With the third anniversary approaching of the horrific crash of a Sikorsky S-76 helicopter, in which all nine aboard, including global basketball superstar Kobe Bryant and his 13-year old daughter Gianna, perished, I got to wondering how much pilots learn from tragedies like this one. The lesson is clear. When the weather is hugging terrain, you don’t need to get there. You need to stay alive. Turning around and landing somewhere that the weather is better should be the only goal. It wasn’t then, and nine people died as a result of the pilot’s insistence on continuing on to a destination never to be reached.
I had long ago learned this lesson. And I nearly paid for it with my life, and that of my older brother, who was my passenger on a chilly winter day in the desert Southwest as we flew along in a two-year-old Piper Turbo Arrow. I was building hours and planned out a long cross-country to Scottsdale, Arizona, where we had lunch and then headed home.
I was a new pilot, and my skills at gathering, visualizing and assessing weather data were embryonic, and I failed to fully understand the risks. I knew that low clouds were bad, and why, but the forecast for the return trip sounded as though it would be easily doable, with 2,500-foot overcast predicted for the high-desert airport I was flying back home to.
As it turned out, the overcast was a lot closer to 1,000 feet, and that might be optimistic. All I knew was that I could see the ground clearly, as the visibility ahead and under the cloud deck was excellent, but my range of vision was limited by the very geometry of the overcast. I could see only so far ahead as the low overcast let me. So the challenge wasn’t to keep the plane level, but rather to find my way home. This was long before GPS, and at the low altitude I was at and given the mountainous terrain all about, the only real option was dead reckoning. Just as the pilot of the Kobe Bryant flight was, I was following roads.
As I proceeded west along the lee side of the San Bernardino Mountains, I kept inching the Arrow lower, until I no longer cared if it was legal VFR; at that point, what did it matter? The point was to get to an airport, land and live another day.
I wasn’t an instrument-rated pilot; in fact, I wouldn’t be one for almost another 15 years, and I really didn’t understand the nature of scud running. I knew what it was. I just didn’t know what it looked like, how it wasn’t the kind of thing that presents itself fully formed and from afar. It’s a snake, creeping along the branch just above you, and by the time you realize it’s there, there might be nothing you can do about it.
Now that I was at risk, and it was all my own fault, I was doing almost everything right to get back out of it. The one thing I wasn’t doing, and I should have, was land somewhere else—somewhere flat and safe. Dry lakes abounded. But the skill of diverting to an unplanned destination while dealing with a crisis was way beyond my training and my emotional capacity. These days, flying small airplanes, I regard my destination as a suggestion. Where I wind up will be based on the weather, among other factors. Back then, I was heading in the direction of the airport I had shot 99% of my landings at, the one just a few miles from homecooked meals and my warm, safe bed.
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I figured, quite correctly, that since I wasn’t about to start spinning VORs to track my position and compare that the sectional fluttering around on my lap, I’d better pick a more sensible approach, and I did. I started following roads. The problem with that hoary method, however—well, there are many problems with “I Follow Roads—” but my problem that day was that from the air, many roadways look alike. And the one I had chosen as the one to lead us home was, in reality, a different road than I thought, one that led up into insanely steep mountainous terrain.
My brother pointed out my soon-to-be fatal error, I got us safely turned around, and traced my way back toward lower terrain. I picked up the right road, headed back toward home and made it. The folks on the Unicom, family members and friends gathered, had begun to expect a different outcome. They were equal parts relieved and angry that I could have been so stupid.
I wasn’t really stupid, just ignorant, my skillset was insufficient for the challenge at hand and the weather technology of the time was primitive. I’ve mentioned what I should have done—landed somewhere else.
I didn’t and it’s only by luck and my brother’s eagle eye that we’re both still around today to remember that fiasco.
As is the case with circling approaches and IFR at night over the mountains, scud running, even when it’s legal, is a nonstarter for me. The same is true for Special VFR. There’s way too much risk, and the only reward is to impatience itself.
Faced with the same issues today, I would turn around and land somewhere safe, a runway preferably, and waited until the flying weather was better. In places without such high terrain, I’d file a pop-up IFR, or go land somewhere and file for the new trip. These are no longer heroic options for me. They are a part of my toolbox, and like any other tool that you work with enough and get comfortable using, it doesn’t feel like you’re doing anything special at all. It’s a just and good thing, and the right thing to do. It really is that easy.