In the Claws of a Monster

By Huhu Uet (Own work) [CC BY-SA 3.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons
By Huhu Uet via Wikimedia Commons
Nature does not always provide good options. When faced with weather-related adversity, making the right decision can be as much a matter of luck as wisdom.

Homerville, Georgia is the home of some first-rate southern barbeque and home of one of the best genealogical libraries in the Southeast, the Huxford Geneological library. In June of 1975 I made an unintended stop at the Homerville Airport after flying my 1962 Cessna 150 from Thomasville, Georgia to Waycross, Georgia. My wife and Mother-In-Law were in Waycross, visiting, and on a Friday afternoon I took off in my 2-seater aircraft to meet my wife’s family 92 miles away.

As I approached Waycross a thunderstorm was directly on top of the field. The Waycross Fixed Base Operator confirmed they were being clobbered, so I made a 180 degree turn and flew 26 miles back to the Homerville airport that I had passed on the way in.

When I landed I found I was the only aircraft, and only human, on the field. But regrettably, there were no tie-downs, ropes or chains that I could use to secure the little Cessna while I found a phone to call my wife and tell her about the change in plans. The weather was good, and it should take only a few minutes to bother one of the nearby neighbors for a phone call. What could go wrong?

After I explained to my family where I was, I thanked the friendly lady who let me use her phone, and headed back to my aircraft. But as I approached the plane, the view at the other end of the runway was turning ugly. Another thunderstorm was headed straight for the field. And it was close, and mean-looking.

I climbed into the cockpit, started the engine, and sat there assessing what I was seeing out the windscreen. And thinking about options.

What I wanted to do was take-off and head for Waycross. I was not at all prepared to abandon my airplane and watch it be destroyed by the approaching storm. As I considered the fact that I would be taking off towards a thunderstorm, I thought of riding out the gusts on the ground, using the engine power and rudder to keep the plane pointed into the wind. But as I throttled the engine and rudder back and forth, reacting to the increasing gusts, I realized the 1000 pound plane would inevitably be picked up, with me in it, and dashed to the ground. It would not be a pretty sight, especially if it was lifted to a significant height by updrafts before being dropped.

The wind ahead of the thunderstorm rain shaft was picking up, gusting, and as I weighed the different options, the storm kept getting closer, closing my window of opportunity. As they say, the clock was ticking.

Finally, I decided I’d rather be airborne, in some semblance of control, than being airborne out of control. The storm was not yet on the field, but I knew I had scant seconds before the cloudy violence would make an escape impossible. I pressed hard on the brakes, dropped my flaps one notch, pushed the throttle full in, and when the engine was roaring as loudly as a 100 horse power engine can roar, I let go of the brakes and started my takeoff roll.

Thanks to the advantage of straight-down-the-runway storm winds, I lifted off very quickly. I stomped a rudder pedal and dipped a wing to turn as fast as I could away from the storm, passing over the roofs of nearby houses much closer than the residents were used to, I’m sure. But the plane was fully in control and headed quickly towards safety.

Although the storm winds were actually helping to push me away, I felt an occasional shudder from the back of the plane. I imagined the storm shaking me in its jowls, plucking at my wings with its sharp talons, as if angry that I had escaped its clutches.

I made it safely to Waycross, but my aircraft’s escape was short-lived.

If there were such a thing as a Storm Monster, I would think that it was malevolent, because exactly two weeks after that incident another thunderstorm hit the field in Waycross, where the plane was supposedly safely chained down. I was on the field as a vengeful storm snapped the steel chains holding down my plane’s tail, flipping the plane over on its back, crushing the tail. My little bird never had a chance.

I had risked my life in Homerville to avoid watching my beautiful bird be destroyed, only to see it destroyed in the same manner only a fortnight later.

We tell our children there are no monsters … but I’m not so sure.


Margin of Safety

A diver’s breathing equipment, helmet, gas bottle, umbilicals and buoyancy compensator lie stretched out on the grey concrete floor.  The diving gear has a look of sadness about it. Perhaps that equipment will tell a story of why its owner is dead, but usually it does not.

Storm clouds from 30,000 ft. Photo by Wendell Hull.

In another part of the world the NTSB catalogs the fragments of an airplane shredded by the elements and thrown in a heap back to earth. The only good thing to come from an aircraft accident is that usually there are enough clues from wreckage, radio recordings, radar returns and weather reports to piece together a story of the end of life for pilot and passengers.

It’s always the question of “Why?” that drives any investigation.

