In March 2011, after seven years of flying, I felt on top of my game like never before. With about 600 total hours and 100 in my current aircraft, I had made it past the days of self-doubt. Since earning my instrument rating a year earlier, I also had begun flying extensive, coast-to-coast business trips—accumulating confidence and some experience with all the weather, regional variations and improvising that come with being a true pilot.
Did I say that I had picked up confidence? Scratch that: I had picked up arrogance, never a good passenger in the cockpit. So it was that I arrived at one of my scariest weather encounters at the tail end of a weeklong trip. It had started in Northern California with stops in Arizona, Houston and Memphis. Now, I was heading home.
A Houston-to-Memphis leg the day before had been a particular point of pride. It hadn’t been part of the original itinerary. When a sudden business opportunity had popped up, I suggested to a colleague that we fly together from Texas to Tennessee. That required me to step outside my normal routine and plan the flight on the fly.
The flight became a tour de force of my capabilities and those of my Cirrus SR22T. After departing Houston in blue-sky weather, we soon noticed a late winter undercast sliding below us as we made our way across Louisiana and Arkansas. Approaching Memphis, it was clear those clouds, in a band from 3,000 to 7,000 feet above ground level, were at icing temperatures.
No problem for us, I thought. As we began our descent, I wet the wings with de-icing fluid, then monitored for signs of ice accumulation as we were vectored through the clouds toward our approach. Ten minutes later, we emerged from the layer’s bottom to land in light rain and fine visibility. “Man, I’m good at this flying,” I thought.
All of which brought me to the day of my near-downfall. As I prepared to depart for home, my original route and planning were gone. I’d be going further and leaving later, after a morning meeting. But, hadn’t I just shown how good I was at making plans in the moment?
So, off to the electronic magic of ForeFlight. A few moments later, I had set my course. Leg 1: An easy three hours or so to Abilene, Texas. From there, I’d have a longer flight of almost four hours to Tucson, Arizona, due to strong headwinds. I would stay the night there, then have one more flight home to Livermore, California, the next morning.
By the time I arrived in Abilene, things were already starting to come undone. The descent and approach were turbulent, with strong gusts on final. It was nothing I couldn’t handle, to be sure, but I was learning that they even make the weather bigger in Texas. If I had been honest with myself, I also would have admitted that I already was worn out from a week of heavy flying and business, and I was weary from the extra rigor of the first flight. I wasn’t being that honest.
As the Abilene fuelers topped my plane off, I reviewed the weather. “Hmm. Dust storms now forecast across New Mexico up to 14,000 feet. That’s okay,” I thought. “I’ll be going over that in my turbo aircraft, not through it.” So, I launched for Tucson.
Soon, I began to understand that the weather was coming in much stronger than my rushed briefing had suggested. As the plane slogged on against the wind—50 knots, now 75, now even more—I stared at a steadily shrinking range circle on the moving map. Tucson would be really close to minimum fuel. If the wind got worse, I might not even make it. I’d have to land in El Paso for some extra gas.
That gave me a solid backup plan for about 30 minutes, until El Paso’s weather eroded to the point where forecast conditions began being reported in terms of “runway visual range” instead of miles. The dust was coming in thicker and faster than I ever imagined possible. El Paso? No puedo.
Now what? I flew on over the vast emptiness of West Texas with daylight beginning to fade and the dust swirling far below me, gathering like some kind of airborne quicksand. For the first time, I began to feel real concern. I’d have to find somewhere to land out here while visibility was still okay, which meant a trip down through the dust, landing in high winds and then getting out again.
But, West Texas isn’t exactly Northern California. The airports here were small and spread out. I wasn’t going to find a towered field, a decent FBO or possibly even a runway that was aligned well with the wind. So, forget this one. And, this one, too. That one’s also out.
It looked like I had exactly one choice, a rural airport with runways in a triangle configuration. I’d have to hope the fuel pump there was working and the visibility was good enough to get in and out VFR.
With that settled, I told the controller my new plan, started down and switched radio frequencies. I was completely on my own now, calling out my position to the void.
Here, I should mention, for those who haven’t experienced West Texas, how quickly and violently weather can change out on the high plains. What looked like see-through dust from a mile above became near-instrument conditions as I plunged into it. It was still legal VFR, though. Probably. Maybe. Hard to tell, but I think.
