Photo: Illustrated by Barry Ross
Christmas Eve 2002 should have been a happy time. It was my first Christmas with my new wife in our new home in Miami. I was a commercial pilot for a small, domestic freight airline. Pilots who do this type of flying are referred to as "freight dogs" because sometimes a day for us can seem like seven years. My normal duty day was 14 hours long, but this being Christmas Eve, I had a short day — just a quick trip to Tampa and back from Opa-locka Airport in Miami. Five hours' total duty — nothing — piece of cake. I kissed my wife goodbye, told her not to peek at her presents, and off to the airport I went.
When I got there, what I saw on the weather radar dampened my Christmas cheer. Yet another cold front was making landfall across Florida. This one was slicing the state in half at a 45-degree angle from east to west, directly blocking my path to Tampa. The line of thunderstorms ahead of the front was so big that there was no way around; the cold front stretched out about 100 miles offshore into the Gulf of Mexico and all the way up to Canada. There was no way I was going to take the single-engine Cessna 210 I flew that far over the ocean at night. That left me with two options: I could cancel the flight and go home, or I could push on through and hope it wasn't as bad as it looked.
I called my company dispatcher to discuss my options, and of course he didn't like option one. The company never does. He told me that it probably wasn't as bad as it looked — they always say that. In my mind I wanted to politely remind him that he couldn't possibly know how bad it was from the safety of his armchair, in his nice warm office, looking at the death and destruction on TV. I advised him that I was going to delay departure for about one hour to let the weather clear Tampa and see if the line broke up somewhat. Maybe in that time I could find a hole, 10 to 20 miles wide, to go through. My Cessna 210 didn't have airborne radar, and relying on air traffic control for guidance through a squall line isn't very smart. It's not that the controllers don't want to help; it's that their equipment wasn't designed for that and they aren't responsible for keeping airplanes out of nasty weather — that's the pilot in command's job.
My hour was up and there was no change. The line was still solid and intense. However, dispatch had some news for me: One of our guys, Suicide Steve, had made it through the line and said that it wasn't that bad, so perhaps I should give it a try. I really didn't want to, but I relented. … Big mistake. For those of you who don't realize the subtleness of this pressure, it's like Chinese water torture. Every five or 10 minutes the company asks if you can go yet, or if you can give an estimated time of departure. It takes a strong personality to stand up to that pressure, and unfortunately, for a rookie like myself, facing the weather seemed better than risking my job. So, like an idiot, I caved in and said I was going. I had just blown my first chance at a merry Christmas.
For the first 30 minutes of the flight, all was well. However, I could see the huge storm clouds looming up in the distance, lit up thanks to the continuous flashes of lightning. For those of you who have never seen a massive wall of clouds at night constantly lit up by lightning flashes, it is beautiful. It's the most beautiful light show on earth. There was no moon, and on my side of the front it was clear, so I would see nothing but the darkness of the Everglades ahead of me then — flash — the sky would light up and I'd see these gigantic cottony mountains of clouds far up and down either side of the horizon. As I approached the cold front, a great feeling of dread was welling up inside my gut as well as a feeling of amazement and curiosity. What was it like in there? How bad could it really be? I was mesmerized and terrified at the same time. I knew I should turn back, but for some reason I was drawn toward it. I approached the storms like a surfer approaches massive waves: 10 percent awe, 10 percent fear and 80 percent ignorance.
I called Flight Service on the radio to see if there was any change in the radar picture. I was looking for a hole to pass through, but there was nothing. The woman on the radio almost flat-out told me that I was a moron for continuing; she implied it but didn't come out and say it — not that I would have disagreed with her. Chance two missed.
I called the Miami Center controller who was monitoring my flight. I let her know that I didn't have radar and was wondering if she could perhaps provide me with some vectors around the strongest precipitation echoes on her radarscope. Then, I held my breath waiting for her reply.
"I'm sorry," she said. "It's everywhere, and there is nowhere to vector you except back to Miami. I'm sorry."
In a feeble attempt at bravado, I replied, "That's OK. You could feel worse; you could be up here with me."
Ha, ha, ha; third chance not taken.
I continued on, finally entering the clouds. I could no longer see the gigantic cumulonimbus buildups that surrounded me but only dull flashes of light that lit up the surrounding white clouds. It soon began to rain, and along with that came some light turbulence. Not so bad at first, and I thought that perhaps dispatch was right — it wasn't as bad as it looked. Then — pow — lightning exploded across the sky in every direction.