Perhaps it is the knowing of how death comes, so unexpectedly to surprised souls, that makes it just a little bit easier to make the mental and emotional connection between an interesting moment and a deadly moment. If that is true, and I believe it is, then the telling of such macabre stories can be justified. It is not a telling through morbid interest, but a sincere belief that by examining death closely enough we can somehow force it to keep its distance.

That may be foolish thinking, but humankind seems to have a hunger for it, that esoteric knowledge, so perhaps it is a truism. Perhaps we sense instinctively that the knowing of something makes it less fearsome.

Being a student of diving and diving accidents, I know full well how unexpected events can make you question what is real and what is not, what is normal and what is abnormal. Without practiced calm and reasoning, unexpected events can induce panic, and underwater, panic often leads to death. That is also true for aviation.

The best preventative for panic is a realistic assessment of risk. Risks are additive. For instance, flying in the clouds is accompanied by a slight degree of risk, but with a properly maintained airplane, with a judicious use of backup instruments and power supplies, and with recent and effective training, that risk can be managed. In fact, I delight in flying in clouds; it is never boring, and I know that I am far safer than if I had been driving on two lane roads where the potential for death passes scant feet away every few seconds.

Flying at night is another risk. If something were to go terribly wrong, finding a safe place to land becomes a gamble. On the other hand, seeing and avoiding aircraft at night is simple because of the brilliant strobe lighting which festoons most aircraft. For me, the beauty, peace and calm air of night flight makes it well worth the slight risk.

Garmin NEXRAD Weather display.

Technology has made weather flying safer and, I have to admit, more enjoyable. The combination of GPS driven maps and NEXRAD weather has made it almost impossible to blunder into truly bad weather. During the daytime, my so-called eyeball radar helps to confirm visually what NEXRAD is painting in front of me. If it looks threatening, it probably is.

Unlike aircraft weather radar, virtually every pilot can afford to have NEXRAD weather in the cockpit. And unlike aviation radar, NEXRAD can see behind storms to show the view 100 miles downrange, or more. Having often flown in stormy weather without benefit of NEXRAD,  I truly rejoice in the benefits of that technology.

WX 900 Stormscope

I routinely fly with not only NEXRAD, but also a “Storm Scope” that shows me in real time where lightning is ionizing the sky. Those ozone-laced areas are off-limits to wise aviators. But sometimes even a Storm Scope is not enough to keep the willies, or as some call it, your spidey sense, from striking. (Presumably spiders are not particularly cerebral, but they are pretty adept at surviving, at least as a genus and species.)

I was recently flying around stormy weather, carefully avoiding the worst of it, and maneuvered into a position that would provide a straight shot home with yellow tints showing on the weather screen, suggesting at most light to moderate precipitation. I had flown that sort of weather many times; it usually held just enough rain to wet the windshield.

However, my internal risk computer made note of the following factors: we were in the clouds so if weather worsened I wouldn’t see it. Night was approaching which markedly darkened the wet skies we were beginning to enter.  The clouds and darkness conspired to make useless my eyeball radar. In addition, the Storm Scope was unusually ambiguous at that moment. I thought it was confirming a safe passage home, but I could not be 100% certain.

On top of that, the FAA recently warned that NEXRAD signals can be considerably more delayed than indicated on the weather display. The device might say the data is 2 min old, but the actual delay could be 10 minutes or more. In other words, the displayed image could be hiding the truth.

Aircraft weather radar.

Planes have been lost because of untimely NEXRAD data. For that reason there is a philosophical difference between NEXRAD and true radar. On board weather radar is said to be a tactical weather penetration aid, and NEXRAD is a strategic avoidance asset. My gut told me that at that moment in airspace and time the boundaries between those two uses, tactical and strategic, were getting fuzzy.

It is times like that when an awareness of the slim margin between a safe flight or dive, and a deadly flight or dive, becomes a survival tool. In this case, I and many other experienced pilots have made the call to turn around and land. Unfortunately, the record and the landscape is littered with the wreckage of those who chose otherwise.

They forgot just how thin the margin of safety can be.

The flight (green line) from Cobb County Regional (KRYY) to Panama City (KECP) was interrupted by a stop at Montgomery AL.









Going to HEVVN

I know where HEVVN is. I have coordinates for it.

I’m serious.

“HEVVN” is the politically correct, government approved spelling for a place pronounced, as you might expect, “Heaven”.  I’ve been there, and I could go again today if I wanted. But since I’m still a living, breathing person I can’t stay there.

