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@example.com.
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.
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!
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.