An old saying in aviation goes, “There are old pilots, and bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots.” During my time as an active pilot, I wasn't that old and I certainly wasn't bold. Even so, I occasionally managed to get myself mixed up in situations that, while not strictly dangerous, were nonetheless perhaps not a good idea. A few times, I think that special providence I'd heard of, the one that looks after idiots and student pilots (sometimes the same thing), must surely have been on the job.
Now, my friend Mike, whom I've mentioned in some of these stories, was training for his Instrument Pilot rating and was about halfway through the course. At this time, early December 1986, he was self-employed, and it so happened that a pending business deal required him to present himself at the headquarters of Fluke Electronics in Beaverton, Oregon, many miles to the north of our home airport in San Jose, California.
Mike called me and informed me not only of the necessary trip, but that wouldn't it be fun if we flew ourselves up to Oregon and back, instead of driving, as ordinary mortals might do. I, having been unceremoniously laid off from my job at the beginning of the month, was thus free if I cared to join him. “It'll be great fun,” he said in that Brighton accent of his, “and, even though yer still a student, y'can ride check pilot for me, and get a bit of informal instrument work in.” From our other trips, I'd learned to be wary of Mike's “It'll be fun ...”, but I overrode my meager common sense and signed on for the trip.
We lifted off from Reid-Hillview Airport on a clear, cold Thursday. If I remember correctly, we were flying the flight club's Piper Archer, a fine airplane a few steps up from the mundane Cessnas I usually flew. Mike had carefully checked the weather forecasts along our planned route, but it being what the West Coast casually calls “winter”, we decided it'd be prudent to get updates as we flew along. Despite the time of year, our flight up the California coast was uneventful, and I enjoyed being the combination check pilot, navigator, and student all in one. Mike, in his turn, displayed the qualities of the excellent flight instructor he would become a few years later.
All was going quite well, and we expected to land in the Portland area later that day. However, as we got near the Oregon border, though, the weather reports began to change. Conditions at Portland, we heard via the radio, were not good – increasing rain and fog– and expected to get worse. When conditions change, a good pilot changes the flight plan, and I began to scan the sectional map. “What about Eugene,” I asked Mike. Eugene was still clear, according to the weather radio, and expected to stay that way. A small alteration in course, and a few hours later we landed at Eugene.
We still had around a hundred miles left, so a rental car was procured to complete the journey. We arrived in the Beaverton area and quickly found lodging. The remainder of our stay in Oregon was according to plan; Friday saw us at Fluke, where Mike concluded his business successfully while I took a tour of the facility. Feeling quite pleased with ourselves, later that evening we went out and enjoyed dinner and a bit of the local night life.
It's funny how fast weather can change, especially on the West Coast. As we prepared to leave Saturday morning, our formerly excellent weather had turned grim. The sky was gray and overcast, the wind cold, and there was a mist in the air that hinted at precipitation to come. Still, as we drove back to Eugene, we hoped that conditions would be better there and along our return route. We talked about everything except what we'd do if we found the Eugene airport under instrument rules.
No such luck. If anything, Eugene's weather was worse than what we'd left behind. We dropped off the rental car and Mike headed for the airport office to get weather reports for our return route. The only thing bleaker than the weather was Mike's face as he left the airport office. The lousy Portland weather had moved, not only into Eugene, but fairly well down the coast. “We're all but socked in,” he said, “and y'know what that means. I can't fly. And we've got to get back to San Jose by tomorrow.”
Mike thought for a moment, and then had a sudden idea. He ran back into the airport office and emerged a few minutes later, followed by a tall fellow who had that 'professional pilot' look about him. Mike pulled me aside. “I've hired this guy, he's an instructor, to fly us back to San Jose. When we get there, I'll put him on a commercial flight back up here. And I get instrument instruction along the way to boot!” Mike's spirits had improved considerably, but I was still a bit dubious. Even though still a student, I had a pretty good idea how difficult flying a small plane in this weather could be.
I hadn't been far off the mark. We weren't at flying altitude very long before we flew right into the overcast. All was gray and obscure around us, with no ground features at all visible from the windows. It's one thing to see that in a big jet airplane, but another when you're in a small four-seater. I wasn't nervous ... yet, though as I tried to sit back and watch Mike receiving instruction, I couldn't shake a bit of tenseness. Certainly, neither Mike nor our pilot seemed unduly concerned.
Then, over the noise in the cabin, I caught the words “rime ice”. That's a type of icing that coats the leading edge of the plane's wings, and can be a problem. It can decrease lift and airspeed, and render an airplane much more difficult to fly. In the wrong hands, it can be deadly. I leaned forward and asked Mike if the wings were really icing up. “Yup, just a bit,” he replied, as if it were an everyday thing, “but we've got it under control, no worries.” No worries indeed, I thought. The pilot didn't say a word.
Leaning forward, I looked out the right side window, straining a bit to see the leading edge of the wing. Sure enough, there it was, showing dimly in the fog. A light coating of what looked like ordinary frost. I thought back over what my flight manual said about the dangers of rime ice, and icing in general ... and decided to stop looking out the window. I was far enough along in my own training not to get nervous or panicky, but I wasn't exactly calm, either. I decided about all I could do now was settle back in the seat and try to relax and, as the professionals say, 'enjoy the flight'.
You can imagine the relief all around when, after about a couple of hours of flight time, we began to leave behind the weather system that had so affected the northern airports. It was late in the afternoon, and the sun was low on the horizon ... and were we glad to see it. The remainder of the flight was happily routine, and we landed back at our home airport without a glitch. After Mike phoned in the arrangements for our pilot's flight back to his home base, our nerves relaxed and we had a laugh about the whole thing. Mike allowed as how even though it'd been a bit hairy at times, he still was pleased with the Instrument Flight instruction he received.
However, the most dangerous part of the flight was yet to come. That was when Mike returned home, and had to explain everything to his partner Rick, including the cost of the whole adventure. I was smart enough not to come along for that part of the ride.