Death Vortex

Hour 83

I did my primary training in Santa Monica, California: famous for its fishing pier and Third Street Promenade, its indigenous populations of movie stars living side by side with the homeless, and -- unfortunately for aspiring pilots -- its June Gloom. Every year before summer gets into full swing, a cloud deck settles in every evening and doesn't budge until the following day's afternoon sun burns it off. Technically called a "marine layer," it extends inland about 1,000 feet off the ground, making visual-flight-rules flight impossible in a land full of skyscrapers, terrain and complex airspace.

In June of 2003 I was still training for my private pilot's license. The last hurdle was the Night Cross-Country: a 100-nautical-mile flight performed at night. I'd scheduled such a flight with my instructor four times in two weeks, only to have the persistent June Gloom scrub each of them in turn.

One gloomy June weekend I was scheduled to be in Las Vegas for a friend's 48-hour bachelor party. As I was packing, a clever thought occurred to me: could I finally satisfy my last training requirement in Vegas? It's hundreds of miles from water, safely away from the infuriating June Gloom. All I'd have to do, I reasoned, was find a flight school, schedule a lesson, sneak out of the party for a few hours, and come back triumphantly, ready for my checkride. Brilliant!

I found a flight school based at North Las Vegas airport and gave them a call. "Sure, we'd be happy to give you a lesson," they said. "Just make a flight plan and we'll have an instructor meet you there." I planned a quick jaunt from VGT up to Mesquite (67L), a tiny untowered airport in the middle of the high desert about 75 miles away.

I arrived at the airport to find a 22-year-old kid wearing a colorful bandana and a lot of rings.

"Uh, are you the instructor?"

"Yeah, man! You here for the night cross country?"

I realized I'd been spoiled back home. My primary instructor was on old guy: wise, unflappable, willing to let me learn by making mistakes without ever actually putting myself in danger. This guy looked like a stoner, but I was determined to press on.

We took off and steered our 172 through the Vegas Class B airspace, then followed I-15 up towards Mesquite. Once we were away from the city, it was utterly black outside: a high overcast blocked out the moon, and there were no lights on the ground. I clutched the sectional chart with a white-knuckle grip, knowing the high mountains were out there but that I couldn't see them. What other unfamiliar dangers might be lurking in this strange land?

"So you're, uh, familiar with this area, right? Have you been instructing here a long time?"

"No, man," my right-seat companion told me. "I just moved here a couple months ago. It's cool though, we're doin' fine."

We made superficial small talk which did little to calm my nerves. Finally we approached Mesquite. The town turned out to be easy to spot; their casino had a piercing, billion-candlepower searchlight beckoning all comers. The light was right on the final approach course and I was afraid of being blinded by it. The rectangular traffic pattern small-plane pilots fly when approaching an airport usually extends a few miles out from the runway. To avoid the light, I flew a much tighter traffic pattern. Far too tight, as it turned out: the short final leg plus the nighttime flying illusions caused me to badly misjudge the distance to the runway. I was also afraid of the ground due to the total darkness and high terrain. I kept coming in far too high and having to abort the landing and go around for another try. My anxiety level continued to climb.

Finally, on my fourth lap around the pattern, trying to put my fears of this alien landscape aside, I managed to fly a stabilized approach and landed with a squeak. I breathed a sigh of relief as we taxied back to the start of the runway to take off again. On the way, I noticed the midfield windsock was limp; the evening was totally calm and the deserted airport was dark and silent.

Holding short of the runway's approach end, we programmed the radios and GPS for the return flight. Before taking the runway, I glanced back at the windsock a half-mile away. It was now indicating about a 10 knot tailwind. Takeoffs and landings are always supposed to be into the wind.
"It looks like the wind just came up a bit, blowing the wrong way," I told the instructor. "Should we taxi to the other end?"

"You sure, man? Looks right to me."

I looked at the windsock again. It was now pointing towards us, indicating a headwind. Was I going insane? I could have sworn there was a tailwind a moment ago.

"Wait, a second ago, it was..." -- I trailed off. The windsock was now slowly but continuously moving in a circle. What the hell!? I watched it, mouth open, still mid-sentence.

"It's going around in a circ-- I mean, do you see --"

Suddenly gravel and dust started swirling around us. As if an invisible hand had flipped a switch, the plane abruptly and violently started to shake. With a great clatter, like we were inside a metal garbage can being beaten with hammers, the plane was rattling and heaving around us. Losing his cool for the first time the instructor shouted -- barely audible over the racket -- "DEATH VORTEX!"

Okay, I'll come clean: what he actually shouted was "Dust devil!" As a city boy who'd never spent any time in the desert, I'd never heard of a dust devil. I had no idea what it was but it sounded really bad, as if he'd actually called it a Death Vortex. The fear of the unknown put me in abject terror. In that instant, I also managed to find time for some seething anger: "If you know what these things are, why the hell didn't you warn me about them? Why would anyone even fly here!? This is the dumbest idea I've ever had!"

What I actually said was less eloquent: "What the fuck is a dust devil!?"

The yoke whipped to and fro, hitting me in the chest. I stood on the brakes but the plane kept being pushed forward, inch by inch, despite my desperate pleas with friction. We slowly crossed the "hold short line" -- the sacred boundary that aircraft are never supposed to cross except right before takeoff. We pitched so far up and down that I feared the spinning propeller would strike the ground. In a panic, I quickly hit the master switch and pulled the mixture to stop the engine.

And suddenly it was over.

The wind stopped at the same moment the engine stopped. In a surreal instant, the cacophony of heaving metal and engine noise was replaced by almost total silence, save for the distant-sounding whine of the gyroscopes slowly spinning down. We sat quietly, saying nothing, listening to their gentle whir.
Finally, after a long moment, I broke the silence.

"I'm going to get out of the plane."

"Yeah, man."

We left the plane sitting where it was and walked to the edge of the taxiway. We found ourselves on a bluff overlooking the casino. We sat, we talked, we bonded as two men after a trauma do. For two hours we chatted about life, our fears, our aspirations, and why we fly at all. I learned that a dust devil is a miniature tornado common in the desert during the summer. We contemplated what might have happened if it had come along a few minutes earlier, when we were on final, or a few minutes later, just after takeoff. Finally, we got back in the plane, wiser.

An hour later, we were back in Las Vegas. The instructor filled out my logbook and we shook hands. I never saw him again. But, years later, I look back at that page and smile at the entry he made -- nothing but a little drawing of a tornado, captioned "What's a dust devil?"

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