I flew from Salem OR, to Baker City (in the mountainous area of Northeast Oregon) this week on business. With almost 200 hours I believe that I’m still a student. The weather was poor in Baker City early friday morning, but it was VFR by 9:30 AM so I called flight service for a weather briefing. There were thunderstorms to the Northwest headed my way – but more than an hour away. The Cascades were obscured so I’d have to wait until later or fly down the Columbia gorge under the overcast to get to the west side of the Cascade Mountain range. I decided to fly west to Redmond (just on the east side of the mountains) and wait there a few hours until the mountain obscurement lifted, or until I decided to fly over an hour out of my way to go through the Columbia gorge.
I filed my flight plan and departed. Soon I found conditions worse that my briefing – the ceiling was lower than forecast and getting lower yet. As I could see conditions deterioriate ahead of me – and on both sides – it was almost a no brainer to do a 180. I *wanted* to continue and I *thought* I could make it but I *knew* better (although it did take me a few moments to decide), so I returned to Baker City, cancelled my flight plan and tied down. 30 minutes later the Thunderstorm hit with high gusty winds, and heavy rain..
A couple hours later it was VFR again – the thunderstorms were well past and headed away. I got an updated weather briefing and chose to fly northwest to the Columbia gorge at the Dalles, then under the overcast west to Troutdale, and then south to Salem.
When I departed and activiated my flight plan the FSS asked me to help search for a crashed aircraft near Baker City. There was no ELT signal, but the passenger had used a cell phone to call for help. FSS gave me a possible location and asked me to remain on the FSS frequency. When I reached the location I circled and looked. There were several other aircraft also searching so I kept my landing lights on and made several radio calls. After about 30 minutes the FSS called me and reported that the aircraft had been located.
I resumed my flight plan and returned home. I did receive several pilot reports from Flight Watch of conditions ahead of me under the overcast in the gorge, and I added mine after I passed through. The 172 is no speed demon so this turned a long two hour, 45 minute flight into a really long three hours, 30 minute flight. I made it home uneventfully.
This morning I read in the newspaper that the pilot was killed. His wife and two year old daughter survived and were hospitalized. The crash occurred about noon – during the thunderstorm activity. It appeared that the aircraft was not located until about four hours after the crash. I can only speculate on the cause of the crash at this time, but I’m sure glad that I turned back and landed without hesitating.