It is always better to be down here wishing you were up there than to be up there wishing you were down here.  -- Old Aviation Saying.
The Four C's
Bob made some money off his stock option in our company. He quit the business and bought a huge horse ranch, something he always wanted to do. That summer, he invited me to fly up with my wife.

"Montana is easy to find," Bob said over the phone. "Make a right at Idaho."

"We'll be there next week, then."

"Uh, bring Patricia."

A recently divorced city girl, my sister was living with us in Southern California. To my surprise, Trish went along with the idea of a flight to Bob's ranch in a far-off place called Ennis Lake despite her outspoken aversion to light planes.

My sister said she liked horses. News to me.

June in Southern California, truth be known, is scuzzy as hell. "Low clouds and fog along the Coast," you hear on the radio every day. The subsequent part about "clearing" has been dropped in recent years. Maybe that's why it is called the Los Angeles Basin, not Valley. Without exaggeration, Los Angeles may not see a blue sky for the whole summer now. Could it be that, while melting the ice caps, Global Warming is strengthening the inversion layer that overlies Los Angeles?

During the climb-out on solid instruments, we got vectored hither and thither. After breaking out on top, I took off my headphones and relaxed. Sitting sideways in the right seat, my wife spent the time reviewing with Trish everything she knew about my friend Bob. And a little bit more.

Theodore Bikel had opened in Fiddler on the Roof in Las Vegas, the terminus for our first leg. My plan was to arrive early enough to take a swim before the show. Didn't work out that way, though. Despite my exhortations, our take-off was after noon. That meant thermal turbulence over the Great Mojave Desert and two rumpled ladies on arrival. The same thing happened the next day, only worse. The afternoon flight to Salt Lake City tested the Cessna's wings and our stomachs.

Conditions in Utah were CAVU but to go 'visual' was unthinkable. The ink was still wet on my instrument rating. Flying under instrument flight rules (IFR) does not make for faster trips. For example, the radar people gave us a "procedure turn" over the Great Salt Lake. Approach must have figured I needed the practice, so they kept us thousands of feet above the airport, then vectored us on a roller-coaster ride miles away, to allow room for a gradual let-down. My wife and my sister, bouncing around restless and sick for what seemed like extra hours, found IFR exceedingly unclever. To this day, my sister has not let me forget.

In our family, "procedure turn" came to replace "beat around the bush."

"Getting an instrument rating can be one of the most challenging achievements of your life," I have often exulted. "You are not a real pilot unless you fly IFR." Nevertheless, upon reaching Pocatello for a fuel stop, I faced a passenger uprising.

"Enough is enough," proclaimed my sister in her matriarchal mode. "You can play with your instruments some other time."

"We'll go visual from here on up into Montana," I announced, reclaiming my status as 'pilot in command.'

Under visual flight rules (VFR), one can fly directly to one's destination. Just stay away from clouds. In most of the country, one flies at any altitude and in any direction. A flight plan is optional. The pilot can elect to take short cuts or to groove around all over the sky.

We took off toward the North, with no flight plan. No weather briefing, either. Hell, it was less than 200 miles to Ennis Lake and the sky was almost clear in Pocatello.

"We'll just eyeball the landscape," I muttered. "Contact flying (ahem)."

In aviation, there are no good times to get careless. This particular day turned out to be one of the worst. We leveled off initially at 6,500 feet and did some sightseeing.

Patricia struggled to steady the camera. "Those extinct volcanoes will make good pictures at this level."

"So would the clouds up ahead," I said.

Up to this point in the trip, I had been using instrument charts, which are terse and technical, showing only navigational aids and airways. A World Aeronautical Chart (WAC) lay open in my lap. I had decided to save a few bucks and buy WACs for this trip instead of 'sectionals,' which are more detailed and universally preferred for contact flying. WACs are smaller and keep the cockpit from getting cluttered up. But you don't find much detail on them. I see that now. Doesn't help to have the plane lurching and heaving.

The Bitterroot Range forms the jagged border between Idaho and Montana and appears dark brown along the left edge of the WAC. Part of the Northern Rockies, their stark peaks stand above some low cumulus off to the left. Lenticulars streak the sky above them, a typical picture right out of the Book of Clouds. There must be 'lee waves,' too, I noted -- the effect of undulating currents of moist air grazing the mountaintops. Violent vertical drafts near those, better stay to the east.

I looked back and winked at my sister. "Glad I didn't file IFR, Trish. The only airways run along the Bitterroot Range over there."

My sister smiled wanly. "Rough enough where we are."

