Have you ever been really scared in an airplane?

It is often and truthfully said that a pilot’s certificate is but a license to learn. What is not as frequently said is that it is also a license to scare oneself to death, or nearly so (hopefully no worse than that).

Scaring yourself can come in almost any form, and at any time. Common areas of trouble include high (or high to you) crosswinds, VMC to IMC, short fields, obstacles on takeoff, low fuel, low visibility (which might just be haze), ice, or thunderstorms.

I have had one experience in flight that truly terrified me, and it occurred about 10 years ago. On a flight from Cincinnati to Milwaukee (at night, no less), the weather turned out to be far worse than expected. We had expected to need to deviate around some thunderstorms. What we did not expect was for more than one low-pressure system to come together at the same time (a la the book and movie The Perfect Storm). The result was a 20-minute ride through severe and extreme turbulence that was so bad that we could not maintain altitude or heading. At times, we couldn’t even tune the radios because we couldn’t see the screens. The amazing thing was that we did not experience a lightning strike. When we came out of the weather, the ride was so smooth and the skies so clear it was surreal.

That experience has defined my approach to flying in or near weather ever since, especially convective weather, and especially at night. When we landed, my shirt was soaked and my arms were sore from gripping the yoke so hard. I could very easily have let the experience prevent me from flying for a while, but as the old saying goes, I had to get back on the horse. Further, I also recognized two important factors: the weather had been changing all day, and the severity of the changes was not predicted by anyone, so this was not the fault of any one person or organization—two planes had flown the same course ahead of me just a few minutes before, with nowhere near the adventure we had. Second, this was a rare event, not one that occurs every day that I just messed up.

Pilots sometimes make mistakes that they are forced to learn from, and sometimes they learn from unique experiences, both positive and negative. Fear can be a powerful motivator, but it does not need to be a dream killer. In my case, I had a heart-to-heart with myself, as well as my crew and other pilots I trust. I remain firm in my conviction that our experience that night was unpredictable, and it was an anomaly. But I also hold on to my determination that such an event will never happen to me again. I may deviate more than necessary and burn more fuel than needed, but some experiences–no matter how worthy–simply don’t need to be repeated.

–Chip Wright

4 Responses to “Have you ever been really scared in an airplane?”

  1. Chris says:

    One comes to mind that was also weather related…

    I was a PPL student, pre-checkride. Went up for a training flight, winds were within my endorsement but a bit gusty, figured I’d give it a shot anyway.
    I’m coming back from the practice area, getting bumped around a bit but doing fine. On short final I ask tower for a wind check, they tell me wind calm. I look at my ~25-30° of crosswind correction angle and think to myself, “you guys have an interesting definition of ‘wind calm’”. I make sure to have everything ready for landing well in advance and keep my hand on the throttle ready for a go around.
    About 30-50′ above the runway, the bottom falls out. I shove the throttle full forward but still got whacked into the runway pretty hard (enough to qualify as a ‘hard landing’). I was pretty rattled, took a nice long (slow) downwind and did the next approach about 10-15 knots faster, this time surface winds had caught up with aloft winds and I made a decent crosswind landing. Parked, shut down, took a few very deep breaths, relaxed my white-knuckle grip on the yoke and checked 121.5MHz to see if I’d set off the ELT on that bounce.

    What happened was obvious- the winds aloft had shifted direction rather quickly, surface winds hadn’t, and the trees around the airport were keeping a small mass of air still around the runway. I approached into a headwind which disappeared when I transitioned into the still surface air.

    Took a few days before I flew again, but it was a good learning experience. My take-aways- If there’s plenty of runway length, and a question about wind gusting, add a few knots for safety. If tower says something that doesn’t seem to make sense, figure out why that is before acting.

    And most importantly- DON’T F**K WITH THE WEATHER.
    That one lesson alone was worth the trip. Since then and still as a PPL I’ve been a lot more conservative with weather planning and canceling flights, which has kept me on the ground a few times where ‘iffy but otherwise okay’ weather then turned bad relatively quickly into ‘glad I’m not up in THAT crap’ weather.

  2. I would re-iterate the previous commentor’s advice. Don’t mess with the weather. Ever. While it will take some time to build courage to get back in the air, you’ll be fine once an experience like that fades in your memory. Just remember to be calm no matter the situation.

  3. Mark Fay says:

    I always said I would never scare myself in an airplane.

