Never Again: A lake and a layer

Inadvertent flight into unreported IMC causes a VFR pilot to reflect on the value of effective flight instruction...

May 1, 2011

Never AgainIt was April 19, 2010, a beautiful day for flying. I departed Tyler, Texas, for a two and one-half hour flight to Lakefront Airport in New Orleans. The route in the Cessna 172 took me over the barges on the Mississippi, the massive river bridges in Baton Rouge, and, finally, a 12-minute flight across Lake Pontchartrain. I landed at Lakefront Airport, which hugs the southern shore of Pontchartrain, the second-largest saltwater lake in the United States.

I was already anticipating the flight home. If all went well with my work, I would be flying home the next day.

Indeed, I left for the airport the next day around noon. When I called Flight Service to get current and en route weather and file a flight plan, New Orleans was reporting 11,000-foot ceilings and 10 miles’ visibility—perfect for the flight in the 172, especially since I am not instrument-rated.

When I arrived at the airport I looked at the sky and thought, “It sure looks like a layer of something to me.” So I called Flight Service again. Same answer. I then called a friend who has instrument and commercial ratings, and asked him to look online to see what was being reported. “Eleven-thousand-foot ceiling and 10 miles’ visibility,” he said.

I preflighted the airplane, got the ATIS—same answer. I completed the run-up and called the tower. I decided to ask one more time what they were showing for a ceiling. Same answer: 11,000 feet.

After takeoff, I was handed off to Departure, which gave me a heading and told me to climb and maintain 2,500 feet. It was very hazy. The horizon was still there, but it was hard to distinguish as it blended into the huge lake. A few minutes into the flight, Departure instructed me to climb to 4,000. At 3,200 feet I noticed the horizon and the lake starting to disappear. At 3,700 feet I was flying solely by instruments. After about 30 seconds at 4,000 feet I called Departure and told them I needed to descend to escape this mess. I was told to descend at my discretion.

My first time in IMC was nothing like I would have imagined. The Earth just disappeared. The boundaries that define for us our place in space and time vanish. Gravity, which helps to discern up from down, ceases to exist. You are suspended with no sense of speed, no horizon, and no ground reference. Statistics reveal the average time before a noninstrument-rated pilot loses control in IMC is two to three minutes. Fortunately, I had quite a bit of hood time. I always thought it was fun to fly by instruments. And it never really bothered me—until now.

My palms started to sweat. I made a conscious effort to slow my breathing. I was not scared, but I was concerned. And I was thinking, “I sure wish Charlie was sitting here next to me.”

A few years earlier, I had resumed flying after a several-year layoff. Seekng to devote a week to getting proficient, I contacted Marcair Aviation at Northwest Regional Airport in Roanoke, Texas. Charlie Yates is the chief flight instructor for Marcair.

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On one of my first flights with Charlie, we were heading back to the field and he asked me what I would do if I inadvertently flew into IMC. I told him I really never thought about it—because I didn’t plan on flying into IMC. Charlie told me we needed to talk about it anyway.

I could hear Charlie’s voice. If you need to descend to escape IMC, reduce the power, let the nose slowly drop, and the airplane will settle into a gentle 200- to 300-foot-per-minute descent. Keep the wings level. You don’t need to worry about airspeed—aerodynamics will take care of that for you. Keep your head still. Don’t look out the window—your peripheral vision will sense leaving the clouds. Relax and trust your instruments.

I was in complete IMC for three to four minutes. At about 3,200 feet the faint view of the horizon returned. I leveled off at 3,000 feet. I called Departure and told them what I encountered. We concluded I had flown into a very thin, overcast layer—so thin, in fact, the sensors failed to detect it. A few minutes later, I crossed the north shore of Lake Pontchartrain and the weather started to clear. I landed safely in Tyler two hours later.

On my drive home from the airport, I thought about how I got myself into that situation, and how the experience could make me a better pilot.

I should have stopped climbing at 3,200 feet and not assumed conditions were going to improve. I didn’t trust my gut instinct and my own eyes. I saw the overcast layer. Even though everything and everyone said it was not there, I should have trusted what I saw.

I have accelerated my instrument training. If I fly into IMC again, it will be as an instrument-rated pilot. I am grateful I had an instructor who cared enough to make sure I was prepared to deal with a situation I thought would never happen.

Philip McKanna, AOPA 592845, is a private pilot with 225 hours. He resides in Diana, Texas.