In the world of aviation, a common saying among pilots is “aviate, navigate, communicate”. This means pilots should fly the airplane first, then figure out where they’re going, then communicate. The point is to ensure the aircraft is safely under control before anything else.
When I used to fly in high school, my flight instructor drilled this axiom into my head on a regular basis. Then the day came where I finally understood the importance of this motto…
It was February 13, 2009, which fell on an unlucky Friday of all days. A very important protocol before flying is to check the weather along your route. I had already completed my first solo flight the year before. Thankfully, this was not going to be a solo flight and my flight instructor was going to accompany me in the Cessna 150. We checked the weather for our starting point (Detroit City Airport) and the surrounding areas along our route. Everything looked great, so off we went.
The weather in Michigan is constantly changing. It can be sunny and pleasant one minute, to raining or snowing out of the blue depending on the time of year. I’m sure you can see where I’m going with this, especially since it’s February (still winter) and Friday the 13th.
As we’re flying along, we see a few clouds start to roll in. Since we were flying under visual flight rules (VFR), meaning we have to have maintain visual with the ground and our surroundings, we were not allowed to fly in the clouds, so we descended a bit. Then we saw some water droplets on our windshield. Great, it’s starting to rain. And then everything seemed to start going downhill from there. The clouds started rolling in even thicker and something was off about this rain. Our windshield was starting to ice over and our altitude was dropping fast– this was freezing rain.
There was no time to panic. We had to aviate to keep the aircraft from dropping out of the sky. The heat from the carburetor helped to keep the windshield from freezing and allowing air into the engine, which also gave us a small 6×6 inch window at the bottom of our windshield to look out from while the rest was iced over.
The next step was to navigate. We had to figure out where we were. Since we were used to that area, as it was our practice area to fly in, we knew there was another airport we could divert to since we weren’t going to make it to our original destination. However, the weather and lack of GPS in the aircraft made it hard to figure out which way to go. This is where communication came into play.
Selfridge Air National Guard Base was nearby and we knew we would be on their radar, so we called them for help. After explaining our situation, they guided us to the airport. We popped out of the clouds just a couple of hundred feet above the ground and went in to land. Attempting to slow down on an icy runway while trying not to slide off and crash was scary in itself. We were safely able to keep control of the aircraft and taxi to the parking area. There was a sheet of ice covering the entire aircraft when we got out. It was a very close call.
Aviate, navigate, communicate. That stuck with me for the rest of my flying career. Had we not followed that motto, we may not have safely made it onto the ground. Of course, once the weekend passed, I went back to the aircraft and cleaned off the ice and snow that accumulated over the weekend, hopped in and flew it back home…this time solo.