I was in the little Cessna 150, with zero visibility and no clue what to do. Like a character in a movie, I remember I actually took the time to think, “Well, isn’t this just great.” The rapidly increasing high-pitched hum of the Continental O-200 engine snapped me out of it. Look at the panel: 45-degree bank, minus-1,000 fpm on the vertical speed indicator. Get it together — I’m not going to die in this airplane!

With a head full of the Pilot's Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge, Flying magazine's Aftermath column, and my primary instructor's voice telling me to keep calm, I formulated a plan based on what I remembered: aviate, navigate, communicate. OK, details, details: get wings level (check), establish a safe altitude (check), choose a cardinal heading and follow it (check), get control of the situation and then figure out what's next (done, check). Now what? Check fuel: full (remember, the airline-experienced flight school owner made me top off). Good, I have time. Next? Use the Garmin Aera 500 GPS to find somewhere to fly. But I had never used it before because the instructors wanted me to learn to fly with outside reference instead of electronic gear. No problem, I've seen them use it. I can do this. Go to the right screen, enter waypoint — wait, the engine is humming again. I know what that means now — get control again.

As I finally had the airplane under control and was becoming more adept with the GPS, my northerly heading took me to a place where the clouds were breaking up below me. My primary instructor’s voice again spoke as if he were sitting right beside me. “There’s the grass strip.” Without fail, every single time we returned to the field from a lesson, he would point out the grass strip a couple of miles from 9X1 and tell me to keep it in sight in case of an emergency, and there it was. I’m sure every reader will have an opinion about my next steps after reading this because, no, I didn’t land there. But my confidence level skyrocketed just by knowing where I was — the grass strip was there below me, and the clouds were broken enough to get through. I was now flying in VFR above clouds instead of in the dark, gray soup.

My next steps were the product of inexperience, so I don’t endorse this course of action to anyone, but by this time, I had exceeded my “178 seconds to live” and felt I had a fallback position in the grass strip. I put 9X1 in the GPS and turned back to the field, three times at three different altitudes, lower each time trying to find the field, with the last pass at 800 feet. Each time, I transitioned from VFR above the clouds into the massive gray wall of zero visibility, requiring a 180-degree turn to exit. Leaving the last time, I had already decided I wasn’t going below 800 feet over 9X1 and I would land on the grass strip. Then, the flight school owner’s voice crackled on the radio. He’d never given up on me, evidenced later by the 15 missed calls on my cellphone that was silenced in the back seat, and had heard me pass over. I acknowledged his call with great relief in my voice. He said, “Fly to Cleveland [Texas], no clouds there.”

It’s funny, I had been worried about my first unsupervised flight to another field but, compared to the alternative, going to Cleveland now seemed like an easy task. I flew in VFR over the grass strip and white puffs, straight to 6R3, a clear field that was simply screaming, “I’m right here ready for you to land!” I executed one of my best landings ever, taxied to the ramp, and called the flight school owner, who was frantic by this time. After the weather cleared over 9X1, I flew back, parked the airplane and readied to leave for work.

It’s funny, I had been worried about my first unsupervised flight to another field but, compared to the alternative, going to Cleveland now seemed like an easy task.

I was fortunate my primary instructor had already given me time “under the hood” and engrained good decision-making processes in me. I encourage other inexperienced pilots-in-training (or any VFR-only pilots) to: Know the area you fly in and develop a mental picture of it with headings and distances and times to obstacles. Insist on knowing how to use all the equipment in your airplane, including the GPS, if so equipped, before leaving the ground on your own. Always top off with fuel before any solo flight. Keep your wits about you in an emergency and focus on using skills you do have instead of worrying about the ones you don’t have. Insist on some surprise inflight, under-the-hood sessions with an instructor to mentally prepare yourself. Commit to memory the frequency for Approach Control so you can call, declare an emergency and get some help. I’m sure Houston Approach could have guided the slowpoke Cessna 150 to its 12,000-foot runway and not even had me descend until I was over the runway. Oh, and if you are lucky enough to get out of danger, don’t fly back into it.

Before I left the field that day, an airline pilot who kept his “hobby” airplanes on the field said, “Now you have 35 hours of flying and 30 minutes of experience.” Those words have a lot of meaning to me. My goal now with every single flight is not to gain hours, but to gain experience, the right way.