To the right, according to the chart, is Idaho Falls and an omni-range station. I shall just dial in its frequency on my number one radio and take a quick cross-bearing. Hello? No signal. The foothills below are rising to our level. I set up a climb. Can't go much higher, though. Broken clouds up there.

The atmosphere is tossing us around on oceanic waves. My wife and my sister took pills for this. They both look sleepy. Good for them.

We have five hours of fuel on board. That is, we did when we took off. I neglected to log our takeoff time. I'm going to assume that was an hour ago. Better write that down. Dang, I left my knee-board in the baggage compartment. Might ask Trish to reach over the back seat and -- no, she's asleep. Level now at 8,500 feet. I don't like what I see. A solid overcast ahead.

Meanwhile, neither radio is receiving a usable navigation signal.

Below, through a break in the scud, I can see a little valley. There is a road going off that way, a few houses in a cluster, and a river. Here on the WAC is a road, a river, and a few houses. Oh, and a railroad track. Possibly the same valley, except I don't see the railroad track down there.

On the chart, I see another little valley, this one without a railroad track, but a small lake instead, south of the houses. No lake down there. Hmm.

The more I look at the chart the more I see little valleys with houses and rivers and lakes -- and roads this way and that. Makes sense. You put houses near rivers, which feed lakes, then roads to the houses and so forth. Not much help for navigating, though.

Still no indication on the needles and flags. The clouds above have gotten darker, and there are rain showers on the right of our present course. We are flying between gloppy layers of clouds now. Decision: Return to Pocatello. Bob will just have to wait, and so will Trish.

As we came around toward the south, I saw rain showers both left and right of where we just flew. Scanning the sky, I saw every kind of cloud in the catalog, most notably -- dead ahead -- a towering cumulus, the dreaded thundercell. The thing must have developed during the thirty minutes since our coming through that valley. Returning to Pocatello does not look promising.

Lightning strike! Yipes, turn back to the north. Like, right now.

Flying has its share of mnemonics. From CIGAR before take-off to GUMP before landing, they spell out routine procedures vital to flight safety. The Four C's -- Climb, Confess, Communicate, Comply -- are different. They serve as a common-sense formula for dealing with a desparate situation.

Bouncing around between cloud layers, lost over rugged terrain, a thundercell blocking our retreat -- these may not constitute a desperate situation. But it's a start.

We are now surrounded in what is called 'uncontrolled airspace.' If we climb up into those clouds above us, we will have no guarantee of separation from other airplanes. Compared to the certainty of the nearby mountains, another airplane up there seems less likely. What other pilot around here would be so foolish?

Something else, though, can be lurking in that opaque, wet gloom up there. Ice. Whatever its load carrying capacity, a wag once told me, "The Skylane won't haul sufficient ice to cool a martini."

Quick figuring in my head went like this. 

The outside air temperature here at 8,500 is 65 degrees. I should have noted the temperature on the ground, too. It was quite warm, maybe 80 degrees. 

The field elevation at Pocatello was about 4,500 feet, so in 4,000 feet of climbing we dropped 15 degrees in temperature. About four degrees per thousand feet. To cool down to freezing, 32 degrees, it we need to climb another eight thousand. 

If my calculations are correct, we can climb up to 16,000 feet before ice will start forming -- and then only if we are flying in 'visible moisture.' At 16,000, our plane will be higher than anything the Bitterroot Range has to offer. 

Give that a whew.

Decision made. Set up a turn, pull back. The first C: Climb.

In the soup at 9,000, on the gauges and waiting. At 12,000 we get slammed, but hard. Nobody sleeping now. An abrupt downdraft. Vertical speed shows 400 feet per minute -- down. Anxious sounds from both passengers.

"Don't worry, Ladies," I said, forcing a macho smile. "The plane can take more than you can."

If we keep circling here, however, we'll wind up drilling a hole in some unseeable mountain below. I rolled out to the north. Still going down. Below 11 already.

The wind must be whistling over those mountains against us. Radios are silent. The plane can only crawl through the dank gloom, struggling to crest a hidden hill, which even now may be poised to puncture our fuselage. Turn back now and Two-Four Fox is surely doomed to be slapped down from the sky.

The moment has come to invoke the second C: Confess.

I keyed the microphone. "Bozeman Radio, Bozeman Radio, Skylane Two-Eight-Two-Four Foxtrot, over."