And the wind! By the time my Cirrus lined up on final, it was buffeting in a sea of gusty surface flow. This would require my best landing, which, it turned out, was the first thing I nailed that day. Not that I had time to be proud of myself as I taxied toward a ramshackle terminal building, still fighting the wind with my controls.
“I flew on over the vast emptiness of West Texas with daylight beginning to fade and the dust swirling far below me, gathering like some kind of airborne quicksand. For the first time, I began to feel real concern. I’d have to find somewhere to land!”
If I felt some relief at being on the ground, this airport didn’t provide much comfort. Against the angry dusk and dust, it looked like one of the abandoned ghost towns from a Scooby Doo mystery cartoon.
It took huge effort against the gale to open my cockpit door. As I stepped out onto the wing, suddenly large dogs appeared, barking at me. Maybe I had stepped into a Scooby zone: Right behind them was Old Man Johnson, that guy with the scraggly beard who “would have gotten away with it, if it hadn’t been for you meddling kids.”
He was yelling to be heard, calling off his dogs, offering to secure my plane and help pump the gas.
“Where are you heading in this tonight?” he asked.
“I’m going west to Tucson.”
“Well, then, I expect you’ll be the only one,” he replied. That, apparently, was his way of suggesting maybe I should reconsider.
I took the bait. “Maybe I’ll stay here,” I offered. “What hotels are nearby?”
“Nearby? Not much,” he said. “But you’re welcome to stay here tonight with me and my dogs.”
There was no way I was going to stay with Old Man Johnson and his dogs. No way I was going to leave my Cirrus out here in the storm. Clearly, there was also no way I was going to make it to Tucson, either.
I paid, thanked my would-be host and got back into the plane with no plan beyond this: Get me out of here. Taxiing back to the runway, I searched my mind for an answer. The only one I could imagine was retreating to Abilene. Now, though, the gathering dust and wind had been joined by the full darkness of night.
I’d need to depart IFR. But how to file and get a clearance? My iPad had no cellular service. My phone offered only a faint hope, as I connected to a briefer with little more than one bar of signal strength. Despite repeated attempts, I kept losing the connection before I could complete my call. Twice. Three times. All the while, weather conditions continued to unravel.
At this point, panic and adrenaline pushed me to my last, worst decision. In another five minutes, I would have no choice about departing. It would be impossible, so I had to do it now. Rules be damned.
With the plane rocking in the gusts, I throttled to full power, released the brakes and struggled to maintain centerline as my plane accelerated. Then, I rotated and instantly shot into a dense cloud of dirt. It was a blackness completely different than just the dark of a night sky. Every time my strobe flashed, a snow-globe of dark particles revealed themselves, followed instantly by that darkness again. My side stick pushed left, right, up, down against the invisible gusts.
“Keep your eyes on the instruments,” I yelled out loud to myself, again and again. I was, what, 100 feet from the ground? Less? More? Who knew? It was all I could do to keep flying the plane.
My climb through the dust layer couldn’t have lasted more than five minutes, though it seemed forever. It was more than scary; it was humiliating. I was less worried about what would happen to me than angry that I could have let things get so bad. In private pilot ground school, I had been taught about the links of an accident chain—how no single mistake stands out, but together a series of them can become catastrophic. I thought I had understood what that meant and how to break the chain. Somehow, though, here I was clinging to the last link.
Until, suddenly, I wasn’t clinging anymore. As sharply as things had gone bad, they became good again: The plane punched out of the dust layer to a calm and star-filled sky. I was okay, and I was headed to Abilene, making amazing time with the storm at my back.
“It’s a good thing you got here when you did,” said the ramp marshal tying down my plane back at Abilene Aero in howling winds. “If you were to arrive an hour from now, there’s supposed to be a terrible dust storm.”
“Yes. Good thing.”
I don’t think I slept much that night in Abilene, replaying my careless actions and their near-consequences. In the morning, skies were clear and calm. Calm for West Texas, that is. There was nothing left to suggest the terror of the storm that had just passed. Nothing, that is, except for a beautiful row of vortex patterns etched in fine silt along the top surfaces of my Cirrus’ wings. That, and a renewed sense of humility in the heart and mind of a pilot headed for home.
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