When last we left off in my aeronautical adventures, I had gotten halfway through a day of bad weather. The morning flight to our destination had been hampered by fog. As I waited for the Boss to be finished with his meetings, I knew that lots of heavy rain was moving in from the southwest. The overall weather was not going to be too bad, but if you were stuck in an area of heavy precipitation, things could get ugly.
The Boss had promised that his meetings would not run long. Of course, as I predicted, he called around 2:30 and said he’d be ready to go at 3:45. But he’d obviously been watching the weather too.
“Are we going to hit any rain on the way back?” he asked.
And we did. It began shortly after picking him up. The further west we flew, the worse it got. From deviating around fog banks in the morning, we went to deviating around bad rain showers in the afternoon. As we got south of Montgomery, Alabama I began to have serious doubts as to whether we’d make it all the way. Montgomery was still a good option, as was the airport in Selma. But they were both in the wrong direction.
As a pilot, it’s always good to have Plans B, C, and D in your back pocket. Too many pilots are killed by an affliction we call “Get-home-itis." They become so focused on getting to the destination that they allow poor decision-making to cause them to crash. I do try hard to get where I'm going, but I don't really care if we can't. (And by "try hard" I mean that I use my collected experience and judgment to see if I can make the flight work.)
I don’t like flying in bad weather, but I’ve learned how to do it. And in a helicopter it’s simple: Be prepared to land. Wherever you are...just land. It's not that hard. And it has saved my butt more than once.
Twenty miles from the camp, things were not looking good. I had circled well to the north around a band of heavy rain, trying to out-think and out-maneuver nature, contemplating my next move, thankful that I had topped-off the fuel tank at the last stop and was only one-hour into my 3.5-hour endurance. (I hate being low on fuel.) It was getting towards sunset. Curse these short winter days! If I could, I was hoping to get to the Alabama River. It meanders back and forth crazily, but from Selma downstream there are no wires or obstructions to worry about. I knew I could get within its high banks and follow it right to the camp if necessary.
It wasn’t. We were just about at the river when we found the back side of that nasty cell. It was still raining, and the visibility still wasn’t great, but things were good enough for us to proceed. The problem with flying in bad rain is that you have to slow down. And when you do, the rain doesn’t streak off the windshield very well like it does at normal cruise speed. And no, we don’t have windshield wipers. Few small aircraft do. I could see out to the sides great! But out front, not so good.
We turned to follow highway 41 southbound, not because we had to, but because it would take us right to the dirt road that leads down to the camp. Going this way allowed me to make sure I’d miss the big, unlighted tower on a hill on the edge of the Boss’s property. We passed the tower, then the "Big Field." When I saw the shooting range, I started a slight deceleration. When our barn/heliport came into view I was at the right speed and on the right approach angle. All I had to do was reduce power and land. Almost like I knew what I was doing. The original plan was for me to just drop the Boss off and then head for Home Base.
He looked at me. “You’re not going to try and take off in this.” It wasn’t a question.
“Oh, noooooooo. I'll be staying here tonight.” Fortunately, staying at the “hunting camp” with our gourmet chef from tv's Hell’s Kitchen program is not exactly a hardship.
By the time I got the helicopter shut down and secured, it was pouring down rain again and fog was forming on the ground. The first thing I did was pop open a cold beer so there wouldn’t be even the slightest temptation to leave if the rain slacked off. But it didn't. It was too close to sunset anyway. And you know how I feel about flying at night.
Back when I worked in the Gulf of Mexico, life was simple. If we didn't have a good 500 foot ceiling and three miles of visibility, we just didn't go. Offshore, "500/3" were our company minimums for "cross-country" (meaning non-local) flying, and the higher-ups generally did not question you if you said it was below those values. I thought that "500/3" was quite "bad weather" at the time. But those offshore weather minimums seem awfully generous now.
Don't get me wrong - I fly on a lot of good-weather days too! They're just not as exciting and/or challenging. And the bad-weather days are a whole lot more "work." Lately, we've had some beautiful days where I can climb up to altitude, trim the helicopter up for cruise, and then just sit back and enjoy the ride. I've seen some stunning sunsets and some gorgeous sunrises from the helicopter, which is...at least to my mind...the best way to view them. I prefer those days. But in flying, you take the good with the bad.