Breaking news—and breaking the rules

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I worked full time as an engineer for Sperry Flight Systems, but I also had a part-time job as one of three or four pilots that worked for Professional Aviation at Deer Valley airport in Phoenix, Arizona. In the late 1970s and early 1980s, Professional Aviation had a “traffic watch” contract with radio station KTAR. Their contract was to provide pilots and aircraft for morning and evening traffic reports. KTAR provided the on-air reporter (usually Laurie Fagen). It was a fun job, but it got to be routine after a while.

The routine was broken on February 18, 1980. Phoenix doesn’t get much rain in a typical year. To help with irrigation water for the farms in the valley and flood control, the US government started building a series of four major dams on the Salt and Verde Rivers east of Phoenix from 1905 through 1930. The largest of these is the Theodore Roosevelt Dam. The dam closest to Phoenix on the Salt River is the Stewart Mountain Dam, which forms Saguaro Lake.

Heavy rains in the desert can lead to serious flooding.

All the dams along the Salt River are in a canyon in the Superstition Mountains. The sharp walls of the canyon make it ideal for the construction of dams, and the scenery is spectacular. Whenever we had winter visitors (nobody wanted to come in the summer), I would usually fly them out to this area to see the stunning aerial vistas. Four Peaks, which are north of the canyon, has an elevation of over 7500 feet. The scenery is as spectacular as the Grand Canyon but on a much smaller scale.

In both 1978 and 1979, there was above normal rainfall. Because of the Salt River Project’s charter to store runoff for irrigation purposes, the dams were near capacity in early 1980. A series of storms started on February 13, 1980, and continued that week. More storms were forecast, and the governor was considering a flood evacuation in portions of Phoenix/Maricopa County. Because of their age, there was also concern about the safety of the dams, especially if the heavy release of water from the spillways would undercut the base of the dams.

Because of the concern over the safety of the dams, KTAR was very interested in an aerial report of the situation. They asked Professional Aviation to provide an aircraft and pilot for a flight out to the dams to see the situation firsthand. I felt lucky to have been picked as the pilot. The company also provided an AA-5 for the flight. Usually, we used the AA-1C, so I was glad to have the extra fuel. There was a temporary flight restriction over the Salt River, so I had to contact Phoenix TRACON by telephone and give them my “press credentials,” aircraft tail number, and expected departure time. I felt special that I got to fly over the disaster area when mere mortals could not.

I met Laurie, and we launched from Deer Valley. It was a cloudy day with occasional light showers. I didn’t record the ceiling when we departed, but it was VFR at Deer Valley and Phoenix Sky Harbor. We flew down to Tempe, then upriver to look at the flooding along the Salt River while en route to the first dam, Stewart Mountain. The terrain rises as you go further east, and little by little, we were flying into the ragged cloud bases. The visibility forward decreased gradually, but you could still see the ground. We were able to see Granite Reef, a small diversion dam and the point where the Verde and Salt rivers merge, but continuing further east was becoming a problem. Yet my urge to get the on-air reporter to the news site was strong. After all, that’s what I was getting paid to do.

By this time, we were scud running. I was instrument rated and current but flying an instrument flight plan and scud running is entirely different. I had familiarity with the area and terrain from flying visitors around the area, but usually we were several thousand feet higher than we were on this trip. Remember this was before GPS, before light aircraft terrain warning systems, with basic instrumentation and no autopilot. Initially, it was eyeballs only in lowering visibility and over rising terrain. I knew the canyon would narrow, and I started to have concerns. The proverbial hairs on the back of my neck were starting to stand up. Then I lost sight of the ground below the aircraft and poof, we were engulfed.

For a few seconds after being engulfed, I was still trying to fly visually when I noticed that the heading indicator was slowly moving, indicating we were turning right. I noticed we were also slowly descending. I thought, graveyard spiral. OK, we have to get this situation straightened out. I quit trying to fly visually and transitioned to the instruments exclusively. Straighten the wings, then stop the descent. Things were quickly adding up wrong. I thought to myself, what in the world are you doing here?

Stewart Mountain Dam, AZ

Not the kind of terrain for scud running.

It was hard to determine precisely where we were, and I knew there was rising terrain ahead. Even if I managed to get to the dam, the cloud deck and terrain would have us sandwiched in. That’s when I capitulated, and I said, “This isn’t going to work out. We’re going to have to give up on seeing the dam today.” Laurie was a trouper and didn’t complain or get spooked by losing sight of the ground. However, I got my second shock of the day when I turned back toward Phoenix: the weather had deteriorated behind us. The visibility was three miles only because I could see glints of sunlight off the floodwater. I knew that by following the water, I would remain clear of the higher terrain. Without those glints of sunlight, it would have been IMC.

The conditions improved as we proceeded back to Phoenix, and I didn’t have to file IFR. We then flew up the Agua Fria River from Phoenix to look at the Waddell Dam and Lake Pleasant. Same result. We couldn’t see the water level behind the dam, but I didn’t wait as long to give up on this attempt. All in all, we were airborne for 2.9 hours.

Looking at the flooded “Valley of the Sun” was fun, but my feeling of being special had completely waned. To this day, I don’t know why I got the assignment over the other pilots. Was it just my time in the barrel, or was it because I was instrument rated and current, or was I the only one dumb enough to take the assignment? I still don’t know. I got us into a case trying to “get the scoop” when it wasn’t prudent. It is a close cousin to “get-home-itis.” We came too close to being the news rather than reporting on the news. I vowed never again to get into this type of situation.

Editor’s Note: This article is from our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: [email protected].

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