As a young pastor, I supplemented our family income working as a pilot. Most of my flight time was instructing new students, but there were times when I would have a charter flight. On one such charter, I was flying back to our home base in Kalispell, Montana solo after dropping off a client in Great Falls. I was flying a Piper Arrow. Piloting in Montana through the Rocky Mountains requires that one pay special attention to the weather. It can change in an instant. If you don’t treat weather with respect your life could become a statistic in an NTSB report.
Prior to departure, I paid a visit to the Flight Service Station (FSS) at the Great Falls Airport. I discussed the weather with a staff member. The large windows of the FSS offered a clear view of Rogers Pass through which I would need to fly. This route would take me through Lincoln, Montana up the Swan Valley into Kalispell. As the weatherman and I talked we looked out to the distant mountain pass. I asked about the current cloud ceiling. He said, “It looks like it will hold.” With that, I left the building, conducted a pre-flight and departed for home.
The departure was normal. I had enough cloud clearance to legally and safely fly. As I approached Rogers Pass it was still a go. I slipped through the pass and then my world changed - dramatically. Once I flew through the pass the clouds descended, sealed off the pass and my ability to turn around. An intense snowstorm began. I was pressed lower and lower until I was literally less than 100 feet off the valley floor. I couldn’t file an instrument flight plan. I was stuck. The small airports available to land in the summer along my route were all buried under several feet of snow.
I now had to follow the highway. It was about 150 miles to home and the nearest open airport. I dropped the landing gear and flaps to slow the aircraft down so that I could pick my way through the storm. During one stretch of the flight, I was down to 50 feet above ground level. What helped me was the fact that I had driven this route in a car many times before and knew how the road twisted and turned. That morning a local sheriff’s department would receive a call from a woman whose house was buzzed by a low flying aircraft. The dear woman heard me fly so low over her house in such an intense snowstorm she was sure a crash had taken place. I was flying this way for the better part of an hour ranging in altitude from 50 to 100 feet above the snowy terrain. My forward visibility was little more than what I could see immediately below and just in front of me.
The most dangerous part of the flight was coming up a few miles from home where a large radio tower stood. It was twice as tall as the altitude I was currently flying and hidden in the clouds just ahead of me along my flight path. I would hit the tower unless I changed my position. As I approached the location where I knew the tower was located, I moved to the other side of the roadway opposite the tower. In the next moment, the tower passed by me as a blur in the falling snow.
After a few minutes, I landed safely and went home to my family. Had I not known the roadway in such great detail that storm would have been the end of my life. A journey that started out employing all the wisdom, insight and experience that I and the FSS person shared, had now trapped me in a life and death struggle reducing me to only one course of action – keep flying the airplane. Those words, “keep flying the airplane”, are spoken to each new pilot by his or her instructor when things get tense. Many times pilots die because they gave up in a storm when the aircraft was still faithfully flying.
You may have started out on the current leg of your life-journey taking all the pre-flight precautions possible, but something happened and you were trapped in a single course of action like that time when I was flying through the snowstorm. You have crossed the point of no return. You are in the middle of a storm. Your only option is to keep flying forward in faith. It may get really dangerous but you have the ability to navigate the emotional and spiritual terrain now hidden in the stress and fear of the journey. You have been this way before in good weather. You know the road. You can make the journey if you continue flying in faith even though what was familiar is hidden from your sight. Faith is your only way forward. Exercise its power and you will be delivered safely to your destination.