If I can raise Bozeman, I'll confess, all right. I'll tell 'em about everything: not filing a flight plan, not getting a weather briefing, not using sectionals, not knowing where the hell we are. Bozeman will get an earful. There's that time I picked on Billie Sharp in the playground, those beers I drank in high-school, the stapler I stole from the office.

Radio is strangely silent, no static even. "Bozeman Radio, This is Two-Four Fox, over."

So much for the Four goddam C's.

A timid thought escaped from my imploding mind: There is no static on the radio. Oh, right. We're in the wilderness here, and I've got two independent radios on that panel. Neither one is picking up static? Duh. Yeah, the squelch. Do something right today: reduce the squelch.

" -- Fox, Two-Four Fox, this is Bozeman Radio, how do you read? Over."

Hell, I have done so much of my flying in areas where radio signals are strong, I habitually leave the squelch turned all the way up -- to cut out the static. Squelch also cuts out weak signals.

"Bozeman Radio, Two-Four Fox reads you loud and clear."

"Two-Four Fox, say your position and request."

"Unable position. Trying to climb above 12,000 in clouds and turbulence."

"Say your direction of flight."

"We left Pocatello, uh, couple hours ago. Trying to get a radial from Dillon -- "

Criminently! Ice is forming on the wheel fairing. Ice!

Ice? Look at the thermometer. The temperature is -- well, 32 degrees. My calculations were way off. Better give up on the idea of climbing and turn back. I should never have tried it in the first place. Not my day. But wait.

The third C: Communicate.

My voice croaked. "We got ice now at 12,000. Turning back."

"Two-Four Fox, understand icing. Can you still climb?"

"Yeah, barely -- but what's the point?"

"Say your direction of flight, please."

"We were headed to Ennis Lake, but -- hey, I'm turning back."

"Two-Four Fox, understand you're turning southbound?"

"Any better ideas?"

"Recommend you climb northeast-bound. Towering cumulus toward the south. Repeat, thunder cells across your flight path toward the south. Billings is reporting tops at 14,000 MSL. Do you copy that?"


Ice is forming on the leading edge of the wing, now. Climb northeast? Nothing doing. What could be worse than ice on the wings? Towering cumulus -- that could be worse. Towering cumulus is what the man said. Geysers in the sky. I've botched this whole flight. Why talk to the guy if I'm going to refuse his advice? I turned to a heading of 045.

The fourth C: Comply.

"We'll try it your way, Bozeman."

"Roger that, Two-Four Fox."

The plane is barely climbing now. More waiting.

Breaks above us. The sun.

"Yo, Bozeman, we're on top!"

Skimming along in and out of the clouds, the plane will simply not climb any more. Must be the ice.

"Two-Four Fox, understand on top. Say your altitude."

"13,800 -- just like you said, mister!"

The air is almost smooth now. We can see ahead a hundred miles. Behind us and to the west are three -- make that four -- anvil-head clouds. Violent air and hail in those! Glad we're here not there. Still have to get down, though. Which means more ice.

"Two-Four Fox, you getting Dillon yet?"

Turn the omni bearing selector. "We're showing 080 out of Dillon."

"Give us a short count, Two-Four Fox."

"Here you go, 1 - 2 - 3 - 4 - 5 - 5 - 4 - 3 - 2 - 1, over."

"We have a DF on you from here. You're approximately forty miles from Ennis Lake."

The clouds underneath us gradually formed ragged openings through which the ground was visible far below. A cross-bearing showed us directly over Ennis Lake. There it was. I set up a spiraling descent.

"Bozeman, we think we have Ennis Lake, and there are holes in that overcast."

"Roger, Two-Four Fox. Need further assistance?"

"Negative. Thanks."

"Bozeman altimeter: 30.03."

Two-Four Fox spiraled through the broken layer at 12,000. Ennis was easy to identify, even from the WAC. The only little valley with a lake and a cluster of houses by a river and road -- that also had an airport.

Patricia pointed out the window. "There's a pick-up truck next to the runway, and that must be Bob!"

Descending at 500 feet-per-minute, we would be in the air another quarter of an hour, I smiled at two frazzled women. We glided in slow orbits over the Montana landscape. I heard myself whistling and chuckled. It was the theme from The High and the Mighty.

I watched with fascination as the ice blew off the wheel faring.

Patricia opened her purse and took mirror in hand. "Another procedure turn?" she asked.

Never mind the crabbed landing at Ennis Lake in a radical crosswind, never mind my being thrown from a horse three times and stepped on twice, never mind confrontations with snakes and bears. The rest of the adventures that week are not worth mentioning.

Home Page
Table of Contents
Contact Author