Fog. Ugh. I never should have written about it. Talk about jinxing myself! I thought we were out of the fog season for a while, but just recently I had another encounter with it, this time during the day.
The plan was simple: Pick up the Boss at the hunting camp and take him 80 miles east to a little town where he had two meetings scheduled. With “site landings” (in other words, landing some place other than an airport) at either end, it was a perfect job for a helicopter.
However, one complication was the fog. The morning of our flight, all of southeastern Alabama was covered in fog. For some reason, our Home Base airport and the hunting camp were in the clear. But just about everywhere else to the east was socked-in. That was the good news. The fog would eventually burn off. The bad news was that some really nasty weather was supposed to move in later in the day in time for our return.
I landed at the camp and the Boss stuck his head in the passenger door of the ship. Some of the other people who were going to the meeting by car were having trouble on the ground.
”I just got a call from Bill,” the Boss said.. “He’s in Greenville and he says the fog is so thick he can only drive 20 mph. Should we go?” He sounded worried. And he should have been.
“Heck, yeah!” I said. “Hop in. We’ll go as far as we can, then we’ll stop. It’ll burn off sooner or later.”
The reason I wanted to get underway quickly was that the meetings would wait for my Boss to get there before they could start. The later he arrived, the later the meetings would run. The afternoon weather was sure to get worse and worse.
Soon after taking off, we were over an area of fog that stretched, if not as far as the eye could see, almost. (I knew that it ended just north of Montgomery, Alabama and I had plenty of fuel, so no worries there.) At least it was beautifully clear above. At 2,500 feet, we could see forever – just not straight down. But with the bright sun shining, it would eventually burn off.
Some parts were patchy, with long, clear breaks through which you could see down. But fog drifts, and the silo or farm field you can see now is completely gone a minute later. As we traveled east, the fog soon became a solid blanket of white cotton below us. No way to guarantee that we could get down through it at the destination. Time to regroup. We backtracked to where it wasn’t so solid underneath.
Using the GPS, I found a little uncontrolled airport. Circling patiently, a break in the fog soon appeared. I set up a steep approach and came down through a big gap. On the ground, we found that many nearby airports had good visibility underneath the fog, which stood a couple/300 feet above the surface, just as the one we’d landed at. In calm winds, fog is usually down in the trees. But wind can help raise the fog up a little. And thankfully, on this day there was wind.
As long as I can have a little bit of altitude and can see forward a mile or so, I’m good. So instead of going over the fog, we decided to go under. Lower Alabama is all relatively flat, open farmland, and the risk of this type of flying is low. But it takes a bit of effort and skill. You can’t go fast. You have to keep a sharp watch out for birds, high powerlines and towers of any height. You have to be flexible as to your exact route. But you also have to know precisely where you are at all times so you don’t inadvertently fly over something like a big airport or into some restricted airspace (a moving-map GPS helps here – what did we do without them?). You have to be ready to make a 180 degree turn and backtrack, or perhaps just stop where you’re at and wait. And you have to accept the fact that you just might not make it to your destination. With those things in mind, you launch.
Airplane pilots frown on what we call “scud-running.” It used to be relatively common, but nowadays the conventional wisdom is that it’s just not safe. Perhaps you could get away with it back in the day of 80 mph Piper Cubs, but nearly all modern airplanes go way faster than that now. And airplanes cannot just stop in midair. But helicopters can! So yes, I scud-run when I have to. It’s not fun and I don’t like it, but it’s part of the job.
Fog is never completely uniform. There are thick parts and thin parts. Sometimes it’ll give you an adequate ceiling, other times it’ll be down in the trees. Sometimes there are big banks of it that drift along.
One day, years and years ago when I worked for Petroleum Helicopters I was stationed on an offshore oil platform way out in the Gulf of Mexico. It was early morning of “break day” for the oil company crew, and they wanted to go home. It was absolutely clear offshore – not a cloud in the sky – but the shore base at Fourchon, Louisiana was fogged-in solid. “Don’t even bother coming here,” they told me. We launched anyway. Two reasons. 1) It was nearly an hour flight into “the beach” and a lot can happen with fog in one hour. 2) Even if the base didn’t clear up, I figured we could land short on some other platform that was in the clear, and be that much closer to the beach when the fog finally burned off.
As we approached, the radio operator in the tower was being vague about the visibility. I could see why. A huge bank of fog lay on the edge of their property. Visibility to the east and north was virtually zero. But the base itself was in the clear, as was everything to the west. It was the strangest thing. The Air Logistics base, with its rows of shiny blue helicopters was clearly visible from five miles away. Right next to it, the Petroleum Helicopters base, with its rows of shiny yellow helicopters was just as prominent. I set up my approach and landed. After my passengers disembarked, one of the very senior pilots at the base stuck his head in my cockpit.
“How bad is it out there?” he asked gravely, all concerned for my health and well-being as if I had just cheated death. I said, “John, look around. It’s beautiful!” And indeed it was. However, fifteen minutes later the fogbank rolled back over the base and covered us in a gloomy gray mist again. If anyone had taken off they would not have been able to make it back in for a while. I got my ass chewed that day for “flying in fog,” which I did not. I just lucked-out. With fog, timing is everything, and I had timed it right. I’m good like that.
You experience all of fog’s vagaries and peculiarities as you poke along, deviating this way and that, trying to keep some forward visibility. The flight with my Boss, which should have taken just under an hour, took instead ninety minutes, including stops, detours and side-trips. It was not one of my most pleasant flights, but it wasn't unreasonably risky or unsafe. Sometimes I just have to work for my money.
The Boss assured me that the meetings wouldn’t last long and that he’d be ready to leave by one p.m. I laughed. I knew better. People like meetings. People like long meetings - it gets them out of work. After dropping him off, I repositioned up to a nearby airport for fuel and to closely monitor the weather. I knew that only one part of the flying day was over: the easy part. The hard part was yet to come.