Never Again Online: Pushing personal limits

April 1, 2003

I was delivering a presentation in Las Vegas one evening in late April when a casino worker interrupted my talk with a phone call for a friend and colleague who was in the room. My friend learned on the call that his 10-year-old son had just died in his wife's arms. We tried to arrange a commercial flight for him, but he lived in Monterey, California, with no direct flights from Las Vegas. It would be the next day before he could get home to his family — unless I flew him home that night.

We as pilots have rules or personal minimums that we say we will never break. Many of mine are based on my limited instrument experience and also based on reducing the amount of risk I am willing to take. For example, I say that I will never fly night instrument approaches in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). Another rule is that I will never fly night IMC over the Sierra Nevada Mountains, which are located directly between Las Vegas and Monterey. A clear night with a moon, yes, but never in instrument conditions.

Never? Never as in never, ever? Or never, unless there is an emergency? Did this situation qualify as a true emergency? At that point, I knew there were no thunderstorms or large buildups in the sky, but there were both cumulus and stratus clouds scattered over the area. I had no idea whether there would be a moon. The route would take us over absolutely desolate desert and mountainous terrain in Nevada as well as the Sierra Nevada Mountains in California. I would most definitely be breaking one of my rules to take this flight.

I offered to take him home. I consciously broke my rule and embarked on the toughest instrument flight of my life. Interestingly, all but a few seconds of the flight were in legal VFR conditions.

Flight service in Las Vegas informed me there was serious weather in Northern California and some radar echoes in Southern California. The middle part of the state was clear of precipitation, and that seemed like the best nighttime route, except of course for the tallest mountains in the continental United States. I filed a VFR flight plan since I didn't want to fly IFR in possible icing conditions. My route would take me to Bishop VOR, then a little north up the east side of the Sierras to relatively lower terrain of 11,000-foot mountains (instead of the 14,000-foot mountains to the south), then over the peaks into California's Central Valley.

We were in instrument conditions shortly after takeoff when we left the lights of Las Vegas. We were not in the clouds and we were legally VFR, but I could not make out the horizon in the near-total blackness. At one point a faint line across the windscreen, consisting of clouds or possibly a ridge, gave me the illusion of a horizon, and I had the feeling of a steep descent, even to the point of thinking I heard the engine racing. The instruments told me this wasn't true: The altimeter, tachometer, and airspeed instruments were stable and normal.

Although I was thankful to see the lights of Bishop and Mammoth Lakes finally appear, it also meant the tallest mountains were just ahead. I used the VOR at Bishop to call flight service in order to provide a position report and get a weather update. The briefer said radar was showing rain in Northern California, and that a Boeing 737 reported heavy rain at 24,000 feet 50 miles to the north. I recalled that the briefer in Vegas had said the freezing level was between 6,000 and 12,000 feet, confirmed by my current temperature reading of minus 10 degrees Celsius.

So my route north — now peppered with clouds, rain, and a potential for severe icing — was no longer an option. To my south were Mount Whitney and its 14,000-foot-plus neighbors, and I wasn't familiar with that area at all.

I climbed to 15,000 feet, not wanting to go higher because my passenger wasn't on oxygen (I had only one oxygen setup with me) and because there was a cloud layer somewhere not far above. I made a plan to fly past Mammoth and pick up a Victor airway through Mammoth Pass across the Sierras and into lower terrain. I was soon over the town of Mammoth and thought about the Ritter Range of 13,000-foot peaks straight ahead. I had spent some time in the Mammoth area, and I had always been in awe of the tremendous, jagged needles of the minarets and hanging glaciers of Mount Ritter. They can elicit a sense of respect and fear while skiing, while climbing — and while flying.

I knew we were above the highest peaks. I knew they were at least 10 miles ahead and that I would initiate a left turn onto the airway before we got to them. However, staring into the blackness at the unseen bulk of Mount Ritter made me extremely nervous. At that point, the lights of Mammoth went out and the strobes lit up the interior of cloud and horizontal streaks of rain.

I turned 180 degrees to the right, away from Mount Ritter and Mammoth Pass, and soon saw lights as we headed again toward Bishop to the south. A flashlight check of my left wing showed no signs of ice. A flashlight check of the charts showed the highest peaks didn't start for a few miles south of Bishop, so I elected to climb a little more and head west from Bishop, directly over the 13,000-foot peaks in that section of the Sierras. We entered light haze, the strobes lighting up ice crystals, and if I looked straight down I could make out the rocky peaks and snow gullies sliding beneath us. I was prepared to do another 180-degree turn should haze turn to cloud, but a glow, then the lights of Fresno in the Central Valley, drew me on.

I immediately felt safer in the world of city lights, radar coverage, flat ground, and true VFR conditions. Unfortunately, Monterey had a 300-foot ceiling and Salinas had a 500-foot ceiling of coastal stratus by that time. Not wanting to break two rules in one night, especially when I was wondering if I should have broken the first one, I asked flight service if they could make an urgent call for me so that a friend of my passenger could be waiting at Hollister, California. We landed there 30 minutes later in VFR conditions, where I broke down and cried over the pain and the loss my friend was suffering.

I was gratified that I was able to deliver my friend home in a time of need, but I did break one of my "never do" rules to do it. Did I break the rule knowing the risk was higher and accepting that risk under the circumstances? Or did I break my rule in the worst possible way — using an emotional decision-making process that endangered my passenger and myself, possibly making a terrible tragedy worse? I'm still trying to figure that out.

Ney Grant, AOPA 1332099, is an instrument-rated private pilot with 850 hours in eight years of flying. He owns a Cessna T210.

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Posted Thursday, April 10, 2003 4:42:58 PM