It’s a moment I’m pretty sure everyone, from jumper to pilot, faces at one time or another: a moment that forces us to decide if we’re where we are supposed to be, doing what we should be doing. A decision that had to be made—do I make this jump or, better yet, should I? The nasty malfunction that demands a choice you don’t want to make. Looking at the result of a decision someone made badly which cost them dearly …
Do I really believe I should be a jumper?
I was lucky in a way. I made that decision about jumping quite early on in my skydiving career, when I found myself witness to a fatality. I was able to make my choice based on the mistake of another, instead of suffering through one of my own—for, as I’ve said before, skydiving is the one activity in my life where I’ve been more than happy to learn through others’ mistakes instead of my own personal fuck ups.
Flying, on the other hand … On that one I learned the hard way.
I was just about at that mark. The 150/200-hour mark where nothing more than minor issues had happened in my flying career, and I was pretty sure I had this whole “flying” thing down. I’d managed to rent out my school’s really nice, fully loaded Piper Archer for the three days I would need to fly to Seattle to see my mom and then back to NorCal. I’d made all the arrangements, completed my flight plan and had even planned a nice little stop to see my good friend Jim in Medford, Oregon, on my way to see her.
The flight down the valley and then across the Oregon line was absolutely beautiful, as my flight plan took me just West of Mount Shasta, which offered absolutely stunning views through the crystal clear air, with nothing more than the occasional bump along the way. I wasn’t making half bad time toward the field nearest my buddy’s place, although at only 140 horsepower, I wasn’t exactly getting anywhere with lightning speed. Then again, speed wasn’t the idea—flying hours were.
The fact that I was about three quarters of the way through my instrument rating course had instilled in me a few good habits, thankfully, and as I parked the Piper on the ramp and waited for Jim to show up, I decided to walk into the FBO and give the weather between myself and Seattle a look. As it turned out, it was a pretty good thing I had …
As is known to happen pretty regularly, the weather coming across the Cascade mountains had decided to turn a whole lot less than favorable for an as-yet instrument-unrated pilot, and after a fair look at the current weather and forecast, I picked up the telephone to let my mother know I wouldn’t be making the crossing that day. I was a little bummed that I was gonna have to pass on the trip, but having cornered myself with clouds and rain over the East Coast when I had even less time, I knew damn well I didn’t want to get caught in weather with my pants down. The upside to the change was that I would get to hang out with Jim for the day.
As I checked the weather heading back into California just to be safe, I saw that NOAA had issued a Notice to Airmen (NOTAM) for an Airmen’s Meteorological Information (AIRMET) for moderate turbulence along my route. Now, moderate turbulence usually means you’ll get bounced around just a little bit—but it won’t be terrible, and you’ll more than likely be able to just climb out of it if you don’t like the ride—so I told myself to check it again before I left and then let it slide from my mind.
Jim and I had a great time catching up and as I climbed into the little Archer and closed the door, the fact that I’d forgotten to check the weather again in the five or so hours I’d been relaxing with him didn’t even cross my mind.
The sky was just as clear and beautiful as it had been on my flight up and as I started working my way back toward the beautiful views of Mount Shasta and the lakes, I didn’t give a whole lot of attention to the bumps that were bouncing me around here and there. As the terrain in front of me began its not-so-slow climb along my route, the bumps that were, only minutes before, not more than a slight nuisance had now begun to demand quite a bit of my attention. As I let loose a nervous giggle remembering what I’d forgotten to do and thinking the flight might not be as easy as I’d expected, I found myself acutely aware of the lap portion of my seat belt binding deeply into my hips as my head slammed into the roof of the plane.
For a moment I actually thought I might have hit something, and looked around to the left and right to see if there was anything around at all, but stopped looking the instant I got slammed again! As quickly as I could, I wrenched the seat belt of the Piper down as tightly as I possibly could, trying not to over grip the yoke … Within minutes, I was being rocked every few seconds by another massive jolt to the aircraft, and for the first time, I took a solid look at my instrument panel and watched in horror as my altitude fell and increased by hundreds of feet each time I slammed into another wall of air.
“Best gust penetration speed … Keep the wings level … Don’t worry about altitude,” wasn’t what I was thinking, it was what I was unintentionally saying out loud to myself, and realized that I’d been wiping my sweating hands across my chest every few seconds so that I wouldn’t lose my grip on the yoke. It had only been a few minutes since the first massive slam to the aircraft got my attention, and I began to think my best course of action would be to make a turn back toward Medford and get the fuck out of this air as quickly as possible.
Mountain wave turbulence is … Fuck. I’d never been upside down in an aircraft before, and as the Piper banked through 60 degrees all on its own, I wanted more than anything to make sure I never found out! It was the only turn I attempted. As I dipped the right wing to initiate a turn, the wind—which by now was gusting way beyond anything I’d ever experienced—had a firm grip on the bottom of the left wing and decided to show me who the fuck the boss was.
By the time I managed to get the wings level and headed the right direction, I had managed to lose about five hundred feet—and a fair amount of my willpower. I was fucking terrified but I was also acutely aware that nobody was coming to help me out. There was no safety net, no pause button and nobody I could even call, as I was low, in the middle of the pass on the windward side of Mount Shasta and fighting to keep my little 140-horsepower Piper out of the trees.
At one point during the 45-minute ordeal, as I watched my vertical speed indicator show a 500-foot-per-minute climb even though the engine was at idle, I couldn’t help but imagine what was going to happen if I caught the downdraft that might be associated with the updraft I was currently in …
I made contact with the tower in Redding and was greeted with, “You just flew out of Medford? Must have been a rough ride, huh?” My reply was an attempt at being funny to cover the terror in my voice. “Ahh, yeah … It was … rough. What I really need is a cigarette and a roll of toilet paper!”
All three wheels back on the ground and parked and my brain went into auto pilot. I climbed down off the wing, took about three steps from the plane and sat the fuck down. Then I laid the fuck down. Face down. It felt like I must have been lying next to that little Piper for ages, and probably would have stayed right there if I hadn’t heard a muffled cough from just over my shoulder. As I lifted my head off the ramp where it ended up, I saw a hand stretching down to offer me a lit cigarette and, yes, a roll of toilet paper … Seems the tower guys had watched me climb out and lie down and figured out the story from there.
That weather report I had forgotten to get? Yeah … If I had bothered, I would have seen it had changed from an AIRMET to a SIGMET (Significant Meteorological Information), and had forecast “severe to extreme” turbulence along my route of flight.
“Do I really want to be a pilot?”
Well, I guess after 10,000 hours and a whole lot more excitement, that question for me has been asked and answered. So have you had to ask YOUR question yet?
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