Mississippi River bluffs
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Editor’s Note: This is the third 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: [email protected].

10 Seconds from Hell

By Edward J. Arness

Ten Seconds from Hell may be rather a shocking statement: nevertheless, it is a true one. I will explain this statement so you will understand why I chose this title. I am a pilot and have been one for 44 years. However, during my first few months of flying I had an experience that few live to tell about. I had earned my private pilot’s license on November 19, 1967 and had flown several hours since that time up to the point of this story which happened on January 26, 1968.

Clouds at night

Dark night and clouds up ahead–a warning sign?

A few days prior to this date, three fellows asked if I could fly them to Fort Wayne, Indiana, for a wedding; I said, “That should be no problem,” since I was a confident pilot and could do the job for them. I picked them up at Flying Cloud Airport in SW Minneapolis and we were off and flying.

We would be stopping at Decorah and Dubuque, Iowa, and in Rockford, Illinois, before arriving at Fort Wayne. Five of the six hours of planned flight time ended up being at night. The scary part was ahead of us in a situation we didn’t know about as we took off from Minneapolis.

I had done the proper weather check with Flight Service and they told me it would be VFR. I was not qualified for IFR so I felt it was safe to proceed as they had told me even though it was cloudy, it should not be a problem according to the weather briefer.

After flying an hour, we were experiencing lowering cloud layers and were getting close to Lacrosse, Wisconsin, where we were flying along the Mississippi River and the big bluffs that line the river and we certainly needed visibility to see those big bluffs!

That fact was appearing less and less likely when all of a sudden we were engulfed in clouds and fog and could not see a thing except clouds, right about at dusk. My first reaction was to put in full power and to hopefully climb above the cloud layer. When I put in full power my gauges said I was in a 30 degree bank heading down toward the ground! I thought, “This can’t be!” But it was the case! Then what my strict instructor Hans had taught me about fog while under the hood in my one hour of instrument training suddenly kicked in!

He had said, “If you get in a fog or clouds, believe your instruments, because they were working before you got in the fog, and they will still be working while you are in the fog!” So, in listening to what Hans had said, I corrected that bank (not a moment too soon) to straight and level climbing flight according to my gauges, but then I felt like I was sitting sideways!

Mississippi River bluffs

The bluffs overlooking the Mississippi River in northern Wisconsin filled the windscreen.

Thank the Good Lord for Hans and his instruction and advice along that very critical line because it saved my bacon with literally seconds to spare before contacting the earth! One of the fellows claimed he saw the side of the bluffs about the time I corrected for the straight climbing flight. This cannot be verified but it was very possible.

Statistics say it is only about 30 seconds before a person hits the ground after getting in fog and experiencing the vertigo which occurs when a person becomes temporarily disoriented as in a cloudbank, when you cannot see up, down, left, or right because the cloud masks your visibility. Your senses tell you that you are headed in a different direction than you are actually going. This is what I had experienced that night. I figure I had used up about 20 of those seconds in that situation.

It was not long before we popped out on top of the cloud layer and continued our flight on to Fort Wayne, with the planned stops. I only had 88 hours of flight time when this all happened and I know for a fact that Someone was looking out for this very inexperienced pilot! That Someone, as you can guess, was the Lord, and by His Grace and Mercy I escaped going to hell by about ten seconds! The reason I say that is, I was not a Christian at the time of that flight and my eternity would not have been spent in heaven!

Edward J. Arness lives in Leavenworth, Washington, and has been flying out of Pangborn Memorial Airport in Wenatchee  (EAT) most of the last few years, flying all the Cessna models including 206 and Turbo 206. He is a Commercial, instrument-rated pilot on land and sea and has spent some flight time in Alaska as well as four seasons for the United States Forest Service in Washington and Idaho. The private flights and charter flights (Part 135) he has done have taken him to 26 states and four Canadian Provinces. Ed says he is still current in flight with a Second Class Medical and very blessed with great health.

Ed Arness
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32 replies
  1. Neels Kriek
    Neels Kriek says:

    Whow, what a story and experience Ed Arness had. I am in the zone in terms of flying experience where Ed was at the time of his ’10 seconds from hell’ – I hope this never happen to me, but if it does, I will not think of Hans, but of Ed and the ’10 seconds from hell’

    Thanks to the Editor for excellent articles and information and for our population of experienced pilots sharing their ‘learning’ with us ‘rookies’

  2. RM Moore
    RM Moore says:

    The experience was educational, very much so.
    But to use this platform to proselytize seems an imposition that some readers may not appreciate.

    Is the editor now equally willing to present all faith-based views in an equal opportunity manner?

    Shall we then welcome Buddhist and Hindu and Muslims and, last but not least, the Agnostics and Atheists, all to interject their faith-based ideas and religious conversion histories on Air Facts??

