Never Again: Bad Call

August 3, 2009

I referee girls’ volleyball tournaments, some of which are out of town, and that gives me a great excuse to fly my Van’s RV–6A. I live in Portland, Oregon, and one of the tournaments I enjoy flying to is the Pacific Northwest Qualifier (PNQ) in Spokane, Washington. Spokane is located in northeast Washington state, less than a two-hour flight in my airplane from my home field of Troutdale. The route I normally take is east up the Columbia River Gorge to The Dalles; northeast to Pasco, Washington; and then direct to Felts Field in Spokane.

The three-day tournament started on Friday morning and ended on Sunday afternoon. I planned to fly there with another referee on Thursday afternoon and back home Sunday afternoon. The route I planned to take was mostly over relatively low terrain with some hills north of The Dalles. I’m instrument rated; my airplane was instrument-equipped and carried enough fuel to fly four hours, roughly twice as long as this trip should take to complete. But the RV–6A is a highly responsive airplane and not the most stable instrument platform, so I planned to fly this trip VFR.

The flight to Spokane was uneventful. However, on Sunday the forecast called for light rain showers in the afternoon with ceilings along the route from 5,000 to 6,000 feet. Between The Dalles and Troutdale, I anticipated the weather might deteriorate to ceilings of 2,500 feet or so. The Cascade Mountains run in a north/south orientation and form a barrier to moisture-laden clouds, which come from the Pacific Ocean.

The weather was typical for the spring season with an onshore wind out of the northwest. This often causes stable overcast conditions in Oregon’s Willamette Valley. East of the Cascades was VFR with relatively high ceilings. The Columbia River Gorge is a frequently chosen route between the Portland area and the east side of the Cascades. The area between Cascade Locks and Hood River is where one can expect the worst conditions. Plan B was to land at The Dalles or Hood River and drive the rest of the way if the ceilings or visibility got too low.

I had told my passenger that we needed to leave the facility no later than 2 p.m. to ensure we could fly home during daylight. However, he accepted an offer to work a championship match, which would last until 3 p.m. I should have left him and returned to the airport as I had originally planned. I didn’t—and waiting for him to finish the match was mistake number one.

We departed Spokane after 3 p.m. About half-way home, it became dark and rain was starting to fall. I elected to continue direct to The Dalles. This route would take me over an area with few lights and no highways. I should have followed Interstate 395 south to Interstate 84, which parallels the Columbia River Gorge. However, it would add about 30 minutes to the trip, and since the ceiling so far had been at or above 5,000 feet, I felt all right about continuing directly to The Dalles. But taking the direct route turned out to be mistake number two.

I considered VFR flight following, but radar coverage in the area was spotty, and it would have required a significantly higher cruising altitude. The same was true for filing an IFR flight plan en route. The minimum en route altitudes for IFR would have required climbing to—and possibly through—the freezing level. The Pacific Northwest in the spring is notorious for icing, and these conditions were sure to produce ice accumulations at higher altitudes. My RV–6A has no anti-ice or deice equipment, so avoiding ice was of paramount importance.

The rain became more intense as I continued southwest at 4,500 feet. I maintained VFR because I could easily see the horizon, if not the ground. I could not tell how high the clouds were above me, however. When I was about 20 miles northeast of The Dalles, I flew into a cloud and was startled by the bright reflections from my strobe and navigation lights. I quickly got on the gauges and decided to continue straight and level flight—at least for a while. I was pretty sure I was at least 1,000 feet above the ridges ahead of me. I decided not to climb because I knew I would encounter icing conditions long before I would be able to break out on top.

My plan was to continue on course for five minutes or so and hopefully break out of the clouds. If that didn’t work, I’d make a 180-degree turn and head back toward Pasco. I asked my nonpilot passenger to look at the chart and let me know the elevations of the ridges ahead of me. He told me he couldn’t do that, as it was all he could do to keep from screaming.

Fortunately, we flew out of the clouds and were back in VFR conditions in a few minutes. The tops of the ridges ahead were below me by a comfortable margin, and the remainder of the trip was uneventful.

I learned several lessons that night. First, I should have warned my passenger ahead of time that I would depart without him if he wasn’t ready to go. He could have gotten a ride home with someone else. Second, I should have turned south and stayed over a well-lighted highway and large river with lower terrain. Third, I resolved not to mix night and weather together when flying VFR. In the future, if I decide to fly in marginal weather, it will be during daylight hours. If I decide to fly at night, the weather will need to be pretty good.

Brian Moentenich, AOPA 1373519, is a commercial pilot and flight instructor with single-engine land and sea ratings. He began flight training in 1984, built his RV-6A from a kit, and has logged about 1,900 total flight hours. Read this latest installment and other original “Never Again” stories published each month on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/never_again). “Never Again” is sponsored by the AOPA Insurance Agency