Don’t be afraid to be afraid – a VFR into IMC story

Editor’s Note: This is the latest article in our series called “I Can’t Believe I Did That,” where pilots ‘fess up about mistakes they’ve made but lived to tell about. If you have a story to tell, email us at: editor@airfactsjournal.com

It was the summer of 2004. I was 17-years old and on top of the world. At 30-something hours into my PPL training the time had come for my solo cross country. The route was 200nm, with a touch and go at the first airport, overflight of a second, landing and refuel at the third, and then a straight shot back home. A good way to spend a few hours in a 152. I’d done the flight already with my instructor and though it hadn’t gone exactly to plan (a transponder failure had forced us to divert around controlled airspace), my flying had been fine and I was cleared for my solo.

clouds
How bad can it be?

I regret to say that I actually have no memory of the first two legs of the flight. Obviously, they must have been fairly routine. What I do recall is that shortly after the overflight of the second airport I had to step my altitude down a couple of times to get below a building cloud layer. Not huge steps and I was still at a safe altitude well clear of any obstacles though, so the thought of diverting or heading home never crossed my mind. I pressed on and other than starting my circuit on the wrong side of the airport (all circuits south of the field) the landing was uneventful. I taxied to the pumps, got the tanks topped off and walked inside to grab a bite to eat at the airport restaurant and call my instructor to keep her up to speed on my progress.

The phone call wasn’t encouraging.

“The weather is coming in; you should head back right away.”

Now in hindsight, with the experience I’ve gained since then, this was a bad thing to say to an impressionable young student pilot. Far better would have been to ask me to call for a weather briefing and then discuss options – either fly home or park the plane until the weather cleared. I seem to recall this was in the afternoon, so parking would likely have meant finding a bed for the night.

I also have to take a fair share of the blame myself. I was a terribly shy kid, and even making phone calls to strangers was a scary thought back then. The idea of arranging parking at the airport and finding a place to sleep was downright terrifying to me.

Blend all that together and you have a perfect storm of get-home-itis. An instructor insisting I head back, a student scared of the alternatives, and weather that doesn’t yet look too scary. That last bit was soon to change.

Flight Service
Who needs a weather briefing?

I hopped back in the airplane and taxied out for a totally routine takeoff. The horizon was lost in haze, but that’s normal conditions around here in the summer and I had become used to it. My first sign that things were going to get interesting was that I hit the cloud base at perhaps 1500 AGL, much lower than the nearly hour old forecast I had received before takeoff. Remember me saying that making phone calls was scary? I had convinced myself I didn’t need to call flight planning for a weather briefing, and so had a poor idea of how this system was evolving.

I was perhaps 15 minutes into the final leg of the trip when the first small cloud got in my way. I didn’t know the term “scud-running” at the time but I supposed that’s what I was doing now. I dodged a few clouds and popped through a few that were thin enough. I think I was actually enjoying myself at that point. The fun came to a jarring halt when I realized I couldn’t see the ground anymore.

Somehow in the midst of all this I’d run straight into a low overcast, a grey-white soup all around me that was getting progressively darker. Now we all know the smart answer to this situation: focus on the primary instruments and perform a gentle, 180 degree turn to return to clear air. But I wasn’t being smart. I needed to get home. I have to say my impromptu introduction to IFR flying went pretty smoothly for a minute or two, until I felt comfortable enough to start looking out the side window for the ground again. When I brought my head back to the instruments I was shocked to see myself in a mild right descending turn. I straightened the plane out without trouble but then made the mistake of taking my eyes off the instruments to look for the ground again.

Now back in ground school we all learn about special disorientation. About how the body fools the mind into thinking its right side up when you could be anywhere. About how after you realize the problem and try to correct it your body now wants to default back to that position. Every time this came up in ground school I refused to believe it with the confidence that only youthful ignorance can bring. I KNEW that I would be able to feel the plane turning. I KNEW that I could never be tricked into thinking I was straight and level when the truth was anything but that.

Six pack instruments
Focus…

So you can imagine the shot of adrenaline that went through my when I looked back at the instruments after mere seconds of distraction and found myself in a 30 degree right turn, heading down in excess of 500 feet per minute with rapidly building airspeed. Bear in mind that I had only started with 1500 feet of air below me.

