When One Bad Decision Follows Another

I Learned about Flying from That, No. 935.

I Learned About Flying from That
A friendly and calm voice from the tower was all one pilot needed when fog surrounded him from out of nowhere.Barry Ross/BarryRossArt.com

The regional jet taxied up to one of the many jetways at the Portland, Maine, jetport. My wife and I were here to attend a family gathering about an hour north of Portland. The day was lovely and sunny. I leaned forward and peered out the window to look at the control tower off to the right. It was a square white building with a six-sided glass structure at the top, set back from the tarmac. A chain-link fence surrounded it, with a locked entrance gate on the far side. The terminal seemed to extend quite a way to the left and to the rear, and most of the jetways were occupied by passenger jets.

My mind filled with a flood of memories of taxiing to this very building and parking my rented Cessna 150 on the apron just in front of it. That was 36 years ago, and that day the sky had been dark with approaching thunderstorms. There were no fences, and the terminal to the left of the tower was a relatively small building that housed ticket counters, two baggage carousels and a couple of car rental counters. It was difficult to layer that simple image in my memory over the complexity of the present structures. I also recalled how great my sense of relief was as I shut down the engine after that stressful flight.

That journey had started at the end of a glorious three-day weekend spent in Bar Harbor with my old friend Alan, a set designer working at the summer theater in Falmouth, on Cape Cod.

I was spending the summer with my family, working at our home in the Berkshires, not far from North Adams, Massachusetts. We had been planning this men’s weekend for some time, and Alan had just three days between plays and had to be back at the theater on Monday.

I had rented a 150 from the airport in North Adams and left quite early on Friday morning to pick him up in Falmouth. The weather was CAVU and smooth, and I thoroughly enjoyed the undulating hills of Massachusetts and the visual of the coastline and ocean beyond the cape. I turned south along the west coast of the cape, passed the Otis Air National Guard base and landed on the single runway at Falmouth. Alan was waiting by the FBO’s hangar, his knapsack on the ground and a big smile on his face. This was going to be his first flight in a small plane.

We sat down at a picnic table, and I pulled out a couple of charts to show him our course. The plan was to follow the interstate around the Boston metropolitan area, then up to Newburyport, just south of the New Hampshire border, and then follow the coast northeast to Bar Harbor.

I planned a fuel-and-lunch stop in Saco, Maine. I helped Alan get settled in the cockpit, and with his ever-present camera in his lap, we departed Falmouth. The ocean views were stunning, and Alan was a melody of oohs and aahs. The trip went quickly and smoothly, and after three hours of flying time, and a few sightseeing turns around Mount Desert Island, we landed at Bar Harbor Airport.

I put the plane in the FBO’s hangar, rented a car, and it wasn’t that long before we dropped our knapsacks at a small hotel and were wandering the charming streets of Bar Harbor. The next two days were a kaleidoscope of great seafood meals, tours of Arcadia National Park, a half day of sloop sailing and more wandering. On Sunday, I checked in with Flight Service and learned that the weather was going to be more of the same for our trip back to Falmouth the next day.

When we woke in the morning and I looked out the window, I was shocked that I couldn’t see the harbor. Fog had rolled in sometime during the night. Time to revise our plans. Flight Service informed me that this was a local situation, and that 25 miles to the south it was clear. The airport was IFR, but they expected the ceiling to lift and the fog to break up by noon. Alan was getting nervous about getting back to Falmouth.

After breakfast, we checked out of the hotel, returned the car, fueled the 150, loaded the knapsacks and sat down in the waiting area of the terminal to wait out the situation. One additional factor was a line of thunderstorms to the west that was originally forecast to pass the coast about 5 or 6 p.m. They seemed to be moving much faster. Alan continued to express concern about being back to work on Monday, and again I reassured him that everything would be fine. The Robert Burns phrase “The best laid plans of mice and men …” kept spinning in my head.

Finally, Flight Service informed me that the airport was VFR and we could depart. It was 1 p.m., and there were still vestiges of clouds about, but I felt comfortable flying above them as we overflew the various small islands in Blue Hill Bay. We crossed the coast at Rockport, and everything was relatively clear to our south. To the west the sky was very dark, and I wondered if I could outrun the storms. Alan continued to take photos, and I acted as his travel guide, pointing out the various towns and harbors and inlets that made up the Maine coast. As we approached Brunswick, I contacted the Portland tower to establish who we were, our altitude, where we were headed and to enter the transponder code. The controller also suggested we check the weather. I “rogered,” and we continued on. I got a recorded weather forecast that indicated that it was clear along the coast to the south. But I began to have doubts about my plans to make Falmouth by dusk. On a deeper level, I was feeling uncomfortable, and a voice in my head kept saying, This is dumb! Land at Portland! I should have listened.

We were just passing Portland, about 2 miles west of the field, when I noticed wisps of clouds moving inland from the sea. I changed frequencies to check the weather again. No change. They were definitely behind the curve because, to my amazement, 5 miles or so to the south I could see a band of white lying across my route and extending out to sea. Shreds of mist and clouds were rapidly beginning to form all along the coast and moving inland. Could this be happening this fast? Evidently it could, and was.

