Escape from the jaws of IMC

I’m not proud of this event, and I hesitate to tell the story. But, it may trigger some preflight thoughts in another VFR pilot. I began flying in my retirement years and was probably the oldest student my flight instructor ever had. I received some IFR training, both classroom and simulator, but decided to not pursue the rating because the airplane I acquired was not equipped and I resolved to be the best VFR pilot possible instead of a barely proficient IFR pilot.

That worked very well until December 29, 2010.

I had accumulated about 1200 hours in my 1965 Cessna 150E and considered myself current and proficient. That level of confidence should be a warning to all pilots.

Every Wednesday, for 10 or 15 years, a group of pilots and non-pilots would meet at an airport 50 miles south of my home base to drink coffee and tell lies. A friend and I went every Wednesday morning without fail. I checked the weather as usual and it was VFR all the way. The ground was covered with a couple of inches of snow. We left early and arrived there about 35 minutes later. There was a large group there and the coffee and lies were flowing and good. After a couple hours, I noticed the weather was changing. The visibility seemed to be getting shorter. I said to my friend, “I think we had better get out of here. It looks like the weather is getting bad.”

The first mistake I made was not checking weather again. We hustled out to the 150, fired it up and taxied out to the end of the runway. Visibility was more than a mile; I could see the other end of the runway without a problem. The problem was, I couldn’t see the overcast. The ground was white and the overcast was the same color.

I set the GPS for our home airport and powered up. The takeoff was normal until about 300 feet off the ground – we were solid IFR. Evidently a warm front had rolled in from the South and was creating a fog layer over the snow-covered ground.

Snow and fog
Snow can create fog and clouds in the blink of an eye.

The second mistake I made was to try to find my way back to the airport. I don’t know what my altitude was; I knew I was too low, but I could see straight down. All I could see was black objects against the white snow covered ground. The airport is surrounded by farm fields with a few towers so there wasn’t much to see and nothing to tell me where I was. I tried to use the GPS to find my way back to the field, but I had that uncontrollable urge to continue looking down for the airport. Later looking at the recorded GPS ground track I could see that we had been wandering around several miles from the airport and had made a really bad decision.

Finally, I said to my friend, “This is not working. We are going home.” I went on the instruments, turned to the GPS course preset to our home airport, and started to climb. I used to practice IFR approaches to an airport in California on the computer simulator. Good old Windows Flight Simulator. That was all the IFR experience I had and it worked. It isn’t real flight training but it instills in you to trust your instruments.

The climb rate of the 150 with two guys and fuel is not much more than 300 feet per minute. Had there been any ice in that moisture, I would not be writing this. We climbed, it seemed, forever. At one point in the climb, the stall warning horn blew. I put the nose down, gain some airspeed, and continued to climb. At another point, my friend experienced vertigo and thought we were out of control. Just what you need is a passenger in a panic.

Ten minutes in that situation seemed like hours. Finally, like all you IFR pilots know, the light began to get brighter, and I said to my friend, “We are breaking out.” And we did, at 4000 feet. The rest of the trip was VFR on top until we got ahead of the front, where it was severe clear. When I contacted ATC for flight following, they asked if I was IFR qualified and I answered truthfully. No, I’m VFR on top. I know they had been watching me wander around after taking off down there and their contact with the next station south gave them the weather change. Nothing else was said and after landing back home I filed an ASRS report to cover my tail.

This was a very frightening experience. It could have gone wrong so many times and just become another item on Kathyrn’s Report listed under VFR Flight Into IFR. Yes, my knees were shaking and I had trouble sleeping for several days. I haven’t been that scared since lying in a hole with incoming artillery around me in Korea. Believe me, you don’t want to experience that type of flight. Learn the lesson from my writing and don’t let that happen.

Everyone who gets themselves into that type of situation and dies, goes through the same thought processes, the same tension, the same fear, only he doesn’t live to tell you about it. You read every day about stalled airplanes, death spirals, and uncontrolled contact with the ground. They all start out with the same stupid chain of events. The chain starts when you get out of bed in the morning. Am I fit to fly? Check the weather. Is it marginal? How fast is that front moving? During the walk around, did you leave the oil cap off? Are the batteries in the GPS fresh? Do you depend on someone else to fuel the plane? If you rent, did the last renter damage the plane? The chain only ends when the plane stops flying, and, hopefully you walk away.

And all it takes is an organized approach to every flight. No matter what it looks like, check weather. The airport we left that day has AWOS on the field. I have the phone number on my cell phone. But, a snap decision to leave skipped those check points. I would like to think I have become a safer pilot since then, but am I?

We are all living in a chain of events. Our life is a chain that ends the same way for everyone. The chain related to you and your airplane is shorter and more manageable and for that reason you can commit it to a reasonable list, not just memory. And hopefully, your life chain will not end in an airplane.

Editor’s Note: This article is from 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

11 Comments

  • Excellent story. Even better outcome. The minute you feel comfortable and think you know it all is when you should take a step back. It happens periodically as the hours pass. As I’m coming up on 12000 hours I know I’m not immune to making mistakes. Always a good reminder.
    Stay sharp out there…!

  • Pre flight planning puts a rightful focus on getting the forecast weather for the trip out.

    That’s a good time to check the forecast for when you’d like to come back.

  • Thank you for sharing; I’m glad you live to tell the tale! Distractions and pressures can easily make the most proficient and/or confident pilot stumble in bad places.
    An instrument rating is an invaluable bag of tricks for those days that don’t keep their VMC promise.
    Creating a personal PAVE checklist to look at fir every flight before you’re even near your plane also goes a long way; I was surprised how many detailed check items I ended up adding to that list.

  • Thanks for sharing your story. I’m starting my instrument training next week, and your decision chain and lessons in this story are very helpful. A wise old (and bold!) pilot once said to never stop flying the aircraft until it comes to a full stop, no matter how terrible the situation becomes. Every moment counts, so never give up. You lived those words. That saved your life, and the life of your passenger.

  • Congrats on keeping your wits and believing your instruments. I had a scary situation when I was non IFR rated seven years ago…in the clouds, at night and low. It prompted me to get my rating in my 50s. Glad you lived to tell your story!

  • I credit my ability to escape from that situation with the time I spent practicing IFR approaches on Microsoft computer software. The time spent on the computer gave me the confidence to believe and use the instruments

  • The closer one is to home, the stronger the urge to complete the flight. No matter how bad it is.
    Also, an IFR rating is not the panacea that it might seem to be. Flying into weather without a plan and very good idea of where the obstacles are is quite hazardous; whether you have the rating or not. I have lost two good friends to that scenario and they were in the upper 1% of pilot ratings and experience.

  • Careful with your terminology. I’m VFR and learned the hardway of flying over tully fog in California’s great central valley that VFR on Top is an IFR term. Once you broke out you were technically VFR Over the Top, meaning you are flying with VFR flight rules, but flying above the clouds with the 152 rules.

  • You are correct. I checked in for flight following and approach control asked me if I was IFR proficient. I know, that they knew, what had happened. I didn’t answer yes or no. And they didn’t ask anymore questions. They know me and the N number and where I’m based from the weekly flights to that location. Maybe that had something to do with it.

  • Caudill wrote:
    >I checked in for flight following and approach control asked me if I was IFR
    >proficient. I know, that they knew, what had happened. I didn’t answer yes or no.

    But in the article you state:

    >When I contacted ATC for flight following, they asked if I was IFR qualified and
    >I answered truthfully.

    Which is it? I hope you were truthful.

  • My memory is a little thin on that. My normal response would have been “negative”. But thankfully there was no response.

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