A pilot's reckoning
Angels on Earth|July/Aug 2020
Low clouds, drizzle, poor visibility—and impatience
DON DONALDSON, ANTIGUA, GUATEMALA

I LEANED FORWARD in my pilot’s seat, straining to see any sign of the skies clearing in the distance. But there was nothing. I’d been flying my Cessna single-engine plane through thick dark clouds for more than an hour, across the length of Pennsylvania. The stress of navigating in “pea soup” was definitely getting to me. My wife, Chiqui, was next to me. Our young daughters, Almarie and Sissel, behind us. You’re putting their lives in danger, I thought. You should have never taken off from Pittsburgh in conditions like these.

I was a veteran pilot, based in Guatemala and certified to fly instrument-only—that is, without being able to see the ground. But a certification didn’t take away the stress of constantly checking my altitude, that the plane was level, that I was on course, listening for airport radio traffic—things that didn’t require as much diligence in good weather. My shoulders and neck were stiff. I hadn’t relaxed them once since we took off.

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