It was mid-1977, and I had been assigned a story on the first production model of a new twin. The demo pilot had flown halfway across the United States to demonstrate what the airplane could do and allow me a chance to fly it for a few hours.
We launched from Long Beach, Calif. I investigated stalls, cruise, single-engine performance and all the other parameters, flew an air-to-air photo session and then landed back at Long Beach. We shook hands, and he loaded his wife aboard and launched for San Diego.
Late that evening, I learned he hadn’t made it. He had hit a hill down by San Diego. The NTSB determined that the airplane was operating normally in cruise flight and, apparently, flew straight into the side of a gentle rise. We’ll never know the exact circumstances of the accident, but the problem is all too common. It’s called CFIT (controlled flight into terrain), and the FAA suggests it accounts for about one of every six general aviation fatalities.
I’m sad to admit that I’ve lost five friends in similar accidents involving everything from Caravans to Skylanes. Most of those pilots were competent, instrument-rated aviators with thousands of hours of experience. Some were professionals (one was an airline captain) who had been flying for 20 years. One was a CFIIM.
I’m also embarrassed to admit that I understand the CFIT accident reasonably well, because I’ve almost fallen victim to it twice. Both times, I flew myself into a corner trying to stay out of in-flight icing—my mistake, no one else’s. That’s a reason, not an excuse.
The first time was in a Piper Aerostar 700 headed east across the continent. A member of the Saudi royal family had purchased the airplane, and it was scheduled to be used for a number of world speed record attempts. My job was to pick up the airplane in Napa, Calif., and deliver it to Lakeland, Fla. This was well before the advent of GPS, so my trip was with conventional VORs.
Icing is almost unheard of in California, but on this day, it was forecast to be waiting in the clouds above 7,000 feet. The previous day, I had flown down from Napa, and I departed Corona, Calif., filed for 15,000 feet, and then ran head-on into severe icing at 7,000 feet. I advised ATC I didn’t want to do that any more, suggested that I’d drop down to VFR underneath and then initiated a descent. I played dodgem with the clouds for the next 10 minutes, trying to stay as high as possible without turning the Piper into a Popsicle. It looked as if I were out in the middle of Banning Pass when it finally looked safe to climb higher. I advised L.A. Center of my intentions; they said they had lost me on radar but approved my climb. Going through 9,000 feet, I entered the clouds again for a short time, and then popped out to find I was headed for a solid rock wall.
I slammed the Aerostar into a hard left climbing turn, held my breath and waited for the impact. Fortunately, there was none. I was obviously too far to the right in the pass and had almost collided with Mt. San Jacinto, a 10,000-foot peak that guards the western hills outside Palm Springs.
Supposedly, we all learn from our mistakes. Apparently, that’s not true for everyone. My second brush with CFIT was westbound in a Turbo Arrow over Greenland during an early summer return from France. The flight from Reykjavik to Narsarsuaq had gone well, until I passed the eastern Greenland coast at 12,000 feet and started across the ice cap. Almost immediately, I ran into light rime icing. I knew the top of the cap was at about 8,000 feet, so I first tried up. No luck, ice accretion only increased. There was no choice but to descend.
Trouble was, I knew the white ice cap would be indistinguishable from the clouds if I descended too far. I was only 39 miles from my destination when I finally accepted the inevitable, turned around and headed back toward the ocean on the east side of the island continent. This time, I had three of Garmin’s best GPS devices on board, and as soon as I knew I was over the water, I descended out of the clouds and drove south to the bottom of Greenland in hopes of flying back north and executing the dreaded up-the-fjord approach.
Narsarsuaq is at the end of the 42-mile-long Tunugviarfik Fjord on the west side of the ice cap, and I hoped that fjord would be my salvation. After I passed the tip of Greenland and turned back to the north, the clouds kept driving me down until I was only about 500 feet above the water. I found the entrance to the fjord, turned back toward the east and began to follow the winding waterway toward the airport, descending even farther to stay beneath the clouds.
By this time, Narsarsuaq was reporting an indefinite 100-foot ceiling and 1/8th-mile visibility in fog, far below any legal approach minimums. I had no choice. There was plenty of fuel aboard to reach my alternate of Nuuk, 220 miles up the coast, but conditions there were just as bad, and the runway was shorter.
I extended gear and flaps, slowed the little Arrow to 90 knots and adjusted all three GPS units to the minimum scale. I plodded up the fjord at 100 feet off the water, trying to keep the little airplane roughly in the center of the narrow waterway. As I tracked inland, I’d get occasional glimpses of hills on either side or the water below.
After 25 minutes of steering the airplane icon up the center of the fjord, I made the hard left at the end, followed the water, turned back to the right as I passed the extended centerline of runway 7 and lined up on the unseen asphalt from a mile out. I descended to 50 feet and strained to see the threshold at the water’s edge.
With the Garmin 530 and 430 all the way down to the finest possible scale, I aimed for where I hoped the runway was waiting and saw the rocky coastline flash by below me. I flared across the beach and touched down in the first few hundred feet of runway, amazed that I had been lucky enough to survive one more time.
I’m not sure there’s any message here other than the obvious one: Don’t get caught in a situation where your only option leaves you sandwiched between clouds and ground. In this day of GPS that can pinpoint your position to a few feet, you just might manage to make it to an airport. Then again, you probably won’t.
Oh yeah, the aftermath of this story was that I went up to the tower after a few minutes of searching for the ramp in the fog and parking in the wrong spot. When I climbed down from the airplane on wobbly legs, I was certain I was in deep trouble with the local authorities. When I walked into the tower office, the operator’s only question was, “Are you planning to go on to Goose Bay tonight?”
Bill Cox is in his third decade as a senior contributor to Plane & Pilot. He provides consulting for media, entertainment and aviation concerns worldwide. E-mail him at [email protected].