By STEVEN LONG
“I can’t see anything!”
Above South Carolina, en route VFR to Palatka, Florida, late for a reunion party, I should have had good visibility under a 2,000-foot ceiling. Instead I seemed to be inside a translucent gray balloon.
And I was having an argument.
“You should descend another 100 feet,” the Dangerous Passenger insisted. To him, the only problem was my growing reluctance to continue.
“It’s solid gray out there! There’s nothing!”
“No, look down. That’s Lake Marion, you’re right on course, you’re halfway across South Carolina. The briefer said the ceilings were 2,000 at Walterboro, 3,000 at Savannah, and improving southward. You got that briefing two hours ago. This weather’s probably some local lake effect.
“See, there’s the south shore. Visibility’s a little low, but you’re under the clouds, you’re still legal. You’ve logged over 300 hours. You can fly in this.”
“I’ve never flown in crap like this! I don’t care what the briefer said, this is freaking me out. I’m turning around!”
“If you turn around you’ll miss the reunion. Come on, isn’t this what you earned your wings for?”
No, I thought at first, but I gave in.
“All right. I’ll land at Walterboro and wait for good weather. Oh, man, that’s rain on the windshield. No one said anything about rain!”
“It’s just a little rain. See? It’s stopped already.”
“I’m at 1,000 feet! 900 AGL!” Shying from the menacing clouds overhead, I’d descended further without noticing. “Is there anything tall around here?”
“You checked the sectional when you plotted your course line. There aren’t any. Just hold that GPS track. See, only 20 miles to go! You’ll be touching down at Walterboro in 15 minutes. Can’t you do this for 15 more minutes?”
“Maybe … No! Look, there are clouds BELOW me!” I could see feathery fluff ahead of my left wing, above the treetops.
“Look, if it goes solid below you, you can 180 back to Florence. Just keep going and see what —”
“Oh God, more rain. And the altimeter says 900!”
“Hang on, you can make it! Fly just a few more minutes. Hold that GPS track, keep the wings level. You don’t want to miss that party!”
Keep on? Turn back? I struggled to decide, until a sudden voice in my headphones rasped my call sign. “Cherokee Seven Three Tango, are you receiving Mooney Two One Kilo Bravo?”
What the heck? I was tuned to the Charleston Approach frequency, which I realized I hadn’t heard from in a while.
“Seven Three Tango is receiving the Mooney,” I responded, trying to sound calm as the clouds around my airplane closed in and the gray blankness ahead shaded towards the color of slate.
“Seven Three Tango, this is a relay from Charleston Approach. They say that you’re too low for direct radio communication. You’re flying towards a Level 3 thunderstorm currently over Walterboro, and they want to know your intentions.”
A thunderstorm? My indecision fled. So did I, banking Tango into a left turn. Beyond the wingtip I could see a clutch of paint cans in the bed of a dingy pick-up. I glanced at my instruments — 800 feet! I continued the turn, carefully watching my altitude.
“Mooney, thank you, please inform Charleston that Seven Three Tango is reversing course and returning to Florence.” I felt grateful that someone had watched out for me as I heard the Mooney relay my message.
But before I was on my new course, the argument resumed.
“When you get back to the lake,” the Dangerous Passenger said, “you can circle until the storm leaves, and try again in 15, 20 minutes.”
“No!” I actually yelled. “I’m going back to Florence! Tango could have been bloody scrap metal in some Carolina cotton field. That was stupid — incredibly stupid. I’m landing at Florence!”
There was only silence as I backtracked northward, and it felt good to fly without that distraction. As I neared Lake Marion conditions improved. I could see both shores ahead as I climbed through 1,500 feet.
“Umm … ?”
More silence. My mind was set, and that felt good, too. For the next half hour things remained quiet except for radio communication: Positions, instructions, requests.
On the ramp at Florence I shut off Tango’s lights and electronics and cut the engine, watching the propeller come to its usual bouncy stop.
Then I brought the Dangerous Passenger, who flies everywhere with me, thinks I can do anything, and believes I can conquer or escape any risk, into the Flight Ops building. I wanted a reality check.
Florence’s NEXRAD displayed a wound-like blotch east of Walterboro. More interesting were the crimson lumps west and south, following like sharks stalking a floating wreck.
“I should have turned back sooner,” I said.
“You could have made it through,” I grumbled.