I’m glad to say that my reaction at that point was the correct one, otherwise I doubt I’d be sitting here on my couch writing this. Fly the airplane. Nothing else matters right now. Get control of the plane. Level the wings and arrest the descent. Make that little airplane on the gauge level with the white line. Blue up, brown down. Use trim to control altitude. Gentle movements. Heading doesn’t matter. Talking doesn’t matter. Just don’t hit the ground.

When I’d brought things back into line I spared a glance to the compass and was not surprised to discover I was heading in the wrong direction. Fortunately I was below terminal airspace, so I told my shyness to get out of the way and called for advice. The controlled gave me my location and suggested I head south for a few miles which should let me get out into clear air. I followed his suggestion and sure enough a few minutes later I broke out of the clouds. And even better, I spotted a large river that I could follow east all the way home.

But I still wasn’t home free. The sky was overcast and dark with looming storms. Traffic on the highway below had turned on their headlights. The controller’s final words before I signed off were to warn me that rain had started both north and south of my location.

Full throttle for the remaining 15 minutes or so of the flight and into the circuit, where the Unicom had switched on the runways lights for me. I actually don’t recall things becoming particularly rough until I turned final, when I noticed that I was pushing triple digit speeds (in a 152) but not descending. I had received my glider license the previous summer, so I knew that whenever you have strong lift you had equally strong sink right next to it.

152 landing
Now for the finale – wrestle the airplane onto the runway.

This thought flew through my brain a half second before I hit the windshear that dropped the plane so fast my head slammed into the headliner. Full throttle and yoke back, prop biting at the air as the wings mushed though and the airspeed fell precipitously. I don’t remember the stall horn sounding but it may very well have. The next few moments are a blur but somehow I managed to coax that little 152 onto the runway. The CFI told me to taxi the plane straight into the hangar without stopping because they were worried I might get blown over if I shut down outside. I think it took me a good 10 minutes to get out of that airplane.

I think the irony of the flight is that it was fear that drove me into that situation, when it should have been fear, or perhaps respect, that kept me out of it. Fear of failure and nerves pushed me to take off when respect for the weather and the lives that have been lost in that exact scenario should have kept me on the ground.

I’m happy to say that I completed my training after that and despite a short hiatus from flying as I went through school, I am currently enjoying life as a casual pilot who won’t be tangling with weather until I start my IFR rating. I’m also happy to say that I’ve learned the value of when it’s better not to fly, and that a delay is a small price to pay when the alternative could be not arriving at all.

15 Comments

  • Wow, does this remind me of my first solo XC or what! I thought everybody else had a perfect first solo XC but I’m glad somebody else filled up their bucket of experience a little more that day.

    My first solo XC was an equally educational experience and I learned a lot that day. I didn’t temporarily become an IFR pilot but I did get a lesson in rainstorms.

    Your story (and bio) reminds me a lot of my own story as I’m journeying through the world of flight training. I’m also a writer here and I’m happy to see that somebody else is slowly working through the ranks and finding a way to fund it all without the military or loans from the bank. I appreciate how hard it is to do this, and I respect that. I wish you the best in the future and I hope you are able to fund your way through IFR training–and owning your own airplane–soon.

    Excellent story, I hope to hear more. Let me know if you ever want to chat.

    • Hi Michael,

      Thanks for your comments. It’s definitely a tough go working through the ratings when flying is a hobby rather than a full time occupation. Honestly at the moment it’s time more than money that I’m short on. Maybe once work lets up a bit…

  • Wow man, that’s quite a story. I have a few good ones from my training as well, but that’s gotta be one of the scariest I’ve heard, especially when you consider how little experience you really have on that first cross country. Mine went smooth as glass (fortunately) and I still look back and cringe when I think of how little I knew at that point and how much could have gone wrong with only one or two bad decisions on my part. You’re very lucky you had the presence of mind to get yourself through that one.

  • Seems like we all have to go through the “actual experience” to fully appreciate the hazardous situations. There must be a better way but, so far, I don’t think we’ve found it. Some think that it can be done by reading about other’s experiences, but that only helps to a certain degree. When you are actually faced with parking the plane at an unfamiliar remote airport and you don’t have any cash or credit cards on you with which to rent a hotel room, all that reading kind of gets forgotten. The biggest danger though is not learning from the first experience. If you think, “well I got away with it before, I can do it again”, you are headed for trouble.

