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It was a beautiful Saturday morning. I was doing a live remote, radio broadcast in Ottumwa. I had just finished doing a shot on the air when my cell phone rang. It was Melissa calling.
"Can you do me a really big favor," she asked. "Is there any way you could fly to Houston and bring my Uncle Kenny and Aunt Gail back?" I told her the weather wasn't looking good, but I would do some checking and get back to her shortly.
Melissa had recently told me her Grandpa Max had been ill - I knew it had to be serious for her to call me with this request.
Between my broadcasts I called the flight service station for a weather briefing. "Flight is not recommended for your route,” the briefer told me. He then went on to give me the full details. It seemed unfair. The weather in both Ottumwa and Houston was beautiful, but everything in between was a mess of violent thunderstorms. My route was littered with tornado boxes.
I called Melissa back, "This is the kind of weather the airlines won't fly through," I explained. The thunderstorms were towering to fifty- and sixty-thousand feet. Storms were affecting Kansas City, Minneapolis, Chicago, Denver, and Atlanta. Airline traffic was backed up all over the country. Even Houston International Airport had been shut down for weather earlier in the day as storms passed through.
I really wanted to help her but, but I couldn't. "I can't fly through it and I can't go around it. It's just too big." It broke my heart to tell her, "I can't do it." After my broadcast, I kept checking the weather. Later in the afternoon, I called Melissa. "It looks like there's going to be a small break in the weather. If I take off within thirty minutes, I should be able to make it." I explained that she would have to be sure her aunt and uncle were at the airport when I arrived. I would have to do a fast fueling and get right back in the air.
"Are you sure?" she asked. "Yeah," I told her, explaining, "I can get to Houston no problem. If the window closes and the weather comes down, I might not get back, but I think I can make it. It's worth a shot." In a worst-case scenario, I could stay in Houston with my sister, Patti.
Melissa wanted to know, "Will you have room for my cousin Bree? She wants to come too." "Sure, but they'll all have to be at the airport ready to go. This is a really narrow window of opportunity." Melissa would watch my flight on flightaware.com, and keep her family posted on my expected arrival time in Houston.
In route to the airport, I filed my flight plan, then called Ottumwa Flying Service. I was very relieved when Steve Black answered the phone, late on a Saturday afternoon. "Steve, I need a favor. Can you pull my airplane out, top the tanks, check the oil and do a preflight for me?" "Sure, what's the rush?" He asked. "I need to run to Houston and back." I told him. "Houston, Texas," he questioned. "Have you looked the weather? It's a mess all over the country!" I told him I had, and explained there was a window opening. If I timed it just right, I could get through. "Okay, I trust you." he said, "But be careful. Tom, if you need to, land the plane and wait the storm out!" I assured him I would.
Speaking of trust, I don't let anyone preflight my airplane. Steve Black is the only man I would allow to do that for me. I would trust him with my life, and when you let someone else preflight your airplane, that is exactly what you are doing.
When I arrived at the airport, I parked the car, grabbed my flight bag, and ran to the airplane. Steve was waiting by the wing with my door opened for me. He handed me a quart of oil, then said, "Take this with you in case you need it in Houston."
I took the container, thanked him and climbed onto the wing to get in. "You're going to get diverted around Kansas City,” he told me. I smiled and replied, "Yeah, that’s my window. I've been watching that cell. It's a big one. I'll shoot around it to the west." "Be safe, Tom." he told me as I closed the door.
I started the engine and taxied to runway three-one, making my radio calls along the way. Rolling down the runway on departure, I patted the top of the instrument panel, “Here we go, girl. It’s you and me. We’ll get through this together.” I was bumping around in the clouds most of the way. I stayed in touch with the flight service people, who guided me through the sky, keeping me away from the bad weather.
Near Kansas City, a big line of storms was moving from the west, eastward, leaving me the window I anticipated. The air traffic controller suggested a diversion to the west to get behind the storm system. From there I would have storm-free path all the way to Houston. Around central Texas the clouds broke and I flew in clear skies and smooth air the rest of the way.
