Monday, May 24, 2010

Getting My Reps

So much of life is about reps: The more we do something, the better we become. Think knitting, public speaking, or even juggling chainsaws. I'd like to think that's the idea behind my life right now-fly airplanes as often as possible to become as safe and proficient of a pilot as possible. Most days, this works out fairly well: I wake up, wolf down a few bowls of Golden Crisp, then head to the airport for 12-14 hour duty days. Fly all over the Southeastern U.S., head home, plow through some food, and collapse my exhausted body onto the bed and repeat. Not that I've become some type of flying cyborg, but somewhere between today and four months ago, I lost track of time and realized I don't really do much else besides fly airplanes or talk about flying airplanes. It's a good thing, because I'm accumulating flight time faster than Lindsey Lohan racks up misdemeanors. Around the hangar I've become known as the flight snake-if there's an unscheduled flight, I'm usually the one who willingly takes the trip. The more reps, the better. Right?

That's what I figured last week as I volunteered my services for a trip up to Bowling Green, KY. My student and I waited around for most of the day, hoping a line of thunderstorms southeast of Nashville would dissipate. As one can probably imagine, thunderstorms combine all the greatest possible threats to flying safely, especially in our little multi engine airplane: hail, severe turbulence, intense winds, and the possibility of a lightning strike. The overall rule is to avoid active thunderstorm cells by at least twenty miles, however, it may surprise you that lightning strikes in large jetliners are actually a relatively common occurrence. Although it's not recommended to request this to the pilots next time you fly commercially, if it does happen, expect a loud, explosive type noise and maybe to be jostled in your seat momentarily. Scour the internet for this and you'll find enough reasons to probably never choose to fly again. But the good news is that you will survive. In the meantime, here's your piece of aviation knowledge for today: all aircraft are equipped with static wicks, small, tube like devices attached to the trailing edge of the wings. Since the bulk of an airplane's exterior is composed of aluminum (hint: a very good conductor of electricity), there has to be a way for the charge to flow safely away from the aircraft in the event it is struck. Static wicks allow the safe discharge of the electricity away from the plane. Despite being a device of such small stature, we are not allowed to take off in our aircraft if missing any of our nine static wicks.

Back to my trip up to Kentucky. We waited until just after 6PM, when finally it appeared on radar that there was enough of a gap for us to make the flight. I assisted my student with the preflight preparation, checking especially to make sure our electrical system looked good and running my fingers across each and every static wick. We were good to go. With the help of air traffic control, we picked our way around a few of the cells and made a largely uneventful first leg of the journey.

A quick bite to eat and my student and I were back at the aircraft, prepping for the night return trip. By this time, most of the buildup had concentrated just north of Nashville and was headed east, giving us enough a window to make it back towards Atlanta. And this is where my night got a little interesting.

One of the intricacies of flying, is the various methods used to obtain an IFR clearance from different airports. (IFR stands for instrument flight rules and allows aircraft to penetrate clouds and fly with the radar assistance of air traffic control) At my home base, for example, we simply contact the control tower, who coordinates with Atlanta Approach our departure heading, route, altitude, anything else that may come up. At an 'uncontrolled' field, however, it's a bit different. Pilots have several options, with the best one usually being to dial up a Flight Service Station and obtain a clearance that way. On this night, we spoke with a very green sounding lady in Louisville. Tentative in her delivery, she seemed perplexed as to the directions she was dispensing: "Seminole 1221K is, uh, cleared to the, um, Gwinnett County airport, at, er, BWG, via the Choo-Choo VOR, and, climb to, hmm...let's see, 7,000 and contact, uh, Memphis on 133.85, squawk 1642." Most of the time ATC and the affiliated organizations do an absolutely phenomenal job with every aspect of their responsibilities. However, this was one of the choppiest clearances I'd ever received. Moreover, it was late, I was tired, and the rain was beginning to slap across our windshield. My student had fumbled through copying it down, so I gave a readback over the mic and prepared us for takeoff.

Our departure runway was 21, meaning we were positioned to fly a slightly southwest course. My plan was to continue that heading until we reached a high enough altitude for Memphis Center to pick us up on their radar, usually in the neighborhood of 2,000 feet. At that point, I was expecting them to give us the go ahead to proceed direct to Chattanooga, and then on in to Gwinnett.

