Never Again: I lived through a graveyard spiral

March 1, 2008

Before you read this account, you should understand that the author is definitely not a daredevil, tomorrow-be-dammed, reckless flyer. Trained by an ex-Navy instructor, and skilled in many phases of VFR weather, I have always conscientiously maintained what I believed was a wide margin of safety in all aspects of flying. I have an unmarred safety record in my hundreds of hours of flying in the Midwest, South, and a part of Mexico, and up to now I have passed the final and absolute test of a pilot’s flying ability: I am still alive.

This is not an attempt to boast, but to prevent the reader from shrugging off the implications of the story as it unfolds. The event, which I shall relate from personal experience, can also happen to you, you VFR loggerhead, even if—and especially if—you are the most confident VFR pilot in the world. When you read this story, you may just as readily place yourself in the starring role.

It was a promising dawn, with a clear August sky above and the first hint of sun streaking across the sky. I hitched my shoulder harness and taxied slowly across the lonely field to the end of the long paved runway. Sky Harbor Airport, at Indianapolis, seemed like home to me. It was home, at least, to my pampered two-seater, although I doubt if she were thinking those thoughts as she purred through her mag check. She was a sleek Cessna 140, named Carol’s Angel because of her unfailing habit to carry me gently and safely at every opportunity to my fiancée in Milwaukee.

Heading northwest at 2,000 feet, to use the best available winds, my thoughts turned to the vacation ahead. Nine days of leave from the U.S. Army! And this lieutenant would start them off right. A brief stop in Milwaukee would be enough to embark the young lady for whom the Angel served, and then we would be flying to a week of glorious outdoor fun at Onaway Island in Central Wisconsin.

The first signs of low-flying clouds appeared as I crossed the familiar Wabash River. Automatically, I cranked up my Lear VHF set and called Lafayette radio for another weather check. The report was the same I had heard at take off: Chicago and Milwaukee, both 8,000 feet with rain showers; visibility, three-and-a-half.

Not much worry. I hung up the earphones and relaxed as well as I could with the scattered clouds below me.

When I reached the southern shore of Lake Michigan, there was a layer of haze above the water, through which I could barely discern the big peninsula of Inland Steel where it juts out into the blue. At my altitude of 2,000, however, the air was relatively clear. I could distinguish cloud outlines without trouble at a higher altitude ahead of me.

The Chicago Heights weather report came through as I charged out over the water. It was still reassuring. I elected to fly above the cloud layer, which hung ominously before me. With Milwaukee showing 8,000 feet, I should be able to climb easily over the wall of white clouds, fly at least 1,000 on top, and then drop in for a routine VFR landing when I smelled Schlitz.

The haze thickened, however, as I reached 5,000 feet. I had been out of contact with the ground for about five minutes. But I was apparently above the cloud wall. All I had to do was wait it out and then coast back down beyond the white mist. The difficulty was that it became increasingly nerve-wracking to separate the cloud mass from the “clear” air. The visibility was down to about a mile and a half, I estimated. I crossed my fingers and hoped that the jets from Glenview Naval Air Station played their tag elsewhere.

And there, at last, was a dark spot ahead, which could be nothing else except the hole in the clouds for which I had been waiting. Impatiently, I turned the Angel’s head five degrees and raced toward the hole.

Then, before I realized what had happened, I plunged headlong into the thickest black cloud I ever hope to see. I had fooled myself into the worst spot a pilot can find: I was flying blind, without even a turn and bank indicator!

The instant I hit the cloud mass, I banked steeply to the right, in an effort to make a belated 180-degree turn and recover myself. All I did, however, was render the compass useless for direction, because from that moment onward, the compass gyrated madly.

But that is scarcely a marvel, because so did the plane! I attempted to straighten out when I guessed that I was headed south. But regardless of my control, the Angel just didn’t feel straight and level. In my imagination, I was still in a steep right bank, although I realized that I had the left rudder pedal jammed into the floor plate. The impression of a right bank was so vivid that I couldn’t lift my left foot! I watched the airspeed build up: 150, 160—still increasing. The altimeter began to unwind. My instinct was to pull back on the wheel, but I checked it because somewhere I had read that a spiral dive tightens when the victim attempts to maintain altitude. And I knew now that I was in the clutches of that deadly killer, the “graveyard spiral.”

What does a man think of during such a moment? I can recall only three distinct thoughts. The first I framed with my lips, as though I still disbelieved what was happening. “So this is how it feels!” Spiral dives were not unheard of to me. I had read about them; I had read about pilots killed in them; I had read about tests made when the AOPA 180° Rating was first taught—tests that proved that a plane would be in a spiral dive within minutes after the VFR pilot lost outside contact. “So this is how it feels!”

The second thought was the one that hurt. I wondered how Carol would react to the news. She was the right kind of a girl for a pilot. She had told me, “I’m glad you fly, because I know you wouldn’t be happy otherwise.” She had a deep understanding, but underneath it all, I knew she was somewhat uneasy. And her worst fears were coming true. She’d probably want to marry a mole, after this.

Last of all, my thoughts centered on the Angel’s wings. Previously, I had hesitated to make a power glide above 120 mph. Now a quick glance at the indicator showed an airspeed, which shuddered between 190 and 200! Apprehensively, I studied the wings.

Suddenly the outline of a black cloud dived down before me, spun crazily in the center of the windshield, and jumped upward out of sight again. A split second later, a white thread of light seemed to glow for an instant, vertical to the horizon of my dashboard. My eager hands seized upon that memory as being the true horizon, and leveled the Angel accordingly. Miraculously, the airspeed fell to 60! I glanced down—and what a wonderful feeling to be sure of which direction “down” was! There, rolling smoothly and calmly along, as though nothing had happened, was Lake Michigan, about 50 feet below. I inspected the wings, still doubting whether they were still with me. They were solid and sure, except for several gaping holes where the cover plates had torn loose and gone sailing down to the lake below. I directed the Angel to Meigs Field, determined to wait for better weather.

You may assure yourself that the Angel was immediately fitted for basic instrument flying, and a wiser and more solemn pilot made fast tracks to visit an instructor, and stayed under the orange cockpit shield until he was sure he could at least fly straight and level, and make a gentle turn, under instrument conditions. Nonetheless, I am taking added precautions to make sure that I never have to use my newly acquired skill!

I didn’t relate this story to prove to you that I once knew a flying fool. But I want to pound home this lesson: Either get yourself a 180° Rating or an instrument license—even if you never use it. Your only alternative is to stay on the ground—or in it. For you may not be flying with an Angel when your number turns up!

Don Taylor, AOPA 111238, now 76, is an active AOPA member and pilot, living in Waukesha, Wisconsin. He enjoys flying his family in his 1966 Piper Cherokee to diverse destinations, from Colorado to Nova Scotia, Canada.

“Never Again” is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts may be submitted via e-mail to neveragain@aopa.org or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.