It should come as no surprise to you that HEVVN is not a town or city; it’s nowhere on land. It’s not an island: it’s not on the water. It can best be described as an ephemeral place somewhere in the “air”; in space if you will.

Theoretically, an infinite number of people could be at HEVVN all at the same time, without actually being at the exact same place at the same time. There is, in other words, considerable spatial ambiguity, uncertainty, about where one might be in HEVVN. In an earthly sense, two people at HEVVN might be miles apart, not even able to see each other, not even aware of each other’s presence.

I would guess that on a typical day, thousands arrive at HEVVN: on a slow day, maybe merely hundreds.

If the government admits to a HEVVN, does it admit to a HELL? Well, not exactly. But it does admit to a SATAN.

But don’t worry – if you’re at HEVVN, you won’t be anywhere near SATAN. HEVVN and SATAN are a thousand miles apart.

I’m still being serious…really.



HEVVN intersection lies in the center of the blue donut. Click for a larger image.

Are you confused? Well, here’s an explanation. HEVVN is a Federal Aviation Administration defined airway intersection used, along with an assigned altitude, to define an aircraft’s position. HEVVN lies roughly ten miles off the coast of the Florida Panhandle, and connects the major flyways of the Florida Panhandle and the north-south air corridors of the Florida penisula. Theoretically many aircraft can simultaneously be at HEVVN, as long as they are separated by at least 500 feet in altitude.

SATAN is a wicked sounding GPS fix a few miles north of the Portsmouth International Airport at Pease Tradeport near Portsmouth, New Hampshire. I am surprised Portsmouth would allow itself to be associated with such a diabolical name, but perhaps the government never told the city elders before it was too late to change the name. Or perhaps the word SATAN no longer engenders the fear and loathing it used to.
SATAN intersection (red triangle). Click for larger image.

Oddly enough, SATAN is included in a much more innocent sounding group of GPS fixes, those defining a GPS approach to runway 16 at Pease Airport.  When cleared for the GPS 16 approach coming from the west, the aircraft is expected to follow sequentially a route to the airport using up to five GPS fixes. Those five fixes, including the two “missed approach” fixes used in case a pilot can’t find the runway due to low clouds, are named thusly:


Apparently someone at the FAA has a sense of humor.

If you’re not laughing, you might want to say those five words in quick succession. If you’re still puzzled, try repeating it with your best Tweety Bird impression.

After the FAA named a point in space SATAN, someone must have decided some comic relief, à la Warner Brothers, was needed. And a famous quotation from the canary named Tweety Bird somehow seemed appropriate.

After all, Tweety Bird can fly. Right?






Children of the Middle Waters

Children of the Middle Waters (working title) is a science fiction/thriller that has been completed and is being submitted today for consideration by Tom Doherty Associates, New York. My friend and mentor, the writer Max McCoy, has provided literary criticism and encouragement for the manuscript. Max, who works primarily in the Western genre, wrote a diving-related thriller called The Moon Pool, which happens to involve in its closing chapter the Navy Experimental Diving Unit, and someone a lot like me.

Below is a blurb briefly describing Children of the Middle Waters.

In the deep-sea canyons and trenches of the Earth lie thousands of alien spacecraft and millions of their inhabitants who have to leave soon or risk being stranded forever, or being destroyed. Due to their physiology they have been unable to directly contact humans, but they are adroit at mental contact and remote viewing, when it suits them.

They need the help of two humans to assure their safe escape, an experienced Navy scientist and a beguiling graduate student.  But introductions through mental means are slow and suspect, as you might imagine.

The U.S. government is well aware of this deep sea civilization, and is desirous of the weapons the visitors possess, which puts the two unsuspecting scientists in the middle of a conflict between powerful
military forces and powerful intergalactic forces. Things could get messy.

Even worse, jealous friends turn on the unlikely duo and put their lives at risk.

Children combines two separate Native American beliefs and legends with current events. It is a complex thriller with science fact and science fiction mixed in with military action and government intrigue. Also revealed are romantic possibilities that far exceed the capabilities of the mundane, everyday world.

Early American Indian beliefs create an ending for this story that no one could anticipate. It is an ending that causes the protagonist to realize everything he has held dear is wrong, in one way or another. At the same time he discovers a reality that is the greatest blessing that man can receive.


Yea, Though I Fly Through the Valley of Death…

Photo credit: Bob Hammitt

It is true; sometimes it is better to be lucky than good.