A few moments after takeoff, the street lights below us began to disappear. I looked off to my left, and saw nothing but the bright flash of my anti-collision light pulsating against the thick, cumulus clouds that had now enveloped our aircraft. Through the intermittent bursts of light, I could see that the rain was coming down harder. Suddenly, our little airplane caught a huge updraft and we ballooned 1,500 feet in what seemed like a second. My heart pounded as I knew instantly what was happening: we had inadvertently flown into the outer portions of the thunderstorm. Memphis Center, oblivious to our plight, was busy diverting and repositioning aircraft inbound to Nashville. I gave quick thought to turning around, then decided against it. The rain splattered against the windshield with greater force. I gripped my seatbelt, searching for some sort of security. My student, who for the previous few moments was chatting about the trip excitedly, was now decidedly silent. Turbulence tossed us around, jolting the aircraft up and then down again in rapid succession. Back in my private pilot days, this was the type of stuff I'd read about, and vowed to avoid at all costs. But we were in it. I kept a careful eye on the instruments, focusing on indications I prayed would hold true: Airspeed? Good. Altimeter? Fluctuating, but acceptable. Flight attitude? Level. I turned off the anti-collision lights as they were serving little purpose now.

Rain came down implausibly harder. It was as though God was dumping oceans directly atop the airplane. I'd never seen so much water. I gave the engine gauges a once-over, hoping against anything else now would not be the time I'd experience my first engine failure. Complete darkness surrounded us. Each raindrop, multiplied by the thousands, cascaded against the aircraft fuselage, sounding more like gunshots than precipitation. This is what fear in an airplane felt like.

And then, inexplicably, we punched through the final cloud layer. The rain stopped. City lights reappeared. The aircraft steadied out. The loud pelting of rain on aluminum was replaced by the relaxing hum of the propellers. We made it.

A few moments later, a crystal clear radio transmission came through:

Seminole 1221K, Memphis Center....

"Center, 21K, go ahead sir."

21K looks like you guys pierced through a pretty good sized cell there, everything ok?

"Roger, a bit of heavy precip but not much else, 21K" (For whatever reason I always downplay things with ATC.) I should have said, "MAYDAY MAYDAY, we are actually submerged up to our navals in rainwater." That would have been more accurate.

21K glad to hear, just out of curiosity what was your clearance?

As I reached for my clearance sheet, it hit me: the lady up in Louisville hadn't been wrong. I was stupefied as I read back what I'd written down. I had unintentionally vectored myself and my student into the worst weather I've experienced yet. On takeoff I'd continued a 210 heading a few moments too long when, according to the sheet I held in my hands, I should have flown something in the neighborhood of a 170. Those forty degrees ended up being the difference between a nice relaxing night flight and a terrifying learning experience.

I waited for a response from Memphis Center, knowing I had just inadvertently deviated from an IFR clearance in a non-emergency situation. Fortunately, the gentleman came back over the frequency with a calming voice, assuring me there'd be no action against me. He was glad we were ok, and reminded us that in the event of any uncertainty, always request clarification. I thanked him, and he transferred us to the next controller, and that was it.

Reps. I learned something that night, and so did my student. A few hours later, back on the ground just outside of Atlanta, we were both weary but glad to have a story to tell. I'd survived my first thunderstorm and even picked up an extra bit of IFR knowledge along the way.

That's why I love my job: everything I do all adds up to experience. And ultimately, these reps are what's making me better. Experience counts. So while you're not on my airplane yet, one day you will be, and that's why I'm doing everything I can to ensure moments like this happen now and not while you're sitting in the back, relaxing and chowing down on those awful pretzels.


  1. oh my goodness! You had me on the edge of my seat with that story. Glad you are ok. Just wondering, does your student want to continue flying?! :)

  2. Gabe, this was a great story. You had better suck it up and keep blogging. I can't imagine the day you get hired to your first job after being a flight instructor could go by without a blog post to celebrate.

  3. Great writing and great job in the airplane. Have you thought about posting this on the AOPA Forums so even more pilots can learn from your experience?