Posted 252 days ago ago by Admin
“You have the controls; I think I’ve got the leans,” I told Rich, the front seat PIC in our US Army AH-1F Cobra. I tried to sound calm, but there was no disguising the worry in my voice. I had recently commenced a descending left turn through an inviting sucker hole to escape the rapidly forming low overcast clouds. It seemed like only moments before we had higher clouds with sufficient visibility to enjoy our cross-country flight along the picturesque Rhine River valley near Koblenz, Germany.
“I have the controls,” Rich replied calmly, leveling out below the cloud layer above the river while I fought to move my head, which felt like it was glued to the side of the aft cockpit canopy. Despite my earlier comment, there was no doubt about it. With orientation restored, I knew I had experienced a surprisingly powerful vestibular illusion – the leans. Had I been flying as a single pilot, I’m not sure I would have recovered.
That was a sobering lesson on the hazards of attempting to continue a VFR flight in deteriorating weather. A few short years later, while flying in the Gulf of Mexico, I encountered a similar situation that revealed I still had much more to learn.
“Use the paper towels!” I exclaimed, urging Donny, my front-seat passenger, to wipe away the persistent fogging on the interior windscreen. Why did the defrost system always seem to fail when you needed it the most? No time to ponder that. Outside it was worse.
I had just flown my Bell 206B Jet Ranger into some nasty weather while en route to get fuel at another platform. I couldn’t turn around, and no other platforms were in sight. The surface of the water was barely visible due to the torrential rain. My antiquated flight instruments and navigation system were unreliable, so climbing into the clouds and planning an emergency land-based instrument recovery was out. After attempting to find any platform or better weather conditions, I was not confident I could even make it to the beach with sufficient IFR or VFR reserves. I was low on fuel, ceiling, visibility—and options.
I needed to fly high enough to avoid striking a platform, but low enough to see it. Those two choices did not reconcile very well. As fate would have it, I flew directly above and adjacent to a mysterious production platform that looked like it was placed there just for me. I had to keep that platform in sight, so I immediately completed a course reversal and descent that I can only describe as sporty. But I landed safely on a platform equipped with jet fuel.
Once again, I received a “near-crash course” on the perils of trying to fly in bad weather. I rationalized at the time, just as many of you likely do today, that the weather was unexpected. But I knew better. We can all try to rationalize our way out of what we know was poor aeronautical decision making.
If I had known then what I know now regarding the abundant resources, training, and equipment available to all pilots the world over, I do not think I would have pushed it as I did in these two VFR into IMC scenarios. Indeed, I would likely do a lot of things differently.
I no longer fly for a living. I now happily carry the torch for safety promotion. I love my job because I know it can and will save lives. Let’s start with your life: IIMC is a known pilot killer. What's your plan for surviving it, not on your best day, but on your unluckiest?
The Vertical Aviation Safety Team (VAST), US Helicopter Safety Team (USHST), and several regional safety teams offer valuable information and resources. Finally, readers can view the “56-Seconds to Live” YouTube video and complete the companion Training Course that helps pilots understand the hazards and consequences of continued VFR flight into IMC and offers them the tools they need to avoid becoming the next fatal accident victim.
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