  • Great story thank you. I encounterd a cloud on final while having a whopping 17 hours of flying. To this day I remember the panic of not seeing the ground. Serves as a great reminder when its go/no go time.

  • I notice most of the comments coming in relate to similar experiences; I know I had my share. Is it a rite of passage, I wonder, that must be endured by every student or newly certificated private pilot? Must we scare the bejeebers out of ourselves before we get the lessons to sink in permanently? I think it’s further evidence to support the theory that states: General Aviation airplanes are woefully unreliable for utilitarian transportation necessities unless the pilots-in-command are licensed, experienced, current, and legal to operate to their airplanes’ maximum flight manual limitations and specifications. Lessons are sometimes best learned in stark, vivid color, with elements of fear mixed in to boot. I’m glad you survived this flight; there will be many more lessons in the future if you keep flying, my friend; they NEVER stop coming; it doesn’t matter how many hours or years you have accumulated. Best wishes.

    • Hi Dave,

      There’s the old saying, “Learn from the mistakes of others, because you won’t live long enough to make them all yourself.” Certainly an apt one in the aviation world. On the flip side most kids I grew up with didn’t respect a hot stove until they blistered a finger. There’s obviously a line between making innocent mistakes that serve as learning experiences and serious ones that have more serious consequences. Unfortunately that line is a lot thinner in a plane than on the ground.

      I learn something new every time I hop in a plane. I hope that I never shut down without learning and improving.

  • It’s pretty near impossible to learn all the lessons that we need to learn as pilots third hand, whether from reading about it in books or online, or hearing about it from a CFI or other fellow pilot. There’s just so many risks that are out there that don’t seem real until we actually face them down in the real world.

    VFR into IMC is one of those risks that you really can’t comprehend until you do it. Hence, we should all expect to do so at least once in our flying careers, and quite likely multiple times, so it is imperative that we have training and occasional practice (such as in a BFR) in how to survive if and when it occurs.

    The accident data indicate that our safest hours as PIC are right after we earn our certificates as PPs (and likewise, right after earning an instrument rating), and that the accident rate thereafter trends upward continuously. It is no coincidence that at the conclusion of both PP and IFR training we have just had recent experience in flying on the gages.

    That’s at roughly 50-100 hours of total time for most of us. The general aviation accident rate peaks at about 500 hours, then starts to turn downwards again to where it eventually flattens out at roughly 2,000 hours logged

    Considering that the average private pilot only flies about 50-100 hours per year, those data mean that it typically takes us private pilots roughly 5 to 10 years of continuous flying experience to get most of the exposure that we’ll see in our flying careers before we either (1) learn most of the lessons needed, or (2) we simply get weeded out in the process. Of course, even after 10 or 20 years of flying, we still don’t become accident free or perfectly equipped to avoid all errors. As humans, we never get to zero defects.

    The good news is most of us survive nicely, with a fatal accident rate today being somewhere around 1 fatality per 100,000 flight hours (or roughly, one fatal accident per the lifetime flight hours for roughly 50 to 100 pilots). It’s not good enough of course, but we’re still far more likely to die of cancer (about 20% lifetime risk of death for all persons) or of heart disease (approximately half of all men over age 40 will develop heart disease, and about one third of women) than from our flying activities.

    The most important thing to learn in flying is the concept of risk management, and to accept the fact that we make lots of errors, so depending upon making no errors is NOT an effective means of controlling our risks as pilots. We must learn how to identify risk, and to avoid or mitigate risk when it presents itself.

    Since we’re dealing with probabilities in risk management, we need to learn how each risk that we accept becomes additive, probability wise, to all the other risks we face (the “accident chain”) … some of which risks we can control, but many of which we cannot control. The only absolute means of controlling and thus eliminating risk is to not go in the air at all. Sometimes in certain circumstances, that is the right decision, though obviously we can’t always elect to “no go” if we want to remain pilots.

  • Thanks for sharing your story. It is very important to have personal minimum even as a student. I would have discontinued my x country trip by sleeping over till the next day and the continue the next day with a simple phone call to my instructor. With that said, i am curious to know the part the instructor had payed in the initial stage of the planning.

