I’m currently recovering from some minor surgery, and out of the cockpit for a few months. During this time, I’m digging up some memorable flying experiences from the past. Don’t worry… multiple paragraphs contemplating the ocean from 40,000 feet will be back soon!
Rain is pounding on the plexiglass of the windshield and beating against the skin of the airplane, sounding like the cascade of a giant waterfall. I look out the window of the Seminole at the two blades of the left engine’s propeller as they carve circles through the water-filled air, a blur of black against the gray world. The rain is streaming across the side window, single droplets, like slugs, leaving horizontal trails on the plastic that evaporate into the slipstream within fractions of a second.
Across the cramped cockpit, Tony—who is flying this leg—glances up from the attitude indicator that he’s been using as a reference to keep us level and stares forward into the storm. I see his lips move, but due to the noise from the rain and the finicky intercom system in this particular plane, whatever he’s saying is lost in the static. I cock my head to the side as a question but he’s already gone back to scanning the instruments, flying a heading that has crept more and more to the east over the past 20 miles, as we’ve been trying to head northward up the coast of Florida, completely invisible in the weather and now—I check the map on the low resolution screen of the small GPS on the panel—five miles away.
I’m flying as a safety pilot for Tony today—as the flight school’s policy doesn’t allow a student to fly solo in the twin engine Seminole. He had an Instrument Flight Instructor checkride scheduled in Fort Lauderdale, so we took off from Stuart just as the sun cracked the horizon over the Atlantic Ocean and turned south, to follow Interstate 95. Off our right wing but still in the distance, illuminated by a fully risen sun, morning thunderstorms had started to build over the swamplands to the west, the cloud to cloud lightning muted in the morning light.
Three hours later Tony had completed the oral exam portion, but due to the thunderstorms we’d seen earlier rapidly moving east he’d been unable to do the flight portion. The examiner had suggested that we hurry our flight home to stay ahead of the weather that was pushing towards the coast, so while Tony got the plane ready I had filed a quick instrument flight plan with Flight Service. They advised me that if we got out in the next 20 minutes we should be ahead of the weather the whole way home. As I ran out to the airplane the first raindrops had already started to fall from rapidly darkening skies.
We took off and climbed out to the east, with the gray green waters of the intercoastal waterway briefly flashing beneath our wings. Behind us, a mass of dark clouds was swirling and building, tossing bolts of electricity in every direction. The Departure Controller turned us to the north, paralleling the sandy beaches of the coastline. Ahead, the line of clouds, which during my preflight weather briefing had still been several miles inland, now bowed outward over the water, forcing us to turn farther and farther offshore to avoid the storms. Twenty minutes later and five miles from land, a Jacksonville Center controller, possibly recognizing our tail number as a flight school airplane, advised us that unless we headed into the weather and tried to push through at a soft spot, we’d be going almost 100 miles north of our destination and over 30 miles offshore—something we didn’t have the gas or legal permission to do. Taking the unsolicited advice, Tony kept the heading where it was, and we plunged into the clouds and rain.
Now, between bumps that shake the entire airframe, I spin in the frequency for the ATIS at Stuart and crank the volume as high as it will go. Between bursts of static and just barely audible over the noise of the rain and the scream of the engines as they pull us forward into the storm, I hear that the weather at the field is right at minimums for an instrument approach from this direction but with gusty winds and heavy rain. Unable to write anything legibly due to the tossing of the airplane, I simply point at the radio frequency display and give Tony a thumbs up. He glances briefly at me, nods, and then goes back to doing his best to the keep the plane level.
Jacksonville Center hands us off to the approach controller who descends us down to 1500 feet and gives us a turn to avoid a particularly large thunder cell that he sees on his radar. Ahead of us, without the benefit of onboard radar, nothing looks different than anything else we can see, so Tony takes the turn and we continue to pitch and buck through the air. A minute later we take a particularly hard hit, and the plane seems to sag in the air, the propellers growling at the momentary increase in Gs. The two 180 horsepower engines dig us out of the hole, and we continue onward. Fighting the bumps I pull out the correct approach chart and pin it to the clip on Tony’s control yoke and then while he splits his attention between reading the information off the chart and flying the plane, I load up the GPS for him.
Still in heavy rain that now all but drowns out the engine noise, we level off at 1500 feet and join the final approach path. The static on the radio lessens some and I am able to clearly hear the approach controller hand us over to the tower controller. The plane is still pitching wildly, but Tony seems to have relaxed his grip slightly on the yoke. I look forward and still see nothing but swirling clouds and rain; directly below us, though, through a ragged gap I see the masts of sailboats on patches of water. We start down the approach and at 1000 feet drop the landing gear.
The view of sailboats below gives way to solid ground and then seconds later I recognize the parking lot and scrub land near the end of the runway. There is still nothing to see in front of us beyond the wall of clouds and rain, but looking directly downward again, through rapidly thinning clouds I see the airport fence, and then the approach lights. Over the intercom, I hear Tony grunt in satisfaction, and I look up in time to see the one-thousand-foot markers emerge from out of the murk ahead of us. He pulls the power back and we settle onto the wet pavement, the hiss of the wheels now audible over the decreasing noise of the engines. As we taxi clear at the end of the runway and head for the ramp, a small business jet breaks out of the clouds from the other direction and touches down in a cloud of spray and mist, and I wonder if they are as happy to be back on the ground as we are.