    M Indra

  3. Neels Kriek
    Neels Kriek says:

    I agree with M Indra, albeit I was not offended in any way by Ed’s religious expression. My take on the story was the sobering and PERTINENT learning and lesson I take from it. Living in a society (UK) that has gone way over the top with PC, I actually find Editors willing to push the PC boundary refreshing.

    • M Indra
      M Indra says:

      Hi Neels..
      A pleasant reply. Thanks. I also was not offended.

      My meaning tracks your comment closely….that is to say…

      The educational value of this experience would have been equally powerful and sobering – without the interjection of religious teachings.

      Taking such liberties in a public and secular forum is not without purpose.

      I also believe in God but I don’t believe in Hell.
      Shall we then take Air Facts into that discussion?

      I don’t think that is what Mr. Collins has in mind here.


      • K Price
        K Price says:

        M Indra,

        I’m glad you believe in God but how can you believe in the God of the Bible and not believe in hell? Just curious.

        John 1:1 says “In the beginning was the Word and the Word was with God and the Word was God. ”

        God’s word specifically speaks of Hell many more times then Heaven.

        Some may not like comments regarding faith, but if we are ashamed of God on earth He will be ashamed of us when He comes in the Glory of his Father. John 8:38

  4. Ed Newman
    Ed Newman says:

    “Shall we then take Air Facts into that discussion?”

    No…. please do not. However I’m always happy to read your comments or thoughts on flying.


  5. T.Martin
    T.Martin says:

    It is pathetic so many people have duped into thinking that it is some kind of horrifying offense for anyone to speak or write the name of Jesus or God. Mr Collins nor Air facts is not “the government” in case you havent noticed. Why dont you folks who act as if you are mortally offended ask yourself why you truly react in that manner. It is not illegal for anyone to say Christian words and put them to print. Political correctness is an idea created by those who wish to totally exclude the knowledge of a Creator or Holy God from human thought or responsibility so that any evil or action may be become good without moral absolutes. If you dont want to read or hear about Religous Faith then thats your choice. Is it really necessary to throw a tantrum whenever the slightest mention of God is made ? Oh good grief!

  6. Steve Phoenix
    Steve Phoenix says:

    What would you have done if the airplane did not have gyros; like a Cub or something? Not pushed the weather as hard, landed on whatever was below, or just crashed?

  7. Mickey Lessley
    Mickey Lessley says:

    I would bet looking back after getting ones private license, we all have stories we could tell. I do. Thanks for the story. It just goes to the saying my instructor told me. Once newly licensed, you now have a license to learn.. Somehow with the right attitude and good instruction, we survive!

  8. Lee Armstrong
    Lee Armstrong says:

    I enjoyed the article Ed. I am glad you shared your spiritual perspective. To often people tend to try to impress others as how they survived due to their great strengths and abilities. You are giving credit to whom credit is due PTL!

  9. Jan Helligso
    Jan Helligso says:

    Thanks Ed.Like the saying goes; “There are no Atheists in the fox hole.” I know flying will sometimes make you pray, believer or not. I’ve felt the sweat pop out a time or two. Glade someone was watching out for me.

  10. A. H. Powers
    A. H. Powers says:

    I learned to fly in 1955. Daryl Willard, my instructor, was a very experienced old time stick and rudder flying, one man FBO, who had taught hundreds of pilots to fly before and during WW II.

    One rainy overcast day in NW Washington he was giving me dual cross county instruction in his Cessna 140. ( He was checking me out after upgrading from the Aeronca Champs he used for basic training) We were heading home to Paine Field and the overcast ceiling was lowering. I continued flying and dropping down towards the tops of the fir trees below. Glancing at him for some comment or advice as to continuing the direct heading to home, it appered that he had nodded off. I continued the same heading and kept descending, slowly. The trees below were becoming a concern to me when suddenly I flew in to the overcast. I experienced immediate vertigo and terror. The next thing I heard was ” I’ll take it ! I willingly gave up as pilot and he immediately climbed and did a 180 with the needle ball and airspeed for guidance. After we flew back into VFR his first words were “That’s how you get killed in an airplane ”
    He went on to advise that his philosophy was to decide ahead of time what ceiling and vizibility standards and margins were acceptable for the situation, and rigidly follow them.

    Daryl’s little ruse of faking nodding off I believe should be experienced by all in basic training. It has worked to keep me out of trouble in my VFR flying.

    Five years later, on a beautiful summer VFR night time flight, I flew into a cloud that I couldn’t see until the strobe was flashing back at me. I managed a 180 back to VFR and completed the flight at a lower altitude. I started IFR training the next week. I don’t think night cross country VFR is safe without an IFR rating.

    Just my opinion. AHP

  11. Jay Barker
    Jay Barker says:

    Ed Arness is a close personal friend and former work associate. I highly respect both his aviation skills and his Christian commitment.
    I am a high time, low altitude pipeline patrol pilot and have experienced quite a few situations where I looked back and marveled that I was able to escape my own lack of attention and/or disregard of the cardinal rules of aviation…to quote..”To a far greater extent than the sea the air is very unforgiving master.”
    I am very thankful that God has seen fit to provide me with an “escape route” each time that I did something foolish!!