    It’s only happened once so far, but it was my first solo.

    On run up with the instructor, the engine was rough. He “leaned and cleaned”, pronounced the engine good and cleared me for my maiden voyage.

    Maybe it was because I was at an accelerated flight school – “get your private in 10 days!” – and there was no time to waste.

    OK. I was stupid enough to believe the guy.

    The first lap was uneventful, save for a three hopper when reacquainting myself with 11 at KGIF. The hoots and hollers from the assembled kibitzing flight instructors included “you only get to count that as one in the log book!” over their handhelds. Then they decamped to the FBO en mass, save my instructor who saw me grease it in on number two. “Great Job, Mark,” he said over his handheld. “Do 8 more.” Then he turned tail for the air conditioned comfort as well.

    I taxied back, powered up and lifted off. Crossing the departure end at 300 feet, all hell, and as it turned out, the only working ignition to cylinder number three, broke loose.

    Have you heard the expression “My blood ran cold?” I had, and now I knew what it felt like, even in a 95 degree cockpit on a late August afternoon in central Florida. The chill in my arms and legs came as my body sucked all the blood in to the heart and brain for what surely would be, as Clyde Cessna so artfully coined it, “a tumble.” As in “if you’re in a single and you lose an engine, you’re gonna take a tumble.”

    His weren’t the only words running through my mind.

    The previous day the chief flight instructor had helpfully pointed out the places to go in the event of the exact scenario I faced. We went over three of the four runways omitting 11, talking about golf courses and open fields. When I noted we had one more to go he laughed and said, “Well on that one the only answer is a Captain Sully in Lake Hartridge!”

    Well, maybe I have scared myself, I thought. But I also promised my wife and kids that there was no way I was going to kill myself in an airplane. That’s a promise I wasn’t going to and never will give up on at all.

    So I left the throttle firewalled, pitched for best glide, and got myself up over the trees and set up for the lake. I tightened my seat belt, turned full into the wind and reached for the power.

    I knew I was to be the last student in the 172 before it went out for overhaul. So, I can’t say I was surprised. But I in no way was ready for this. And I was sore afraid.

    Just as I started to ease back on the throttle, the vertical speed indicator caught my eye. By turning into the wind, my steady descent had turned into a 100 foot climb! And just as suddenly as the engine had started to shake and cough, it started to run smoothly and suddenly leapt to a 1000 foot per minute climb.

    What in the world?

    I quickly turned back to the runway and wondered if it was just the wind, or something I had imagined. Man, if I don’t do 8 more circuits my instructor is going to be mad.

    I did a full pattern and when I turned on to final, the shaking began again, with a vengeance. The engine sputtered and coughed all the way down to my, ahem, “firmest” landing ever.

    As it turned out, the left magneto was attached to a completely fouled spark plug and the right mageneto to the same cylinder had a faulty P lead (connecting wire) that was operating intermittently.

    Since that event two years ago last week, I finished my private (in 9 Days!!!), have bought a beautiful TR182, got my instrument ticket and logged nearly 200 hours.

    Super valuable lesson: Fly the plane. Make a plan, but don’t be afraid to abandon it. Any landing you walk away from is a good one. Trust yourself first.

    Mark Fay
    Sept 1, 2011

  4. Douglas Manuel says:

    While brief in duration, my scare was overridden only by intense concentration. A couple of years ago, having recently transitioned to a dazzling glass panel, from the comfort of steam gauges, I was about to launch into a very low ceiling. The departure instructions were an immediate right turn, north, climbing to 3000’. No sweat, I’ve done this many times before, but what I had not taken into account was the new high performance airplane, I was flying. I the blink of an eye, I was in a very dark cloud, climbing, turning, pushed back in the seat by the rapidly accelerating turbo aircraft and looking at a semi-familiar PFD. Although it was probably only a second or five (it seemed forever) I was getting false seat-of-the-pants perceptions, as I fought to reconcile what the PFD was telling me (I had momentarily slipped into the steam scan).
    We have all read the accident reports and wondered ‘what was he thinking’, well I assure you, the impulse to fly based on vertigo induced proprioception , is very powerful. Fortunately, the first item in my personal (mental) emergency checklist is ‘fly the airplane’. My head was instantly back in the game and the rest of the flight was uneventful.
    The lessons learned are obvious. To recap – train like you fly and fly like you trained. Instruction is something you should never scrimp on. The money you saved could end up going to your heirs.

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