There is a 3 dimensional aspect to flying which is nearly impossible to explain to those who have never sat at the controls. This characteristic of flight is amplified when numerous layers of clouds obstruct certain terrain features and enhance others. Are you familiar with the saying, “I know it like the back of my hand”? What if the back of your hand was 75% obscured, and you could only see random pieces of it, would it be the same? Please say no.
So here’s the story … This group of six gals was headed out for a month long mountaineering expedition in the Alaska Range. The weather was crap on the morning of the flight, and just when I had given-up hope for getting the flight done on the scheduled date, the weather cleared. So I jumped in the Cessna 185 and booked it for the Alaska Range. There were multiple layers of clouds obscuring the mountains in some areas, and showing sun on other portions of the landscape. I landed at the Black Rapids airstrip and loaded the plane with three of the gals and a bunch of gear and headed up the glacier. We picked our way up to 7500′ feet headed for the VERY familiar landing spot. Since I left in such a hurry, I managed to forget both the GPS and my topo map back at Sheep Mt. in my Super Cub. I did not care because I had been to this area numerous times, and … I knew it like the back of my hand. So I flew up the glacier past lots of glacier fog (clouds that lie right on the surface of the glacier, but only 75′ thick) and multiple cloud layers to “Divide Basin” on the Black Rapids Glacier. I circled a few times while I observed the movement of the clouds and determined a landing spot on the glacier below.
Once I had it dialed-in I landed and dropped the ladies off and headed back for the second load of girls and gear. As I was enjoying the music on my iPod and soaking in the view I beheld a strikingly familiar glacial landscape only recently revealed by a separation in the glacial fog. Much to my dismay I recognized it as … Divide Basin … the desired drop-off point. I had just off-loaded 1100 lbs of girls and gear 8 miles from the pre-planned destination … OOPS! I decided to keep going because I could tell that the glacial fog below was fickle at best. When I returned I asked the group leader if she wanted the good news or the bad? With a red face I explained that they were not in divide basin, but actually 8 miles to the West. Yep, it was embarrassing. If I were a better bull-shooter I probably could have covered for myself, but I’ve never been any good at bull-shooting, so I just shrugged and explained that a landing in the desired spot was not possible due to the prevailing conditions. They agreed to stay where I had put them and it actually turned out great. They told me weeks later that the weather had been awesome for them most of the time but horrible all around. I guess we all get lucky once- in-awhile.