The Sledge Hammer of God
Summertime in Southwest Florida is thunderstorm season. Moisture is conveyed overland from the Gulf of Mexico by an onshore wind and once over the Sun-warmed land, is lifted by convection into the cooler air above where it condenses. Storms quickly form and begin moving west, bringing severe weather to the mid-state and coastal areas. As the day progresses into the evening, the storms dissipate, leaving calm, clear skies. Most of the time. "Pop up" storms are always possible well into the night.
I was the duty-pilot working the night shift at the Sheriff's Department. Our small fleet consisted of two helicopters, two single-engine Maule airplanes, and a twin-engine Cessna.
Maules are somewhat unique in the world of modern general aviation. Manufactured in a small factory in Moultrie, Georgia, they feature tubular steel construction and fabric covering. Combined with the tail wheel configuration on our aircraft, they could almost be considered archaic by today's standards, but they proved to be tough, versatile aircraft that were fun to fly.
Coming into work for the day, I anticipated yet another twelve hours of the best job in the world, being paid to fly!
As was my habit, I preflighted a helicopter and one of the Maules. The helicopters were the go-to vehicles, the workhorses of law enforcement aviation and needed to be ready to launch at a moment's notice. The airplanes tended to be used for specialized missions, especially those for which stealth was required. This evening, such a mission was planned.
Our auto-theft unit did most of its work at night, as most of those crimes tended to occur in darkness. It was common knowledge, based on the debriefing of suspects, that they stayed home and played Nintendo when the "Ghetto Birds," their quaint colloquialism for the helicopters, were airborne.
A check of the current weather included the remark, "LTG DSNT S," which means lightning to the distant south, ten miles or further away from the reporting station. A check of the radar confirmed the report, showing moderate precipitation well south of our base and moving west.
I made the decision to launch and along with an observer to operate the sensors and handle law enforcement communications, we took off into clear skies at about 8PM for an estimated 2-3 hour mission.
The night was cool, quiet and clear, and altogether a nice evening to fly. The auto theft unit made some traffic stops, but no stolen vehicles were discovered and therefore, no pursuits, which we would have conducted from the air, ensued. We orbited over downtown at a lazy eighty or so knots, the reduced power setting contributing to the peacefulness I always felt while flying at night.
After ninety minutes or so, the police radio came alive and the first stolen vehicle of the night was stopped by the detectives on the detail. The car's single occupant was arrested without incident and we continued to orbit. As we came around in a right turn (to assist the observer who was looking through night vision goggles out his window) I noticed lightning to the east as well as to the south. It also looked like the weather to the south was approaching, but was still a ways off.
We responded to a few more traffic stops, ready to call out information to ground units in the event of a pursuit, but again, the bad guys were not coming out to play this night. I wondered if they had finally become wise to our use of airplanes.
I continued to watch the weather, ready to call it a night if it started to move in. While we would continue some flights in inclement conditions, such as search and rescue, a law enforcement mission was not so critical as to endanger personnel and airframes. The lightning had finally coalesced into a single mass to the south, east, and southwest. It remained clear to the north and I could still easily see the reassuring beacon at the airport in the neighboring county. That was my planned, last resort-escape route.
To the south and southwest the storms appeared to be getting closer and ground lights began to disappear in both directions. Without airborne weather radar, observation and communications with Air Traffic Control were the best means of tracking storms at night and a call to ATC confirmed it was time to land.
My partner expressed our regrets to the ground units and we headed back to our private airfield. The trip to the airport was uneventful and I entered the pattern at 800 feet of altitude. Flying downwind parallel to the single runway, we were close enough to see inside our hangar as the weather closed in.
As I grasped the throttle to reduce power for landing, we took a violent pounding from above. It felt like God Himself had swung a sledge hammer onto the top of the aircraft. Instinctively recognizing we were caught in a downdraft that could easily overcome the airplane's ability to climb, I reefed us into a tight right-hand turn to escape its lethal grasp on our fragile machine. By the time we returned to level flight I noted we had lost almost three-hundred feet in just a couple of seconds.
Six miles to the west our city's general aviation airport was still visible so I turned to make a beeline for that safe haven. Ground lights were still winking out in three directions, but I hoped to make the airport ahead of the weather. Back up to 800 feet, we entered the pattern as light rain began to fall, running in tiny rivulets from the bottom to the top of the windscreen.
Again, as if to reinforce the lesson, the hammer fell a second time. Another hard right turn and we escaped another mass of falling air and rolled out on a northerly heading, the beacon for the unattended airfield to our north beautifully visible.
About this time the auto theft sergeant called and directed us to assist in a pursuit that had just begun. My partner explained again that we needed to land due to severe weather and the unbelievable response was a direct order to resume our law enforcement duties. Normally, I tended to be pretty unflappable while flying or participating in other hazardous law enforcement duties, but this night I was, well, flappable. Very flappable at that particular moment. I told my partner to tell that [expletive deleted] that we needed to land this [expletive deleted] airplane and that we would not be responding to his [expletive deleted] pursuit. Having used up my weekly allotment of dirty words, I felt much better and settled down, my anxiety having found a suitable outlet.
After a short flight I set up a straight-in approach, abandoning the customary rectangular traffic pattern to get on the ground soonest, and made an uneventful landing.
My partner and I spend the next three hours lounging at a covered picnic table outside the closed base operation as massive storms pounded us and the area from which we came. After several calls to the flight service station, we learned that the deadly weather had finally moved off shore. Another uneventful flight to out airfield concluded the evenings edifications. We refueled, secured the plane and equipment and spent the remainder of the shift, enclosed in the safety of the hangar office.
Looking back on that flight, I still ponder several lessons pounded, figuratively and literally, into my head that evening. Those lessons became integral parts of my subsequent flying, and flight instruction. Like the American Express card, I never left home without them.
My flying days are behind me, my having been grounded by medical issues. My Air Force son now carries the torch and has eclipsed his father in all things aviation, much to my satisfaction. I do indeed look back very fondly on my days as a law enforcement pilot, although I have to admit to some melancholy feelings knowing that those good times are relegated to the past. Those transitory emotions aside, I am thankful for the unique opportunity to fly and, especially, to have engaged in single-combat with one of nature's most fearsome forces, and survived to tell the tale.