About twenty minutes before landing at Hooks Field in Houston, I called the flying service on the local unicom. I gave them my aircraft information and request. "I need to top off both tanks. Can I get a quick turn on fuel? I'll be picking up some people, and need get right back in the air to beat weather." The lady on the other end of the radio answered, "No problem. We'll be ready for you and your passengers are here waiting."
After landing, the fuel truck pulled right up to my airplane. The line guy greeted me, "We're topping both tanks, correct? Do you want me to check your oil." "Yes please, I like it at seven quarts." I answered, then went inside.
I had never met Melissa's aunt and uncle, but from seeing photos, I recognized Kenny, right away. His perfectly groomed hair, soft eyes and big smile under his mustache, made him easy to pick out. He walked toward me, "Tom?" He asked. We shook hands, then he introduced me to Gail. I had met Bree once before.
"If you need the restroom, now's the time," I said, "This will be a non-stop flight to Ottumwa." I used the men's room, checked the weather radar, paid for my fuel, and returned to the plane.
The line guy told me the oil was fine, but I checked it anyway. I checked the fuel caps to assure they were tight, and did a quick preflight. After loading the few bags they brought, I had Bree board first in the back seat behind the pilot, and Gail sat next to her. I climbed in, slid over to the pilot side, then had Kenny get in the front seat next to me.
Because I had already filed my return flight plan, we were able to depart Houston quickly. The takeoff was good, the air cool and smooth - the airplane was flying great. All was good, but I knew it would deteriorate. "The weather is good here, but we may run into some stuff as we get closer to Iowa," I told them. "We'll see how it goes. If we have to, we'll go around the weather."
Several flashes of lightning to the west lit the sky, but I wasn't worried. From the air, you can see lightning that is hundreds of miles away - it is no threat. Then a bolt flashed in the nearer distance ahead of us. The air traffic controller called me, "Bonanza, one x-ray delta, there a strong isolated cell at your twelve-o-clock, sixty miles out. It has level three thunderstorms embedded with heavy precipitation, hail and lightning. It's moving fast to the east at 50 miles an hour, but you'll get there before it clears. I would suggest a deviation to the west, and you can go around the back side of it."
I replied, "One x-ray delta, I appreciate that. Request the deviation to the West." ”One x-ray delta, deviation approved. Turn twenty degrees west, return on course when able."
I banked the airplane to the West, and flew that direction for about twenty-five miles. We turned back, to the North for another twenty miles, to clear the storm, then pointed the nose of the airplane to Ottumwa. We were moving toward the overcast.
I checked weather with flight service again; the cloud bases were low, down to about one thousand feet above the ground. We weren't going to be able to fly under them. It wasn't long and we were flying in and out of the clouds at seven thousand feet, in the dark night sky. As we passed the Kansas City metro, the lights of the city glowed in the overcast of clouds below us.
We flew about another twenty minutes, before the clouds got thicker. I shined my flashlight down the leading edge of the wing frequently, checking for ice.
I got on the radio, "Kansas City center, One x-ray delta, is picking up light to moderate rime ice. Request to go higher, for nine thousand feet." He replied, "One x-ray delta, climb and maintain niner-thousand. What are your conditions?" We were in solid clouds - instrument meteorological conditions. "One x-ray delta, is IMC, temperature is 35 degrees, the air is pretty choppy, moderate turbulence." I had reached my new altitude.
Later I called again, "Kansas City, we're still picking up ice, request higher for eleven thousand feet." My voice was shaking as I spoke. I wasn't scared, but it was like trying to talk when you're driving down a wash-boarded gravel road. "Roger, one x-ray delta, climb and maintain one, one thousand feet."
Ice is never a pilot’s friend. It adds weight to the airplane and changes the aerodynamics. It can be very dangerous and requires close attention. Since I was carrying ice, I began considering all my options. With the additional altitude, I could descend into Kirksville, if necessary. Bloomfield was also on the way, then Ottumwa.
It appeared I stopped building ice, but I was still in the clouds. "Kansas City, one x-ray delta, we're no longer picking up ice, but we're still IMC, request higher for twelve thousand." The altitude change was approved.