I looked past Alan to the west and was stunned to see huge, dark and billowing clouds, complete with lightning, about 10 miles away. The front was arriving well ahead of schedule. Time to head back to the Portland airport and get on the ground.

“Three Six Three, would you like progressives to the FBO?” “No sir,” I said. “If it’s OK, I’d like to come up and shake your hand and personally thank you.” “Be nice to meet you. Taxi up to the apron at the base of the tower, park and come on up. I’m just starting my break.”

I turned to Alan, who was taking photos of the fog, and said, “I’m afraid we have to end this flight right now and land, and I may need your help, so please put the camera down and follow my instructions.” He looked surprised and concerned. Ignorance is bliss.

Below me and to my left was Scarborough Racetrack, and I pictured having to make a forced, which looked pretty rough and unwelcoming. Don’t want to do that. As I completed my turn to the north, my heart jumped because the entire western side of the airport was covered in a thick band of fog extending well above my altitude, and more fog had moved into the area we had just flown through. I could no longer see the field. I was surrounded on three sides by fog, and on the fourth by the approaching storm. I called the tower.

“Portland Tower, Cessna 363, over Scarborough Racetrack at two thousand, northerly heading, requesting vectors to Runway One-One. Field obscured by fog.”

“Three Six Three, really glad you called in. We were worried about you. Continue north. Will advise a turn to 110 degrees. Descend to one five hundred.” The controller’s voice sounded friendly and calm, just what I needed.

“Roger.”

It had been quite a while since I had flown under the hood, and I felt my stomach tightening as I anticipated punching into the fog. Gotta really stay focused. I felt quite intimidated by this wall of white to my right and front, and the boiling clouds and lightning to my left. Stay focused.

“Three Six Three, turn to heading one one zero now and continue descending.”

“Roger,” was all I said.

I still couldn’t see the field or any lights as I began my scan of the instruments — just a wall of white.

“Alan, look over the nose of the plane and tell me as soon as you see any lights,” I said.

“Three Six Three, you are perfect on the approach. Can you see the approach or runway lights?”

“Negative.” Behind the windows all was white, no up, no down. I stayed focused on my scan.

“OK, sir. I’ll turn the lights full up. Still good on the approach.”

I thought how calm and well-mannered the controller sounded. I wish I felt that way. My heart was pounding away. Alan exclaimed, “I see lights, I see lights!”

I looked up from the instruments. Right below the nose were the rabbit strobe lights flashing toward the runway threshold. We were about 75 feet above them, and I followed them in as we broke through the far side of the fog bank and the white started turning to gray. I could now see the runway stretched out before me, still partially obscured but visible. We touched down, and I exited the runway and stopped on the taxiway.

“Three Six Three, would you like progressives to the FBO?”

“No sir,” I said. “If it’s OK, I’d like to come up and shake your hand and personally thank you.”

“Be nice to meet you. Taxi up to the apron at the base of the tower, park and come on up. I’m just starting my break.”

Alan grabbed my shoulder and exclaimed, “Barry, that was so exciting. What an adventure.” He was practically bouncing up and down in his seat. For me, it was an adventure I hoped never to experience again. My lack of wise decisions had put us in danger, but we were down now.

We parked in front of the tower just as rain began to fall, and the sound of thunder echoed over the field. The wind was picking up.

A tall gray-haired man was waiting on the fourth-floor landing, smiling as we shook hands and exchanged introductions. He ushered us into a large, dimly lit room with banks of computers and screens, and introduced us to several of the other controllers. One said, “Happy to see you. We were watching you all the while you were flying to the south, and hoping you’d re-establish contact. You’re pretty lucky.”

“I must say how much I agree with you, and how much I appreciated your help,” I said.

After a brief tour of the tower, I got directions to the FBO, and we made our goodbyes.

We exited the tower to torrential rain, wind, thunder and lightning. How lovely to be on the ground and not up in this storm!

It turned out that the weather system we encountered lasted for two more days. On Monday, Alan took a commercial flight to Boston, and then a shuttle to Falmouth. When I spoke with him on Tuesday he was deeply immersed in his next set design, and still stirring with excitement from our “adventure.” The weather continued IFR, and it wasn’t until Wednesday that I could fly back to North Adams. Meanwhile, I got to know and appreciate downtown Portland and its interesting wharf section.

I kept revisiting the misguided decisions that led me here, and what I had learned. The first and most important lesson was to always err on the side of caution regarding the weather, and always have an out. Second, don’t make any decisions based only upon optimism. My continuing south could have very well ended up in a damaged plane on the infield of a racetrack instead of parked at the base of the tower. And third, to follow my intuition when faced with an important decision, like whether to land at Portland or not before I ran out of options. Of course, today, technology has greatly advanced available current weather information for the decision-making process, but these lessons still apply.

Additionally, after being in the caring hands of the controllers, I felt, and continue to feel, great respect and admiration for how well they do their jobs.

And lastly, always resist the siren’s call of “get-home-itis.”