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Me? Lose Control? You Gotta be'Uh Oh!

by Michael Lenz
Reprinted with permission by FAA Aviation News

This article is designed to provide general aviation pilots with a safe and practical approach to weather. It is based upon an analysis of recent weather-related accidents and is promoted by the FAA Flight Standards Service's Safety Program, in coordination with the General Aviation Joint Steering Committee, which is comprised of government, industry, and aviation user organizations. This effort is focused on reducing general aviation fatal accidents.

Inexperienced pilots losing control of their aircraft in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) still cause far too many accidents. While most pilots can tell a personal 'and-there-I-was' story or two about being in the clouds, it's clear that pilots with the proper training and proficiency are far less likely to get themselves in a dangerous situation and, should they find themselves in such a situation, are more able to safely get themselves out of it. This article describes a few incidents where pilots quickly realized that they were in trouble, and several accidents that can provide important lessons to others. In all cases, better pilot training and proficiency might have prevented the problem or prevented it from worsening.

In the last FAA Aviation News article about weather accidents [see November/ December 2004], the discussion revolved around accidents involving hitting terrain during a weather encounter in which pilots maintained control. These are better known as Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) accidents. This article discusses the other situation in which pilots lost control.

When we think of a pilot blundering into weather, we think of a low time VFR pilot who inadvertently enters instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Unfortunately, there are plenty of these cases in the accident files. But not all of these encounters end in accidents. Sometimes a pilot can be fortunate enough to recover and find better weather. Here are a couple of examples of in-flight weather encounters from the Aviation Safety Reporting System (ASRS). More reports can be found at Select either Flash Version, the Non-Flash Version, or Get the Flash. Select 'ASRS Database Report Sets.' Under Report Sets Title, select 'In-flight Weather Encounters.

'I lost sight of the ground.'

I got a [weather] briefing...and departed in clear skies with unrestricted visibility.... I got within 10 miles of [destination airport] when things got worse and began to happen fast. I lost sight of the ground and descended to 1,000 feet MSL. I saw trees and antennas and decided to climb into the clouds and reverse direction. I got very disoriented and began losing control of the plane. I called approach control and asked for help. They vectored me back to VFR conditions. They did a great job keeping me calm, on course, and in level flight. They vectored me to an airport where I found a hole in the fog and landed safely. I was very shook up at what had happened because of my poor decision not to turn back sooner. I felt like I was within seconds of losing my life.... I've heard and read stories of what can happen and how fast. To experience it was a valuable lesson....

'I am in the clouds and need help.'

Conditions were getting worse by the minute...There were scattered thunderstorms throughout the area. This prompted me to hurry my preflight and departure. I was also trying to get to a meeting scheduled for later that afternoon.... I thought that if I could get about one mile from the end of the runway, I could make the determination of whether or not I would be able to make the flight home. If conditions were not favorable to continue, I would do a 90/270-degree turn back and land. Immediately after takeoff (1/2 mile and 300 feet), I was in the clouds. This was not what I had planned and fear and panic set in. Next came spatial disorientation. Unknowingly, I put the plane in a hard bank to the left and a very steep climb. Nothing was making sense to me and the next thing I remember was seeing...the VSI pegged off scale (greater than 2,000 foot per minute descent). I broke through the clouds long enough to see the ground coming up, which is a view I had never seen before and hope never to see again.... I thought of how stupid I was to get into this mess.... I pulled up hard. I remember doing this several times in the next few minutes of trying to stabilize the aircraft. The oscillations became less severe as I regained control of the aircraft.... My mind was not able to digest the tremendous amount of data it was receiving and I was trying to hang on by a thread.... My first [radio] transmission was, '[Approach] this is XXX and I am in trouble. I am in the clouds and need help. I need a vector to get out.' [Approach] responded by giving me a squawk code and then a heading and altitude.... I was able to climb, but my heading was all over the place. [Approach] then said that I should be out of the clouds in about three or four miles. About 20 seconds later, I saw an opening to go down through the clouds and I took it.

As I look back, it was incredible how fast things went bad.... Why did I ever take off with conditions as bad as they were and getting worse? Why didn't I listen to any of the people I had talked with prior to takeoff that recommended not going? I truly believe in safety first, yet everything I did showed just the opposite.... I have learned a great deal from this event and I hope that those who choose to listen might learn from my story....

