Snow That Goes Bump in the
Reprinted with permission from FAA
was a meticulous young doctor. He did every thing full out. He tied for the top
spot in his medical school class. At 30, he was beginning his practice and held
a private pilot certificate with instrument rating and had a total time of 360
hours. Thirteen of those hours were in the Mooney M20C involved in this
Unbeknownst to Bill, the rental plane had altimeter problems. After the
accident, it was learned that the barometric adjustment gears for the Kollsman
setting did not mesh and this allowed the altimeter's hands to move while the
barometric scale did not.
April day back in the1970's, Bill was pilot-in command on a mission to fly from
Milwaukee to Wyoming to look at a campground that he and his three passengers
were considering as an investment. The other travelers were Joe, Fred, and
Susie. Joe, also a doctor and private pilot, was in the right seat. Fred and
Susie, a husband and wife, were in the rear seats.
Dr. Joseph 'Joe' Hoffman tells it best:
The flight was going well. We had stopped for fuel in Sioux City, Iowa, and the
weather was good. We took off and continued westbound.
recalled, as night fell on the accident leg of the flight, we were over Nebraska
as we began to run into un-forecasted snow. It persisted and became heavy. We
were on a VFR flight plan and called ATC to see about finding a route clear of
the snow. They said they weren't showing anything and couldn't suggest any
alternate routing. [Remember this was 1970'stechnology.]
Bill changed our flight plan to IFR figuring the snow would end soon. It didn't!
It was late now and the snow began sticking to the wings and was so heavy that
all we could see was a faint glow from the wingtip lights. We requested
clearance to Scott's Bluff, Nebraska, where we could sort things out and get a
better handle on the weather.
The faulty altimeter was showing us at 5,000 feet, but in reality we were much
lower and narrowly missing treetops. Bill had his hands full flying instruments.
Visibility was almost nil, at the last minute I saw the terrain and bluff
approaching and pulled back on the stick, but it wasn't enough, and we impacted
into the fresh snow. A few feet either up or down, and I probably wouldn't be
writing about this now.
lost eight teeth and suffered facial injuries that required plastic surgery to
correct. After the impact, Bill, seriously injured and in a state of shock,
continued to fly the plane. Fred and Susie had minor injuries. Bill didn't
believe we had crashed. I said I'm going for help. He said,' You're crazy, don't
open that door, we're at 5,000 feet!' I had a hunch we weren't.
stepped out of the plane into snow up to my chest. Fred and Susie followed. A
bit dazed, I didn't bother to take my coat. The only thing I could see was a
light that, fortunately, was downhill from the crash site. I hate to be cold,
and to me that light meant it must have be warm nearby and I was going for it.
The light turned out to be about three and a half miles away. It took around two
hours to reach it. Fortunately it had stopped snowing now. The snow may have
been an 'on-again, off-again' thing and that's why ATC wasn't showing it.
The light was from the only farm around, and we knocked on the door of the
house. The farmer's wife answered about midnight. You can only imagine the sight
that greeted her'the three of us wet and cold and me a bloody mess. She wouldn't
let us in -side because her husband was out tending to the cows.
When the farmer returned, they happily let us in and I proceeded to bleed all
over the furniture until help arrived. We were taken to the hospital and a
separate group of emergency personnel went to rescue Bill.
Bill had serious chest injuries and was MedEvac'd to a hospital in Houston. He
survived and practices medicine today. We still talk, although in -frequently.
We did joke later about Bill's rescue. He was still flying the plane when the
emergency personnel arrived. He later told me it was quite a shock to him when
'in the middle of the flight' the rescuers opened the door and people were
getting in the plane! He said he thought he must have died and that they were
from heaven. I told him in his case, they might not have been from heaven. But
that's another story.
retrospect, it's ironic that the snow that almost killed us may have also saved
our lives. The reason the light was on that lead us to the farm -house was
because the snow was so high, the farmer had to make sure the cows could not
walk up and over the snow and cross the fences. The farmer said our guiding
light, which illuminated the whole area surrounding the barn, was only on four
or five times a year.
The 'driven snow' that night also drove me out of aviation. I stopped flying
after that. I learned how suddenly snow could start, even in late April. If
weather as severe as the sudden snowstorm that brought us down that night was
unforecast and could not be detected by ATC, I thought the risks were too great
to use general aviation aircraft for transportation.
That was over 30 years ago, and fortunately a lot has changed for the better
regarding weather forecasts and detection. I have taken a few more flying
lessons since then in California where I live, but never stuck with it and got
serious about getting back into aviation. And, by the way, I did buy the farm
couple some new furniture to replace the blooded pieces.
is an intriguing story of rescue and a narrow escape from what could have easily
been a fatal accident. Equally important is the lesson of how unpredictable and
transient snow can be.
the time that has passed since this accident, aviation has benefited from
improvements in forecasting and weather reporting. Now we have numerous ATIS/AWOS/ASOS
locations available to monitor conditions at terminals along our route of
flight. En-route Flight Advisory Service (Flight Watch, 122.0 MHz) has also been
in mind that this accident predated GPS navigation. GPS now allows us precise
VFR flight at altitudes that previously would have been below the altitudes of
VOR coverage. Almost all GPS navigators include a feature that can be used in
Terrain Avoidance Planning or TAP. Since GPS knows where it is, it also knows
the minimum safe altitude for the area and can be used in VFR flight planning.
Terrain Avoidance Planning can be used when any precipitation is forecaster if
marginal weather (ceiling below 3,000 feet and/or visibility below five miles)
or close temperature dew points are forecast anywhere along the proposed route.
It's forecasts that include these types of conditions that can lead to big
surprises in-flight. This is especially true when reporting stations along the
route maybe good VFR at the time of the preflight weather briefing, but changes
are in the offing.
it comes to weather 'What you see, is what you get.' That maybe most true in
winter when weather systems, fronts and lows, really get a push from the
atmosphere. If the weather you see out the window is not the same as the
forecast, it's time to proceed with great caution. It may even be time to
consider some alternates. You did include some contingencies in your flight
Update your weather information from Flight Watch or ATC. Tune in Hazardous
In-flight Weather Advisory Service (HIWAS - broadcast on select VOR
frequencies), or ATIS, AWOS/ASOS to keep up with what's happening and learn what
nearby terminals are reporting.
the winter wonderland, instead of one winter day wondering where you're going to
Michael Lenz is a Program Analyst in Flight Standards' General Aviation and