It was the classic example of baby- bird stupidity. I had flown myself into a box of clouds without the benefit of training, experience, or even a properly equipped airplane. I was a two-year private pilot at the time, flying above the mountains of Arizona on my way to Albuquerque, N.M. Although I knew exactly where I was, that only served to define where I'd probably crash.
My first airplane, a defenseless, little Globe Swift, wasn't even close to being instrument flight rules-equipped (IFR). It had no artificial horizon, a venturi-powered directional gyro (DG) to tell me where my plane's nose was pointed and a VOR (a short wave radio navigation system) that only worked on alternate Thursdays in March. My instrument proficiency consisted of about 1.5 hours under the hood, acquired two years ago, in preparation for the private pilot test.
The fact that I'm writing this suggests the ending was anticlimactic. With clouds coming down and the terrain coming up, I finally identified where I was along Route 66 and turned to follow it east as it climbed toward the overcast. Within a few minutes, I spotted the barely visible, unimproved short strip known as Dinosaur Caverns. I had seen it several times before. (Don't bother to look it up. It's been closed since 1975.)
I landed the little Swift on the sagebrush-strewn runway, tall weeds scraping the bottoms of the wings, and rolled out onto a small ramp that also served as a parking lot for a local gas station.
Although I had done practically everything wrong, somehow science and technology had triumphed over fear and superstition. There was also a major amount of blind, dumb luck.
Quite a few flight hours and a number of ratings later (including an instrument ticket), I've learned a few things, although not nearly enough. I'm determined never to make those same mistakes again. I'll find some new ones.
One benefit of writing for the magazines is that I've been given the privilege of flying with 100 or more check pilots in conjunction with pilot reports. That's given me a virtual cornucopia of ideas on all things aviation, especially the pitfalls of flying into IFR conditions without proper training or equipment.
The following are some of the suggestions made by these instructors, check and test pilots, bush pilots and miscellaneous aviation bums who very well may know more about flying than I could ever imagine. Most of these suggestions are more common sense than revelation, more homegrown flying philosophy than scientific fact. Take them for what they're worth.
Unless you're instrument rated, consider staying on the ground when conditions are marginal.
1 Don't judge weather for a cross-country trip by simply looking out the window, seeing clear skies and assuming it will be just as good at your destination. It's ironic that pilots, supposedly trained to make dispassionate judgments on weather, sometimes make illogical decisions.
Just because it's ceiling and visibility unlimited (CAVU) where you are, don't be seduced into assuming that's how it is at your destination. Such conclusions become especially relevant when the distance stretches to 700 miles or more and you may be flying adjacent to several weather systems.
Several years back, I was delivering a new Partenavia P-68 Observer from Naples, Italy, to Santa Paula, Calif., an airplane notorious for its intolerance of carburetor ice. Accordingly, I was forced to luxuriate under clear skies at Reykjavik, Iceland, for six days while winter storms dropped a ton of snow on Greenland and Labrador, Canada. I imagine I could have flown out a few hundred miles to "take a look," but it would have been a waste of very expensive avgas.
2 Be especially wary of any forecast that suggests marginal weather at your proposed destination will remain the same when you plan to arrive several hours later. Remember that "about the same" isn't far from "deteriorating to…" If the forecast suggests conditions may be "improving to…" by your expected time of arrival (ETA), you may stand a better chance of completing the flight without problems.
One question I've been trained to ask the briefer on every trip is, "Where is it good?" If the weather seems to fall on the positive side of my decision process, and I'm inclined to give it a try, I'll often ask the briefer for suggestions of alternates along my route or possibly a different route altogether that might avoid the nasty weather in the first place. That might give me more options, should I decide to park the airplane and wait for better conditions.
3 Think at least three times about flying VFR at night. A few years back, the FAA considered a requirement for extra hours of simulated instrument training for those VFR pilots flying at night. Ten hours was a popular number. Apparently, no one felt there needed to be a special VFR/night rating, but everyone agrees night VFR is more challenging than day operation. There's often no visible horizon at night, you generally can't see clouds, and if you're operating over remote areas where lights are sparse, you may not be able to differentiate ground details at all. Unless there's moonlight, night operation can simulate a black hole, and that's no place for a VFR pilot. On top of that, there are certain aircraft sounds that can be heard only at night. If that spooks you, perhaps you should stick to flying in daylight hours.
4 Unless you're IFR rated and totally up to speed, don't even consider flying in weather reported at 1,000 and three. Yes, technically, you'd be legal, as long as you're in the pattern, but it's hard to imagine what you could accomplish in such marginal conditions.