These accounts are very real. They're also gut wrenching and very different from the lessons we all remember in primary flight training in which the instructor said, 'Okay, let's put the hood on and practice some simulated instrument flying.' Things weren't nearly this hairy and frightening.

So, an instrument rating should fix all of this. Right? Well'maybe. It should greatly reduce a pilot's risk of losing control of an aircraft in IMC...and it does. Clearly, the knowledge and practical skills that are learned would make anyone a safer pilot. But there's a catch. It's called proficiency and experience.

Pilots have to practice instrument flying to stay proficient, and simulated instrument time under the hood is valuable, but it's not a substitute for the real thing.

In one accident, a recently IFR-rated pilot and owner of a new Mooney lost control of the aircraft shortly after departure from Savannah, Georgia, when returning home to Pennsylvania. The pilot's logbook showed proficiency flights to maintain the required IFR currency; some of these flights were even with instructor pilots. There was limited actual IMC time logged, however.

On the day of the accident, the pilot received a briefing from the Macon AFSS prior to departure. Upon departing Savannah, control of the aircraft was switched to Beaufort and the pilot was on an assigned heading and altitude to intercept the on-course airway. Although the flight was in solid IMC, there was no ice or convective activity that would have made control of the aircraft difficult. This was probably one of the pilot's first solid IMC flights. He had acquired his instrument rating seven months prior to this accident

The aircraft was on an assigned heading of 050, and in less than two minutes, the aircraft made a left turn to 010 degrees and then an immediate right turn to 230 degrees and descended at a high rate of speed. The pilot and his wife were killed.

We can also look at a case of a pilot who had difficulty controlling the aircraft to maintain course and altitude while on an instrument landing system (ILS) approach.

The pilot was flying an A-36 Bonanza from Columbia, South Carolina, to Atlantic City, New Jersey (ACY) and received fatal injuries when the aircraft struck terrain short of the runway. A review of Air Traffic Control (ATC) information revealed that the pilot attempted two ILS Approaches to Runway 13 at ACY. During the first approach, the controller made numerous attempts to assist the pilot in intercepting the localizer, by issuing vectors, and instructing him twice to climb, when he was below the glide slope. The controller also made numerous repeated transmissions to obtain pilot acknowledgment of navigational assistance instructions. At 1601, the controller stated, 'November six papa romeo climb and maintain one thousand six hundred climb and maintain one thousand six hundred I show you about a mile from the outer marker you should cross the outer marker at one thousand six hundred.' The pilot acknowledged the instructions; however, radar data indicated the airplane passed the outer marker at an altitude of 1,000 feet. At 1602, the controller asked the pilot if he had plenty of fuel on board and if he would like a surveillance approach to Runway 13. After vectoring the pilot back to the final approach course, the controller again asked the pilot if he would like a surveillance approach or if he would like to try the ILS approach again. The pilot responded, 'Let's try the ILS 'cause I'm set up pretty much ready to go on it.' The controller stated, 'Okay, if you need the surveillance at all we're all set up and ready for it, ah, you can expect vectors for the ILS to Runway one three.' For the following four minutes, the controller provided vectors to the pilot to join the ILS and made repeated attempts to assist the pilot in establishing the airplane on course. During the intercept, the pilot passed through the localizer and continued on an eastbound heading. The controller then elected to initiate a surveillance approach by providing vectors and instructed the pilot to contact the final approach controller. Four transmissions were necessary for the pilot to read back the correct final approach control frequency. The pilot contacted the final approach controller and received a step-down altitude and a heading. More instructions were given for the pilot to correct his heading. The controller cleared the pilot to land on Runway 13 and instructed the pilot to report when he had the runway in sight. The pilot responded, '' roger.' This was the last transmission.

Interviews with family members and friends of the pilot, revealed he had received his instrument rating through a week-long school, within the past year, and had 'not accumulated much instrument flight time' since then.

This brings up the question, 'How do you safely acquire instrument experience?' One way is to fly in actual instrument conditions with an instructor or a proficient instrument pilot.

In his book Weather Flying [The McGraw-Hill Companies, 1998], Captain Robert Buck provides an excellent syllabus for a new instrument pilot to follow. Experienced pilots can use this for a guide to maintaining proficiency as well.

