A few days ago, a good friend called and mentioned that he had an open right seat in his twin-engined Navajo, for a quick trip down to Savannah. He asked if I’d was up for it, and of course, I said “Yes!”. He’s a good friend, and an excellent pilot, so I knew we’d have a great time, even if it was only a ride down and back. He had some quick business to take care of, so the plan was to fly down that afternoon, sign some papers, and return home to Atlanta. No big deal… Being instrument rated, he knew that at least part of the trip would be conducted in IMC conditions, which is pilot speak for “inclement meteorological conditions” or cloudy, overcast conditions for us non-pilots. The clouds were fairly low, but the layer wasn’t too thick, so we expected to pop out around 4000 feet into clear air for the trip down. This is what happened, and although it had been a “gray day” when we left, the brilliant sunshine above the clouds reminded us that there was indeed light above the layer.
As we were preparing to return, a vicious thunderstorm popped up, directly over the Savannah airport. We made sure the airplane was tied down, and ordered a pizza to wait out the storm. Loud booms, and wicked lightening strikes let us know that we made the right decision to wait it out. The storm was a fast mover, and after it passed, we jumped back into the plane for our departure, even though it was still gently raining, but by now, dark.
The cloud layer was still there, but the winds were a non-factor, and there was an almost full moon. After we popped out on top again, the moon reflected brightly off the top of the clouds, which gave a surprising amount of light. I even thought about taking a photo, but alas, there wasn’t that much light. It was cool to peer into the engine cowling from the side and see the exhaust pipe glowing a deep amber red from the turbocharger heat. Had it not been for the fact that we were flying at 9000 feet, it would have almost seemed like a dream, as the night seemed to be eerily silent.
My friend was happy to have my company, and as instructed, I dutifully scanned the instruments on a regular basis, just to keep a close tab on things. Even though I’m not a pilot (yet), I have lots of experience around machines, and can read and usually interpret a gauge with the best of them. The silence was broken by the occasional radio chatter between other aircraft and the air traffic controllers, who seemed to be businesslike, but relaxed. It was a comfort to know that they were following our progress along, just as we were on the GPS. Even though we couldn’t see the ground, we knew precisely where we were in relation to nearby airports and our destination.
The minutes passed by uneventfully, and as we neared Atlanta, a line of aircraft formed in the sky near Hartsfield. They looked like busses pulling up to the school in the morning, so perfectly arrayed and orderly were they. It was a fascinating thing to see from the air, as it implied that the system was working normally, the pilots were in tune with that system, and that several thousand people were in good hands. We were vectored around the area, to give the jets a wide berth, and they gracefully passed us by on the left, as were neared Peachtree Dekalb Airport (PDK).
My friend did his best to give me an idea of what was to come next, and although I’ve never had any formal instrument training, I believe I got the gist of lining up on the radio beacon, and following the glide slope down to the runway. It was also helpful to see the approach laid out in graphical terms in the approach book, so I felt comfortable as we descended into the clouds once again for our landing at PDK.
By this time the ceiling had dropped to around 450 feet, so as we went into the clouds, I was told that I would see the ground first by looking down as opposed to looking straight ahead. And so it was, as we broke out perfectly lined up with the landing lights, and right on the glide slope. I felt an enormous sense of pride in my friend’s ability to “nail it”, and at no time did I have any doubt that we would.
It’s one thing to have faith in the system, and your training, but quite another to see it play out before your eyes. It definitely made me realize the importance of being an instrument rated pilot, as the flight probably wouldn’t have been made otherwise. It also reinforced the idea that you do the same thing, in the same order, every time.
No surprises is a good thing!