Assuming you're flying above what the FAA calls a "congested area," you'll need 1,000 feet above ground and 500 feet below the clouds. That's 1,500 feet above ground level (AGL), and even that isn't enough. Generally speaking, if the forecast along your route or at your destination doesn't suggest the ceiling will be at least 2,500 feet and the visibility five miles or better, be wary.
I once delivered a purely visual flight rule-equipped (VFR) Pitts S2C from Dallas, Texas to Long Beach, Calif., over three days with nine stops for the 1,050 nm route, deviating three times for weather. It wasn't pretty, but it worked, and both the airplane and I arrived in one piece. It did cost the client a few extra bucks, but because I was willing to reroute and delay as necessary, I got the trip done safely.
5 Temper your judgment even further if you're flying in mountainous terrain. I've lost so many friends to combinations of clouds and mountains in the last 40 years that I've become more than a little paranoid about mountain flying with clouds nearby. A few years back, two highly experienced, instrument flight rule-licensed IFR pilots, one of them a good friend, flew a new Caravan straight into the side of a mountain in California's Banning Pass, apparently trying to stay out of the clouds and avoid icy conditions.
Every pilot has the right to decide what's an acceptable risk (if he's flying solo), but I don't even consider launching into the mountains even in slightly questionable conditions, regardless of whether there's a turbo out in front or not. Mountain passes aren't necessarily a better alternative either because clouds can close in behind and leave you with no way out.
6 If you've made a decision to launch toward atmospherics that you have the slightest question about, get an update long before you fly anywhere near the bad weather to minimize the chance of an inadvertent bout with something you can't handle. If you're not IFR rated and never fly into IFR conditions in the first place, you'll never have to worry about escaping from them.
7 One comment you hear repeatedly from many pilots concerned about flying in inclement weather is that an instrument rating only encourages aviators to operate in conditions they can't handle. Such a philosophy is fine, as long as you subscribe religiously to pure VFR and forgo use of your airplane when clouds are about.
Regardless of whether you have plans to earn an instrument rating, make it a habit to spend a little hood time now and then, to refresh your proficiency, just in case. If your total instrument training is the minimal emergency exposure for the private ticket, you may stand little chance of surviving a real IFR encounter.
8 Every pilot without an instrument rating fears winding up on top of an overcast, especially if you're doing everything right and the insidious clouds sneak in beneath you.
This is a special risk over swamps or coastal areas where water can contribute to instant ground fog. Too many times, pilots insist on watching the sky rather than the ground and barely notice when clouds creep in insidiously and blot out the ground. Keep an eye on the bottom quadrant and be certain to maintain ground contact.
9 If everything goes down the tubes and you do accidentally blunder into IFR conditions, the quickest route to safety is usually a 180-degree turn. Usually. No need to wrap the airplane into a steep bank and risk vertigo. Make the turn standard rate, and in a minute, you'll probably be headed out of trouble. After all, you got into this mess in VFR conditions, so a reverse track is often the safest way out.
Too many times, pilots who accidentally intrude on instrument metereological conditions (IMC) delude themselves that they can bluff it out by climbing through to on top or letting down a little below the clouds. Climbing through may solve the current problem but leave you with the obvious question of getting back down through the overcast. Letting down is nearly always a bad choice unless you know exactly where you are and what's below. After all, down is where the ground lives.
10 Finally, should you wind up in the clouds, alone, scared and without a clue, call for help as soon as possible. Assuming you can maintain control and keep the airplane level, don't blindly try to find your way out without help. Controllers aren't magicians, but if you have some vague idea where you are, they may be able to identify you on radar and provide vectors to clear air and low terrain. Equally important, they can warn legitimate IFR traffic to stay out of your way.
Don't assume just because you made some dumb mistakes that you'll have automatically earned a Federal Aviation Regulations (FAR) violation. Most controllers are reasonable people who accept the fact that everyone makes mistakes, and if you're honest about the situation and they're convinced your poor judgment calls were exactly that and not deliberate recklessness, they'll probably let it pass. Even if they don't, a violation is better than the worst alternative.
The obvious solution to weather accidents is an instrument rating, and even that won't solve all your weather problems. For those who had rather not spend the time and money to learn instrument flying, fine. There's no disgrace in flying only when the skies are clement. Just don't make the mistake of trying to mix IFR and VFR.
You may fool some of the weather gods some of the time, but you won't fool all of them all of the time.