Teaching Yourself to Fly Weather

'Each day, in our advancing times, the complexities of air traffic control, routes, and communications grow, so that all the experience we can get in this area is important. If, on each flight, VFR or IFR, we are on a flight plan, doing all the work required, we will become facile with this part of the job and do it smoothly, almost automatically. Once this has become an easy task, we will have time to think about the weather.

[We can sneak up on flying actual weather by] flying a little at first, more as we gain experience.

Following is a step-by-step method. These steps are guides and one's own judgment will vary them as one appraises his or her growing ability and degree of comfort in different stages of weather.

The idea is to fly weather with safeguards that relate to our experience. After we've flown the first step's conditions enough to feel comfortable, we can take on a little more as in step two, and so on. The steps are:

1.      Fly good weather to good weather on top.

2.      Bad to good.

Step two is simply a continuation of the first step. When starting these first steps, it's best to take off after a cold front has passed. Then there shouldn't be any more fronts for quite a long distance.

There are special situations, like the Los Angeles basin, that are excellent for bad-to-good flight experience. The frequent low stratus allows for an instrument departure and a climb to on top, where it's [clear], and then a flight to someplace on the desert like Palmdale where the weather is good.

3.      Good to bad.

4.      Bad en route.

5.      Thunderstorms

Looking back over these steps, we can see that weather flying experience isn't gained quickly. We need several seasons, years, to see the things we should see and experience. We must face the facts of weather flying. It cannot be gotten by injection, it cannot be gotten by reading a book, and it cannot be gotten quickly. We must remain humble for a long time and know when to quit or when not to go. An instrument rating is a beginning, not an endorsement that one can fly off in any weather.'

Captain Buck goes on to describe each step in detail. It's well worth reading. You can also use this as a guide and develop your own proficiency plan in conjunction with your flight instructor, who knows your capabilities and those of your aircraft.

In recent discussions, Captain Buck wanted to reiterate some basics to readers. He said 'We must emphasize the importance of doing one thing at a time. When a pilot gets into trouble, the first thing needed is to get the airplane under control and keep it under control; then handle the weather. Regarding weather, I don't believe we are getting in a pilot's mind what weather can do, that it is rarely static, but either improving or deteriorating. Pilots tend to look at weather reports, ceiling, etc., and, thinking the ceiling is high enough, charge out there VFR'never really realizing the chances for conditions to deteriorate' or get better, and what to watch for to see which way the weather is going. There are subtle things, such as realizing that a scud runner can suddenly be faced with near zero ceiling simply because the airplane approached even a small hill that lifted the air and orographically created low clouds that hugged the hill.'

If we look back at recent accident statistics (since 1996), 116 instrument- rated pilots lost control of the aircraft in weather while on an IFR flight. Seventy-seven (77) of these pilots were operating in what should have been benign IMC conditions, in other words, no ice, severe turbulence or other factors that would have precluded an IFR pilot from maintaining safe aircraft control. In addition, 54 pilots lost control of the aircraft due only to light conditions, not weather.

If we look at loss of control accidents due to weather on other than IFR flight plans, there are another 218 fatal accidents since 1996. Seventy (70) of these pilots held instrument ratings. The high number of loss-of-control accidents, even when the pilot is IFR rated, might initially seem surprising.

Why would an instrument rated pilot not be able to maintain control of the aircraft and reverse course while on a flight that is supposed to remain clear of all clouds in the first place? The illusionary effects happen quickly with the pilot's senses giving one indication while the aircraft instruments show something very different. When the inexperienced, low-proficiency or non-current pilot is suddenly immersed in a challenging environment, coupled with the daunting reality that their lives and their passengers' lives are at risk, mistakes can compound quickly. The bottom line is that all pilots should recognize that it can be challenging to fly in the clouds and that even if they are IFR-rated, they might not be fully prepared to fly safely.

Also, during an inadvertent IMC encounter, the instrument rated pilot now has to do something that no instrument training or previous experience prepared them to do'and that is to work their way out of clouds while the location of nearby terrain is uncertain and airspace and cloud clearance requirements are an issue. We'll never really know the details of VFR into IMC accidents, because these accidents usually occur to general aviation aircraft without cockpit voice recorders or flight data recorders. Most blunders into IMC that end successfully probably are not reported.

Michael Lenz is a Program Analyst in Flight Standards Service's General Aviation and Commercial Division.