  12. Jim Frankenfield
    Jim Frankenfield says:

    Hey Steve.. One way to maintain positive control, if, for instance, you’re caught on top, or fly into IMC at cruise, in a no-gyro Cub or Champ, is to SPIN through the overcast:(positive control); of course the next question to be addressed is, do I have enough altitude underneath, to recover from the spin. It’s a crap shoot! Answer: not pushed the wx as hard, or landed. Jim

    • Steve Phoenix
      Steve Phoenix says:

      Jim…Yeah, the spin down through the overcast is one way; if you’re caught on top of a known high overcast and you have considerable fortitude. But the more usual scenario is descending under a lowering overcast until you’re quite low and decide it’s too tight. The spin trick doesn’t work there. I have had it close in behind me and had to go for a road…only once. Now, I pay attention to what’s going on behind me as much as what’s ahead. I’ve also since decided I don’t have any important schedules to keep.

  13. Hunter Heath
    Hunter Heath says:

    Having flown over those Mississippi River bluffs many times en route to La Crosse or Oshkosh, my palms moistened and the neck hair stood up on reading this story. Oh, how little we know as low-time pilots! And how narrow is the margin between the living and the dead. As for the religious references, gee, guys, manifest a little tolerance.

  14. IFR SoloPilot
    IFR SoloPilot says:

    I’m sorry, I thought I was reading a flying website, not a Christian prosthelytizing site. What a load of crap. This is religious BS only partially hidden in a flight story.

  15. Bill
    Bill says:

    Let’s seen he has been just licensed, he takes 3 adults which probably means the plane is overweight, he flies into imc at night and he is what ? He is irresponsible And foolish. He took unnecessary risks to impress his friends and barely came out alive. God had nothing to do with this.

  16. RM Moore
    RM Moore says:

    BIG THANKS Bill…
    Your rational outlook is sorely needed balance in contrast to all the sermonizing and personalizing.

    The real lesson is not about remembering what to do when you inadvertently fly into IMC. The actual lesson is found in asking why the situation happened to begin with. Thanks for cutting to the core issue here.

    Mr. Arness clearly demonstrated very poor overall judgment.
    Heavy / Night Flight / Low Flying Hours / Cloudy Conditions
    —>> IMC == ???
    We can also add Lack of Terrain Familiarity.
    In his own words…”The scary part was ahead of us in a situation we didn’t know about as we took off from Minneapolis.”

    PAGE 174-5 Pilots Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge FAA-H-8083-25A
    Hazardous Attitudes and Antidotes “It won’t happen to me.” “I can do it.” See also….Assessing Risk

    This good man is indeed very fortunate to have survived (as are his 3 passengers).

    Unfortunately, it seems even now, 45 years later, the gentleman has missed the real “truth” that should be passed on to Air Facts readers.

    Thanks for grounding this picture to the real issue of proper personal minimums that indeed match one’s actual skills and cockpit experience.

    RM Moore

  17. Will EIfert
    Will EIfert says:

    Some thank God when they encounter adversity and survive. Others thank Allah, and others thank themselves.

    The “I can’t believe I did that” series is an opportunity for pilots to share their personal stories that we may discuss them and learn from them. And the story is just that – personal.

    For me, this is the story of a pilot without a great deal of IFR experience getting caught in instrument weather, and making the corrections necessary to avoid the side of a mountain. Who the man thanks after he’s on the ground is his business, which is fine because this is HIS story.

    Quit doing extra work to be offended, and pay attention to the lesson that can be learned from the story.

    • Bill
      Bill says:

      I think you’re missing the real point of the story that the writer never admitted any error on his part, that even after the incident he continued ifr without a ifr clearance , that he should have never been carrying passengers at night with several hours since his rating. He conveyed the attitude that this was normal encountering these problems while flying

      • RM Moore
        RM Moore says:

        100% correct. Thanks again Bill.

        88 hours on his log, with “several hours” after PPL. Cross-country night flight in cloudy conditions? With passengers??

        After 45 years, the real lesson was not properly addressed by Mr. Arness in his article.


  18. Bob Miller
    Bob Miller says:

    I do believe that WE All have done things that should have been a real brain opener. That said did you your self learn and remember that act, or did you go on and do it again. Or better yet did you learn something? Then did someone tell you and show you, that YOU ARE Not able to do stupid things because you refused to learn from them. I think we need all types of experience to be able to be ready to do the right things when needed IF> IF we are put into a problem that needs to end up as a Life savage safe ending. If that is input by others stories or by doing it, and making it come out alive and unhurt, Then all types of INPUT must be used, even what we read from a DEATH accident report, or a STUPID, DUMB ACT. Don’t JUDGE >PLEASE!!Bob M.

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