    • Thanks for your comment. Personal minimums are (at least in my admittedly limited experience) something that’s gained through experience. During ground school we all have the legal VFR limits grilled into us but I haven’t encountered many students who had an instructor take them up in conditions that were legal but pushed the comfort zone. If you asked a student who had never seen weather at the minimums to go fly in it they will very likely give you a book answer. But take someone up in 2.1 mile vis with a solid overcast 50 feet overhead and you might get a very different answer next time you ask. At 30 hours I’m not sure I’d been in weather close enough to the limit to adjust my personal comfort zone to something better than the book requirements.

      Unfortunately this all happened 11 years ago, and like the first two legs of the flight I don’t recall the ground briefing that took place before I went into the air. I would guess it involved going over the forecasts and calling flight services for a briefing, followed by a chat with my instructor about the outlook. But I’m only guessing, I really don’t remember exactly what happened.

  • I’m not trying to be critical nor derogatory because I can certainly relate to this experience because I own a similar aircraft, but my question is “Didn’t the instructor and student (especially the instructor) check the weather beforehand to anticipate that the weather might deteriorate during the duration of this flight? Somebody didn’t do their homework. It was a 200 mile flight, which is about a 2.5 hour flight in a C152. Add another couple hours for takeoffs, landings, time spent at the airport, unanticipated events, etc … maybe 4 hours total more or less. I do realize, of course, that weather forecasts are not always completely accurate, but I would certainly think such marginal conditions could be anticipated within that period of time. My philosophy is that the best way NOT to get into a similar situation is NOT to go in the first place. No flight is worth getting killed over.

    Incidentally, I am so glad to see aviation companies like Garmin and Appareo making synthetic vision aids. I have a Garmin GDL-39-3D and in a worst case scenario (which I hope to never get into) I would plan to use it. The only problem is that I use an Android device (NEXUS 7) for which is it not yet available, but Garmin promises it’s coming soon; it’s available for the IPAD already. OK, I know it’s not best (nor legal) to rely on such aids, but imagine how comforting it would be in a similar situation … and it just might save your life.

    • Hi Randy,

      Unfortunately this all happened over 11 years ago and I honestly can’t recall what happened before the flight. I would assume we did a weather briefing (reviewing current and forecast weather, call flight services, and discuss) but that’s just a guess.

      I’m looking forward to seeing more aviation apps on Android devices. I’m not a huge Apple fan (What do you mean I can’t transfer files with Bluetooth?!) so seeing these apps come out universally will be awesome.

      • I really appreciate your post, Chris. Again, it was not my intent was to be critical. I have certainly made my share of mistakes. I was just making the point that the best way to avoid getting into such a predicament is to avoid going in the first place, especially if the weather has the potential to deteriorate. Actually, I would have thought the instructor would have recognized that the weather was not looking good enough to approve a student making a solo cross country flight. Regarding the Garmin GDL-39-3D, the problem is not with Blue Tooth, but the Garmin Pilot app itself. Blue Tooth works fine on both the IPAD and the Android. Garmin developed the app for the IPAD some 17 months before they did for the Android, so Android development is lagging behind a bit. While most of the Garmin Pilot functions (e.g. flight planning, traffic) are available for the Android as well as the IPAD, synthetic vision and trip logging have not be been developed yet. Garmin promises they are coming, but no time frame yet. Those functions are available on the IPAD using Garmin Pilot, however. One caution … be careful which Android device you get. The Nexus 7 will work fine, but I’m not sure about other Android devices. Thanks for sharing your story 🙂

    • I think the purpose of this forum is to encourage pilots to share their bigger goofs (everyone goofs here and there) so that others can learn from it to avoid it for themselves; I’m sure the author discussed it at length with the CFI who also had a part in it by pressing him to come back, but there’s no need for finger pointing on the readers’ part.
      Also, the flight was in 2004 – at that time there were no iPhone or iPads, only lousy PDAs, and much fewer web resources than today for a much better/visual understanding of current and developing whether systems and AIRMETs/SIGMETs in the region, yet alone real-time/in-flight updates of weather which can quickly change in some parts of the US.

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