Not long after becoming a private pilot I decided to go on a fly-out with a group from our airport. The group was full of seasoned aviators and a couple of cubs; myself and my buddy Bob. The plan was to fly out from Oakdale down to Laughlin, NV. The day of the flyout arrived but we had a high overcast and some light rain. I wasn’t too thrilled about flying so far in these conditions but the more seasoned aviators assured me everything would be fine. These systems come in from the north and generally don’t extend that far south. That sounded reasonable to my inexperienced ears so the whole gaggle departed Oakdale to the south.
We got as far as Visalia and then it started raining pretty good. We decided to stop for lunch and see if the rain would stop. We called the local Holiday Inn which sent a shuttle to take us over to their restaurant. We had a great lunch and were in good spirits all around. We got back to the airport and an hour later the rain stopped. We all topped off our tanks and were about to head south. However, one of the most seasoned aviators said that he wasn’t comfortable pushing on in this weather. He said he was going to be a chicken and head back home. We bid him goodbye and he headed north while we all headed south.
As we headed south we kept having to climb to get over broken cloud layers. Soon we had climbed above the overcast and were in bright sunny skies. However, we were VFR on top. But the sun seemed so bright and cheery after the clouds and rain below us we felt that the worst was behind us.
Our trusty 172M was purring like a kitten and winging us southeastward over Mohave. By now we were a long, loose formation. We had lost site of the 182 in the lead, and the 172 had lost site of us. The PA-12 was still somewhere below us under the cloud deck. We began to get concerned because the solid cloud layer was showing no signs of breaking up. Our seasoned aviator had assured us it would break up soon. It wasn’t.
The sun was now getting lower in the sky, just above the cloud layer by a few inches and we had finally arrived above Laughlin according to our GPS and our VORs. We were ecstatic, there was a small hole in the clouds and we could just make out the airport and the hole was just big enough to circle down through. The 182 and I were orbiting the hole and letting the trail guy in the 170 know that it was there. He was still 25 miles out and begged us not to leave him up there alone. We told him we’d circle the hole until he got there. Then the hole closed up solid.
We asked the 170 where he was… he didn’t know. So there we were, circling above an airport we couldn’t get to, waiting for a guy who didn’t know where he was, the needles on the fuel gauges were bouncing near empty, and the sun was setting. The next 5 minutes passed intolerably slowly. Finally the radio crackles with the sound of the guy in the 170. “Hey guys! I’m over the airport I’ll see you on the ground!”
Airport?! What airport?!
We asked him what airport he was at because we couldn’t get to Laughlin. No answer. We were just evaluating our options when he comes back on the radio, “Oh, guess what guys, I’m in Kingman! Not Laughlin!” Bob and I looked at each other and then Bob punched Kingman into the GPS. The 182 radioed that he was flying direct to Kingman. We answered that we were right behind him. The 170 radioed back that the sky was clear over Kingman. We were so relieved!
However, we were about 15 miles south of Kingman and we were still over the cloud layer. I told Bob we’re going to have to descend through it. We lined up with the valley heading due north toward the airport and I got on the gauges. I told him to call the ground as soon as he saw it. It was the longest 10 seconds of my life. But that about how long I counted in my head before Bob said he had the ground. I briefly looked away from the instruments to confirm we really did have the ground, we did.
As I turned onto downwind for Kingman the runway lights came on. The fuel gauge needles were no longer bouncing, they were pegged on E. I made an unremarkable landing and taxied up to the tie down where the 182 had just finished taking on fuel. The fuel truck filled me up after I had parked and tied down. He gave me the receipt and didn’t say a word. I looked at the number of gallons we took on and estimated we had approximately 20 minutes of fuel left in the tanks. If that. I was never so happy to see the end of a flight.
Ironic twist to the story. Remember the most seasoned aviator that turned back? That was a good call but… the very next day he was involved in a classic highwing/lowing landing accident. His 175 was totaled when Piper Cherokee landed on top of him. Luckily no one was injured but both planes were a complete loss.