Just above 11,000 feet, I broke out of the clouds and the air smoothed out considerably. It seemed like we reached a calm area, as if we were in the eye of a storm. There would probably be more weather to deal with on our descent, but for now all was well and peaceful. The tension was lifted from me.
There was another cloud layer not very high above me. Imagine a sandwich: the bread being the clouds, above and below, we were like the peanut butter in the thin area between. I climbed a little higher, but I didn't want to get back in the clouds above. Even though this is not a normal flight altitude, I called again, "Kansas City center, one x-ray delta is between layers at eleven-seven. We have 39 degrees and the ice is starting to dissipate. We'd like to stay here."
He replied, "One x-Ray delta, I'll give you a block, from ten thousand, to one-two thousand feet. Contact Chicago Center at one-one-eight-point-one-five.” I repeated his instructions, then said, "Thanks for all your help tonight, Kansas City." "No problem." He replied, “that's what we're here for. Good night."
When I called Chicago center, he asked what approach I would like for Ottumwa. Ottumwa had a high overcast, so I requested a visual approach for runway three-one. "One x-ray delta, descend at pilot’s discretion to five thousand feet,” he said.
I started down for Ottumwa. As soon as we re-entered the clouds, we started building up ice again and the air got rough. The lower I got, the more ice I collected. At about six thousand feet, I broke out of the clouds. The air temperature was forty degrees. The airport was straight ahead, about twenty miles out.
I called the Chicago center, "Chicago, one x-ray delta has the field at Ottumwa. I'll cancel my IFR now."
He answered, "One x-ray delta, I show no traffic between you and the airport. Cancellation received, change to advisory frequency approved. Squawk VFR, one-two-zero-zero. Good night."
With all the intense weather and flying, I almost forgot why I was flying. I decided to land straight in on runway four. With ice still on the wings, the sooner I was on the ground the better.
I landed the plane, then pulled off the runway, and taxied quickly toward the ramp. I turned the airplane to pull into the hangar, where Melissa was standing with her mom and dad next to their car.
My heart sank. In the beam of my taxi lights, I could tell by the look on her face, I was too late. I didn't get there in time. I stopped the airplane, shut down the engine and opened the door for Kenny to climb out first. I got out, then helped Gail and Bree, down onto the step from the wing.
Melissa came over and gave me a hug. "I didn't make it, did I?" She whispered, "He passed away." A tear rolled down my cheek. I was glad it was dark as I didn't want her to see me crying. "I’m so sorry. I really tried." I said. "I know you did. They are here now, and that's what matters.”
Melissa left to be with her family. I secured the airplane, then drove home. I felt like I had failed. If only the weather was better, I could have left hours earlier. If only I didn't have to divert around storms. If only I didn't have to deal with ice. If only the airplane could have gone faster. If only...
Then I heard a voice. "You did exactly what I wanted you to do. Let this be My way." I could only sigh.
As I drove down the road, my mood started to change. Even in this time of grieving for Melissa, and her family, there was joy to be found. You see, a few days before he passed, Melissa shared with me, that her grandpa Max, told her he had a date coming up. A date with her grandma, Lucille.
I only met Max Lyons one time. After being introduced, he shook my hand with vigor and said, "Tom, glad to know you." That's exactly what Melissa told me he would say!
Somehow, I envisioned Max standing before his Creator for judgement. I could imagine him saying something like, "I wasn't always perfect, Lord, but I did the best I could. Can we make this quick? There's a pretty lady who's been waiting an awful long time for me to get here."
I could see Max, passing through the pearly gates. Lucille, waiting on the other side, in a beautiful dress with her hair done up to perfection. Each of them blushing, Max extends his hand toward her. Lucille takes his hand. The two come close together again and dance a waltz. Arm in arm, they dance and dance, off into eternity.
This morning, I read my mother-in-law, Carol's post. It was eleven years ago today when Max passed away. It was eleven years before that, on the same date, when his wife, Lucille, passed. On that flight from Texas to Iowa, we found calm air at eleven thousand feet.
Perhaps Max and Lucille were already there, dancing on the calm clouds, watching as we flew by in the heavens above - at eleven thousand feet.