Prepare to be Aware – #3 of the Big 5

Every year it happens. Pilots press on into deteriorating weather conditions. It is the leading cause of fatal accidents among pilots. But some pilots do survive their encounters with the clouds and live to tell about it.

Flying into IFR conditions continues to be one of the great problems and accident producers plaguing aviation. The situation happens when a VFR pilot flies into instrument conditions or even when an IFR rated pilot gets in the clouds, but is not proficient. The dangers involved with VFR pilots flying into IFR weather often turn these situations fatal, but listen to the words of these pilots who, thankfully, got out alive…

VFR into IMC with no clearance
NASA Number: 451785

I departed Selma, Alabama enroute to South Florida. The weather was 1900 feet broken with 6 miles visibility. As I progressed to 15 nautical miles west of Troy Airport the weather started to lower. Nearby Dothan, Alabama was reporting a 700-foot overcast with 2 miles visibility. As I approached Dothan the weather dropped to 400 feet and 2 miles visibility. The overcast showed breaks above and the tops had been at 2000 near Selma. I was 5 miles east of Carl Folsom Airport when I went into the clouds on a 170 track to climb on top. Due to the cockpit workload I was unable to contact Dothan approach. I maintained about a 160-degree track until I broke out on top of the clouds. I stayed VMC and climbed up to approximately 7000 feet to get around some other clouds. This was approximately 15 miles northwest of Genavo, Alabama. At 15 to 20 miles east of Genavo I was unable to descend through the scattered/broken deck.

DANGER: First, there was the threat of spatial disorientation. Second, there was the threat of colliding with another aircraft while inside the clouds without a clearance. This pilot did live to tell the story … but did share what (if anything) he learned from the experience. The following three pilots had encounters with instrument conditions and it seemed to change their life.

VFR Pilots Flies out over a Layer of Clouds
NASA Number: 41835

Problems encountered include thickening cloud layers below the altitude I flew, and unfamiliarity with the phrase: ‘What are your intentions.’ Preflight showed no adverse weather except for broken cloud cover at southern Kentucky border for the time of arrival. Few clouds were observed 20 miles northwest of Frankfort, Kentucky, but believed them to be incomplete and would dissipate soon. Initial call-up to Lexington approach disclosed IFR and mist, plan B was to fly to Marshall Field. I was given a transponder ident and a heading to descend on. I expected to find Marshall without delay. However, the clouds were much thicker. I remember three distinct layers on my descent to 1,800 feet and thinking that my normal rate of descent would only prolong my time inside the clouds.

I used carb heat, reduced power to keep RPMs below red line and increased a wings level descent to 1,800 feet per minute. I kept repeating to myself that ‘instruments don’t lie’ and remembered the hood drills and techniques I had worked on with my instructor. My awareness of the severity of my situation built slowly but now has made a permanent impression about safety issues in my mind. I overshot Marshall and had to be vectored to Cynthiana. Upon visual confirmation of Cynthiana, I signed off and thanked ATC for their help. But, instead of landing as Cynthiana, I switched my mind and opted to travel to Marshall Field by setting on a course west of the Lexington VORTAC. I found Paris (via water tower identification) and followed what I incorrectly identified as the road west to Marshall. Realizing the wrong course, I radioed Lexington Control, requested directions to Georgetown after heading back to Paris.

I now more than ever realize the hazards clouds present and the importance of maintaining visual contact with the ground. I never want to go through the clouds again with so little experience. I also plan to take every effort to update my weather information from in-flight advisories and metars, and am currently taking additional safety training at our FBO. I am also more determined than ever to start IFR training, hopefully next summer.

Pilot Climbs into a Fog and becomes Disoriented
NASA Number: 418559

I arrived at Batten Field, Racine, Wisconsin. The weather was poor, both there and at my destination – Pontiac, Illinois. I chose not to leave Racine until the weather improved. I continually called flight service, Green Bay, to look for improvement. Weather to the south of Racine was gradually improving, but Racine remained socked in. Later I became anxious to go in order to get back to my business. Unfortunately, I decided to fly despite the fog, figuring I’ll climb on top and descend close to home. At that time Pontiac had 1,900 feet ceiling.

Upon climbing into the fog, I became disoriented. I immediately called back to Racine to let them know what was happening. I then arrested my problem by ‘flying the airplane’ although my body was telling me I was in a slow right turning descent. Once I leveled out, I contacted Milwaukee departure and they vectored me through the clouds. My decision to ignore weather in order to get back to my business was, to say the least, irresponsible. I respected the weather, but my business sense told me otherwise.

The fact that I lived through this experience brought home just how dangerous weather can be if one chooses to fly in it. My trouble in flight was only a few seconds, but my memory of it will last a lifetime.

VFR Pilot Presses on into IFR Conditions
NASA Number: 420767

I wanted to move my plane from its summer airport to its winter airport. The weather forecast was calling for snow the following weekend and I figured that I would not be able to get the Cessna 150 to its home base if I waited. So with 3,000 feet ceilings, I blundered off into the east skies with lowering ceilings ahead. Five minutes into the flight, I looked at the compass and said to myself that 180 degrees from this is my way out! Well, let me share the angst/terror, etc. I hit the wall of clouds and all of a sudden could not see the ground! I was only five miles away from my destination and though that I could just follow the road into my home strip! This was the biggest mistake of my life!

After 4 or 5 minutes of total IMC, I finally got somewhat of a grip. I firewalled the throttle and climbed back up to 2,400 feet and prayed. I also headed in the direction that was my escape. I totally relied on the attitude indicator for help. For those of you who haven’t been there, let me tell you now — what you have learned about flying IMC is all true! Thoughts of how my attitude indicator sometimes decides to tumble zoomed through my head.

A break in the clouds granted me a visual reference for a moment. Then more clouds … light … and a break about 4 miles back to home. I could see where my home base should be. Just when I could almost see home the ceiling enveloped me again and I descended to 2,000 feet MSL. The home base appeared right where it was supposed to be. At 110 mph I turned sharply and the runway was in sight! Slow to 80 mph, full flaps, idle, full rudder slip and I was on the ground! I taxied to my tie-down and said a prayer to my God that I was still alive.

I do not write this as an adventure/thriller but to help others not to make my mistake! I could have easily been on the NTSB list of accidents that we read. I truly thought that I could end my life in muck. It is not funny or heroic by any means. I was stupid. I could go on and on about what happened to me but you get the point.

Do not scud run or fly into IMC — period!

THE BOTTOM LINE: …see above.