Another flying adventure...

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Matthew's Otter story reminded me that most of us have had some scary or worrisome flight incidents.  Most of us come out of them better pilots.

I wrote up this flying incident I had.  Kinda scary for a while.  It was published in the September 1995 issue of Private Pilot.


The strobe reflection from the clouds was lighting up the cockpit, and I couldn’t see the ground. I was a 70 hour private pilot building time for my commercial certificate. I was suddenly alone, at night, in IFR conditions.

I’d picked up the keys to the Cherokee during my lunch hour. This evening I was going to get in another hour of solo night flying. It was dusk when I took off from Sky Ranch just east of Denver’s old Stapleton Airport. The plane needed fuel so I made the short hop to Stapleton to tank up at the Beech facility. By the time the tanks were topped off and I was ready to taxi it was dark.

I felt somewhat important as I taxied by the 737s and DC-10s on the ramp and made my way to runway 35L. As soon as I was airborne I made a left turn and climbed to the west following Interstate 70. At 7,000 feet MSL (about 1500 feet AGL) I turned south and decided to go to Arapahoe County Airport for a touch and go. I was cruising over south Denver at 8500 feet MSL when suddenly the lights went out — not mine, but lights of the city below me. I was buried in cloud.

The skies were clear earlier that evening and in my haste to get airborne I neglected to check the weather. Now I was in IFR conditions and I didn’t know what to do. I had a few sessions under the hood with my instructor, finding the VOR and recovering from unusual attitudes, but I certainly wasn’t an instrumented rated pilot.

I continued flying for a few minutes but no breaks appeared. I concentrated on the artificial horizon and maintaining altitude, but I was getting worried. Then I remembered something I had done with my instructor a month or so ago. We were in the practice area and I was under the hood recovering from unusual attitudes. He picked up the mike and asked for a practice ground controlled approach (GCA) to the Buckley National Guard Base. I flew that approach under the hood until we were about 100 feet from the runway. Then my instructor took the controls and called off the approach.

Finding myself stuck in the clouds I picked up the mike.

"Denver approach this is Cherokee 38D. Request a practice GCA approach to Buckely."

"Cherokee 38D say your position."

"38D is about 10 miles south of Stapleton at 8500 feet."

"38D make a left turn." I started a two minute left turn.

Denver Approach came back. "38D turn to heading 095 and stand by."

"38D turning 095."

A few minutes later the controller came back on the air. "Cherokee 38D contact Buckley GCA."

I acknowledged and switched the radio to the Buckley GCA frequency.

"Buckley GCA this is Cherokee 38D heading 095 at 8500 feet. Request a practice GCA approach.

The GCA controller identified my airplane and started to guide me in. As soon as he positioned me on the glideslope he started talking me down.

"Cherokee 38D do not acknowledge any more commands. On glideslope, on course."

I kept the wings level and bobbed up and down along the glideslope, constantly making throttle adjustments and slight course corrections as the controller talked to me. I really wasn’t very good at this. The controller must have thought I was the sloppiest pilot in the world. I hoped I wouldn’t have to land at Buckley; that probably would have meant my license. "God," I thought, "please let the ceiling be above minimums."

At 6500 feet MSL I came out of the clouds and saw that big runway ahead of me. To the west I could see the Denver skyline and the lights of city reflecting from the bottom of the cloud layer. Sky Ranch was just a hop, skip, and jump from Buckley. I quickly thanked the controller and broke off the approach.

A few minutes later I was on the ground at Sky Ranch. I parked the airplane, shut it down, and just sat there for a few minutes. I didn’t know whether to be proud of myself for getting out of a potentially dangerous situation or ashamed of myself for not the checking the weather before I took off.

My instructor called it about right when I told him of the incident.

He said, "Not checking the weather was stupid; the practice GCA approach was smart. I guess that averages out to just average."



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That was a great story! Alll considered, I say good airmanship. :-)

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Forgive me if this is a bit of a silly question Noel, but did you think of turning 180 degrees and heading back out as soon as you entered the cloud?

Anyhow, thanks to you remembering a procedure we can read your stories today. :cool:

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Not a silly question Mark.  I didn't know how extensive the overcast was. It wasn't a single cloud.  And being in cloud uncontrolled I thought I'd better let Denver approach know where I was.  I didn't want to make any turns without radar tracking and identifying me because there might have been other aircraft in the area.  I had not filed a flight plan because it was just going to be a simple one hour round robin flight from Sky Ranch to Stapleton to Arapahoe County and back.


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