I mentioned an incident in a post a short time ago about a friend of mine having to land on a country road after being forced down by thunderstorms. It’s a great story and a lot of lessons can be learned from the decisions that were made, both right and wrong.
In 1990 I was out of the property management game and running full speed into the aviation/skydiving world. Yes, in a previous life I was employed as a commercial property manager in charge of 17 office buildings with a company car, secretary, and a two piece suit as a uniform. It was horrific. I don’t like to think about that dark period of my life so please don’t bring it up again. Anyway I started out in my new life of adventure by working for a small skydiving school in western Wisconsin owned and run by Pat “Quazy” Quashnick. One of the most experienced skydivers in the nation at the time, Quazy had over 3000 jumps and a world record hanging on the wall but was, on the other hand, only a moderately experienced pilot with under 300 hours and no instrument rating. Quazy had given me my first flying job hauling jumpers to altitude off a short dirt strip in his beat up 1956 Cessna 182.
One day Quazy walked up to me while I was manning the phones and taking reservations for his skydiving operation and asked me to take a look at the aviation weather forecast for western Minnesota and North Dakota. He was going to take his jump plane, a 1956 Cessna 182, and go visit his mother in Fargo North Dakota and he was a little concerned about a line of thunderstorms that were being reported along the route. Now this was way back in the olden days of aviation and we didn’t have have the internet to give us real time radar images so we had to do it the old fashioned way by calling an FAA weather briefer who would look at his radar screen and tell us what he saw. When I called the local briefer he painted a grim picture of heavy but isolated thunderstorms in a line blocking Quazy’s route but good weather at his destination. After I hung up I told Quazy what the briefer had told me and that I wouldn’t make the trip if I were him. But like my wife asking my opinion about what color to paint the bedroom he ignored my advise and said he was going anyway. I tried to point out that his plane didn’t have an artificial horizon or a working turn coordinator so if he accidentally found himself in the clouds he would be in real trouble. Quazy countered by reminding me that he didn’t have an instrument rating anyway so the missing instruments wouldn’t be an issue. I shook my head at that line of reasoning and continued to try an convince him no to make the trip but Quazy just told me that if he got into trouble he would just fly low under the weather and scud run through the line of storms. It sounded like a great plan to me. Not.
Two hours after he climbed into his beat up skydiving plane and took off the phone rang and instead of someone wanting to book a tandem skydive it was Quazy on the other end and he sounded a little shook up. He told me that he needed me to drive out to central Minnesota and get his plane. When I pressed him for details he told me that when he encountered the line of thunderstorms he’d stuck to his plan and had dropped down to treetop level and tried to pick his way between the cells. He said it looked like he was going to make it until the clouds and heavy rain forced him to turn around and when he did he found that the clouds had closed in all around him. Quazy was almost crying as he told me about thinking he was going to die before a country road miraculously appeared in front of him. He said he chopped his power and slammed the plane onto the road just as the the thunderstorm rolled over him with all it’s fury. Just telling me what happened was hard on him so said not to worry about the details and I’d be right there.
When I showed up at the hotel he was staying at I found a much more composed man than the one I’d talked to on the phone hours before. Quazy had had time to calm down a bit in the time it had taken me to drive across the state and seemed much better. He told me that after landing he killed the engine and just sat in the middle of the road as the thunderstorm pounded the little Cessna. When the storm passed He’d started up and taxied the plane to a small turn off leading to a farmers field, parked it and hitched a ride into town from a passing farmer. After having a chance to calm down a bit he had me drive him out to the scene of the crime because he wanted to get his plane out of there before the FAA found out what had happened. When we arrived at the Cessna Quazy and I looked at the paved country road and decided that the best direction to take off was the one that had a slight hill in the middle of it. Because he wouldn’t be able to see what was coming from that direction he told me to drive to the top of the hill to check for oncoming traffic and wave my arms when the coast was clear. I hopped in the car and started to drive up the hill but halfway up I saw a single power line crossing the road that we hadn’t noticed. I pulled over and hopped out to warn Quazy but was horrified to see that he hadn’t waited for me to get into position and was already moving. I frantically waved my arms to try and stop him but the Cessna kept coming. In a last ditch attempt to prevent disaster I bravely, it’s my story after all, moved into the middle of the road as the plane broke ground and pointed at the power line blocking Quazy’s way. Finally seeing what I was pointing at the Cessna bobbed up and down as Quazy tried to decide weather or not to try and go over or under the power line. At the last second he dove back down at the road and swooped under the offending line with his tail missing it by just a few feet. And of course, because timing is everything, at the exact moment the plane was passing under the power line a car came over the crest of the hill headed right for it causing Quazy to yank back on the yoke pulling up quickly and once again missing the obstacle, this time a car, by mere feet. Where was I while all this happened? Why standing right under the power line of course. I had a ring side seat for the whole show. After Quazy cleared the oncoming car and roared off the driver of the car slammed on the breaks and looked over at me with eyes as big as saucers. I just smiled and waved before jumping into my car and getting the hell out of there.
Lot’s of mistakes to learn from here.
1. Listen when more experienced pilots tell you you shouldn’t go flying. In this case the more experienced pilot was me so rule #1 can be amended to “Always listen to Kerry.”
2. If you’re going to scud run you should be capable and have the ability to climb into the clouds and continue the flight in instrument conditions. This means having an instrument rating, sort of current maps, and a plane with the instruments needed to fly in the clouds. I scud run A LOT! I love it and think in many conditions it’s the safest way to go. Like trying to punch through a line of imbedded thunderstorms. But when I do it I always have the ability to switch to IFR flight if I get into trouble.
3. When scud running always leave yourself an escape route, weather it’s the ability to go IFR or keeping track of the conditions behind you in case the conditions in front of you get a little too scary.
4. If you’re going to attempt a takeoff on anything other than a official runway always do a careful check of said makeshift runway. Check for holes, ditches, livestock, and of course power lines. Oh, and always WAIT FOR MY DAMN SIGNAL! (See rule #1)