I mentioned that I do not like flying at night. Thought I’d provide an example.
This past fall we were up in Tusacaloosa, Alabama, planning to leave after an afternoon football game. A weather front was forecast to push through while the game was in progress, with clearing weather behind. And that's just what happened. With any luck, it would also push through the hunting camp, giving us a clear flight home. Well...
It’s a 40 minute flight back to the camp. I told the Boss that we had to, without fail take-off 30 minutes before sunset, which in this case was about 5:30. On a clear night, we'd still have some residual light after the sun went down. We did take-off on time. Still, I was worried that we would catch up with the front. And we did.
Immediately after take-off, the passengers were ooh-ing and ahh-ing over the pretty fog forming in the valleys of the Talladega National Forest below us. I got a bad feeling in the pit of my stomach. If fog starts forming after a front goes through prior to sunset, it’s never a good thing. It will not get better as the night progresses.
We had radioed our farm manager and asked if any fog had formed there yet. He said it had not. Turned out he had not really looked, just peeked out his front door. As we got closer to the camp, two things happened: the fog got thicker; and we caught up to the front - it has just passed through. There were clouds above me (and rain) and clouds (fog) below me.
Now we were in a bind. I could not get into the Selma Airport – the front had not passed it yet. The only real alternative was to go back to Tuscaloosa, and I barely had the fuel for that. With the load I was carrying, I only had enough fuel to go to the camp with about a forty-five minute reserve. There was a point at which we were pretty much committed to landing at the camp. We were past that point. Going back would have meant cutting it too close on fuel. Based on our farm manager’s observation, I pressed on. Trouble was, the weather got worse and worse. As it got darker and darker, we needed to be on the ground…somewhere...soon.
We ended up overhead the camp, circling in about as bad weather as I’ve ever flown in my life: dark, foggy, and rainy, with a few scant lights below me. Everybody onboard got very quiet – none of them were first-time riders and they knew this was not good. The knot in my stomach was as big as a grapefruit. The fog layer was right over the trees. Thankfully, it was not solid, and there were big holes through which I could barely see the ground.
I’ve often said that helicopters are not all that difficult to fly; however, they are also very easy to crash. The key to successful helicopter flying (i.e. not crashing) is to keep it under control. Once you lose control, well, it should be obvious what happens. Flying a helicopter has been likened to balancing on a beachball. In many ways, this is a correct analogy. Sometimes staying on top of it is tough.
So I was sitting there in the fog and the rain, trying to set up a workable approach/landing, taking things slow, trying not to fall off the beachball, and thinking to myself, “Dear God, please do not let me screw this up.” Cut to the chase: I didn’t. We got on the ground and I let out a big sigh. Although two of the four passengers wanted to continue on to Home Base, I had to tell them we were done for the night.
It can be difficult sometimes, when you fly to places where there is no accurate weather-reporting, as we helicopter pilots often do. When we departed Tuscaloosa that evening, the weather was perfectly nice, but I knew it would get worse. I was banking on it being okay at the destination. Here’s where judgment and some degree of luck come in. There are pilots who scoff at this, who say that you should never rely on luck. I’ve been told that I should have never departed Tuscaloosa, and rather should have cancelled the flight. They might very well be right. The successful completion of a flight does not mean it was safe, nor that the decisions were good ones. Eh- we live, we learn.
Had we left fifteen minutes earlier, or fifteen minutes later we would not have been able to make the flight. We slipped through a narrow window. It worked, but it almost didn’t. I hate being put in situations like these, but maybe they are the things that attract me to this type of flying.