At a time before virtually all light aircraft had GPS navigation and on-board weather, an instrument-rated pilot would spend lots of time studying the printed station weather reports and forecasts across his route of flight, and then, if things looked reasonably good, pilots would launch into the unknown, with fingers crossed. However, even with the best planning, a pilot can find that weather has changed dramatically in flight.

One of my most memorable flights was from Waycross, Georgia to Gainesville, FL. The flight was in N3879T, a Piper Arrow not too different from the Arrow I’m flying now.  The 94 nautical mile flight would take roughly 45 minutes.

I was lucky since Waycross had a weather radar station on the field; I visited the station to study the radar screens to see what weather systems were active that Sunday afternoon. I had to be back to work on Monday, and it looked like there would be nothing to prevent that.

When I became airborne the weather was ideal; not a cloud in the sky and at least ten miles visibility. The aircraft did not have an autopilot, but I was proficient flying by instruments so I wasn’t concerned when I started entering summer puffy clouds. Eventually the clouds grew closer together, and I was spending more time in the clouds than out.

And then the rain started. Without on-board weather radar, I was very much flying blind.

Flying through rain in Florida is not unusual, but after awhile the rain became more intense, and the diffuse light in front of the airplane became darker.

When I say the rain became more intense, let me put “intense” into perspective. Most airplanes are made of thin sheets of aluminum suspended on aluminum spars. So rain hitting it sounds like banging on metal drums. The resulting din reverberated through every space in the aircraft.

Funny, I thought. None of this was showing on radar when I took off, and there was no forecast of it.  Fortunately, the air was smooth, and I had no problem controlling the aircraft even in spite of seeing nothing out of the windscreen. But I did wonder at one point how the engine could deal with so much water. I don’t know if it did well because of fuel injection or not, but the engine never hiccuped.

At one point, the view out front looked menacingly dark, but off to the left side the light seemed a little brighter. Instinctively I wanted to head where it was lighter. I keyed the microphone to call Air Traffic Control (ATC) and requested a 20 degree deviation to the east, and that was approved. Unfortunately, at that time ground radar which was used to control aircraft was not as good as it is now for showing weather, in particular rainfall intensity. Thus, ATC could not offer a preferred direction for me to fly to escape the worst weather, but at least they assured me that I wouldn’t run into other aircraft. Thank-goodness for that at least.

And then it occurred to me — am I the only idiot flying in this weather?

But even after the course change, the crescendo of rain and noise became almost deafening. After a few minutes of unrelenting watery pounding of the aircraft, ATC called back, but due to the ambient noise level I had a hard time understanding them.

“Say again please?” I asked.

“How’s the ride?”

I reflected for just a moment on the important information before responding, then in as professional a tone as I could muster, “Wet but smooth.”  What I felt like saying was, “It’s like freaking Niagra Falls up here!”

Considering the three words I actually said, the word  “smooth” was what was critical. Severe turbulence can cause a pilot to lose control in the clouds. If you’re flying by instruments alone, and the instruments start varying wildly because the aircraft is being bounced to and fro, then it takes a very skillful pilot to maintain safe flight. Unskilled pilots have pulled the wings off their aircraft by over-controlling in responce to a turbulence-induced upset.

Nexrad image of a squall line. How bad it looks from the cockpit before entry depends on which way you’re flying – from right to left or left to right.

Then it stopped. I flew from deafening, pounding rain, into perfectly clear air. The transition occured literally in a split second. Before me lay only a few small summer cumulus clouds. Out of curiosity I looked behind me — and almost lost my cool. What I saw was a solid wall of black clouds and rain reaching from the ground to far above me. It looked like a cliff, like the smooth edge of a giant black skyscraper, except it was one that stretched in a perfect line from as far as I could see to the east and west.

It was a frightening looking squall line, and had I been flying in the opposite direction there was no way I would have penetrated that wall of certain death. But approaching it from the benign-looking side of the squall line, lulled by innocent looking summer clouds, I had stumbled unawares into a potentially lethal trap.

But somehow it had not claimed me; it had been smooth during the entire flight. I had encountered no hail, no lightning, and no severe up and down drafts. Assuredly, the odds against that outcome were extremely small. Had I not made a 20° turn toward the light, so to speak, the outcome might have been much different. Of course I’ll never know for sure what would have happened, but the statistics say it would not have turned out well. I was lucky.

Yes, I’ll take good luck any day, but as the title of this post suggests, it may have been much more than luck that directed me safely to the other side of the squall line. I had, after all, been praying.