My passenger is there and we load up his tools and take off. The trip is west across central BC over the plains to the coast. We will fly through the mountains, over Bella Coola and on to Bella Bella. Weather looks okay for the trip, but there is no station at Bella Bella, so we will have to rely on any Pireps on route.
I am a newly hired CFI of a small school that also does single engine VFR charters. My wife and I moved up here from Vancouver; I had only 650 hours, mostly instructing time before coming here – it has been a learning experience to say the least. I always taught my students by the book where navigation was concerned; fly the line, assess the deviation and correct. VFR charters in the Cariboo call for a different technique: fly the line as much as you can, when you hit the weather the choice is turn left or right to get around it and then get back on track. GPS with an ancient Loran is the preferred method.
The trip over the plains is uneventful; I have been out to Bella Coola a dozen times now and I know the way pretty well. My headphones crackle with Mark’s typical greeting:
“Got your ears on?”
“Hey there – you were out of there so fast I hardly got the chance to say good morning!”
“Need a fast flight” he replies.
“Sort of; I’ve got a pickup”
It turns out a young man had drowned in the river.
Bella Coola is a beautiful spot nestled in the Coast Mountains. After flying over what amounts to basically one massive clear cut in various stages of re-growth from Williams Lake to the mountains we fly over a plateau and start to descend into the river valley. The town itself sits where three valleys meet, and the river flows on to the ocean and out to Bella Bella.
Three valleys on the coast make for some interesting winds and currents, as Mark’s unlucky pickup discovered. Later we loaded the ‘Hummer’, as the AirBC Dash 8 captain called him (for human remains); it was odd stacking other people’s bags around and on the wooden casket. Especially weird were all the locked gun cases of the many hunters who pass through the area. Death has many faces.
Mark tells me the weather looks okay to Bella Coola, so I decide to keep going once I get over the town. The weather station there is not too much help most of the time anyway.
I am flying today with some extra pressure put upon me, by none other than yours truly.
One of the perks of my job is that I get to fly a rich businessman around in his own airplane, a nice fast C210. He is capable of flying it on his own but does not have the time to finish his training. Later on I got it completed, but for now I go with him on all his trips.
The week before we were flying his plane over Bella Bella on a gorgeous day; it was the most fantastic scenery highlighted by the summer sun. After dropping him and his family off for a fishing vacation I took the Cessna back home. Several days later when I got the call to pick him up I had to turn around because of bad weather over the plains – I tried left, then right, then overhead and got to 14,000 feet before deciding there was no way to get through. Such is the VFR world.
When my boss, a legend in the area with 40,000 hours (all VFR) picked him up the next day, he told me the weather out at Bella Bella was something he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy.
I am leery of his words as we make our way past Bella Coola and over the ocean proper. The terrain in the area is very unforgiving with all the peninsulas and islands rising sharply straight out of the ocean. The only place to put the plane down in an emergency would be on one of the small beaches, and that would be a disaster due to the fact that any marginally flat area is surfaced with jagged rocks.
I am using the ‘greasy thumb’ method of navigation. My GPS is no help now as it only plots a straight line to my destination, and with the ceiling just under 1000’ a direct route is out of the question. My thumb very carefully keeps track of our position on the map as we have several sharp turns around terrain in order to stay over the water. This technique will save our lives.
We are flying in a tunnel. The terrain rises on either side of us into the cloud. Over water is the only way and what I originally thought was an acceptable ceiling has diminished by several hundred feet. Visibility was good, but with the cloud coming down it has reduced dramatically. We are in and out of thin areas of mist.
“This is stupid” I say to myself. My companion reads my thoughts and confirms my feelings as he crosses his arms firmly and lets go a loud sigh. This will be his primary commentary for the rest of our flight.
My mind is awash in conflict: ‘continued flight into adverse weather’ verses ‘it’s not far now’. ‘Get out this’ verses ‘we’re almost there’. We have been dodging the mist for a half hour now and while for a time it stabilizes at 700’ – 800’ it certainly does not improve. We have to descend as low as 400’ at times to get under it.
On we fly as the voices in my head continue to argue.
Just two more bends and we are there, I tell myself. Home free, almost. It will look really good that I made it and got this guy to his Cat – a brand new machine that is holding up a big project, costing lots of money in downtime. The other pilot always makes it; my boss gets in no matter what.
We reach the final turn in our tunnel and hit solid cloud. Panic grips my chest like a bear hug. Get it turned around! I am on instruments as I bank steeply, 500’ above the water.
The unthinkable happens: my attitude indicator topples. Instantly I get the familiar taste in my mouth that I always got after wiping out my dirt bikes years ago – it’s like exhaust fumes, but in reality it is pure adrenaline. ‘Fight or flee’ is the primordial command; I force myself to fight.
“Fly, fly by the VSI” is a term familiar to me from my instructing days at Boundary Bay; it is put to good use here. We show a descent.
‘Get that nose up! Not too much!’ my inner voice yells at me. My old instructor Doug is beside me ready to rap my knuckles if I break my concentration for an instant. He recently passed away in a car accident.
We are on our reciprocal heading and come out of the cloud. F___.
“I’m heading back to Bella Coola.”, I tell my passenger, trying my best to sound calm.
“That’s fine with me!” is his terse reply.
The nightmare is far from over though. We are 45 minutes away from Bella Coola. Coupled with the hour and a half it took to get to that town this is turning into a very long flight. We have four hours of fuel total, so we will land with an hour in the tanks, provided the weather is still okay there. My major problem at this point is the several cups of coffee I had while waiting for my companion to arrive. I use the pain in my bladder to keep focused.
I always prided myself that whenever I have a bad dream I can just tell myself to wake up and everything will be fine. There is no waking up from this flight though; I have to battle this to its conclusion.
Again and again we are in the mist, so we are up and down between 800’ and 400’. Just when I can relax a bit I hit more mist and must go down again. I carefully plot our position on the map and take us around the various peninsulas. Finally we reach the coast again and land at Bella Coola. Land has never tasted as sweet to me, before or since.
“I hope I didn’t scare you too badly” I say to the Cat tech through clenched teeth.
“No, no problem” he counters. He spends the next hour chain smoking outside the terminal as I wait to see if the weather improves. When it does not we take the refueled Cessna back to home base.
-To compare my abilities with another vastly more experienced was extremely foolish.
-Turning back hurts the pride but is never a wrong decision.
-Know thyne own abilities, and know thy aircraft.
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Kerry G(Rich business man) and I cruised through some crap once or twice a few years ago in his 210. Ask him about when we got in the snow going by Clinton coming back from Kelowna.
You will learn lots from those guys.
They taught me to ignore turbulence. They taught me to never push my own limits. I got to fly in some awesome places with them.
Chilko lake was cool.
Tsunias lake was neat.
When I was learning to fly in Ontario, I always wanted to fly to Scum Lake. I did with these guys!
Silver Tip was fun with a 15 not tail wind.
Tatlyoko( I think it was called) was a challenge.
Bowron Lake is awsesome!
I miss working there. Tell Gideon, Mark, Grant, Bernie, Vic, and all that remember me I say Hi.