January 20, 2014
Nothing in the forecast suggested that the ceiling would be this low. Winds aloft seem stronger too. The next checkpoint, a lake, should have appeared by now. Has the flight drifted off from the course line?
Time is also on the student pilot’s mind. The first outbound leg took 90 minutes. But on departure northbound for leg two, he neglected to jot down the time off.
Now he is kicking himself—as much as a trainer’s cramped cockpit permits—for not refueling during that stop. He estimates three hours’ total fuel burn, with two takeoff-and-climb segments included, but it would be nice not to be guessing in light of the uncertainty about position. Up ahead, the clouds are getting even lower.
Fortunately, there is an airport about 25 miles east of the course, where the sky appears quite clear. Once across an intervening ridgeline, he should be able to receive directional guidance from the airport’s terminal VOR; according to the airport/facility directory, it is unusable beyond 10 miles in this area.
Fighting off a touch of denial—not to mention worry—it occurs to the trainee as he opts to divert to the airport that surveying the terrain below for possible precautionary landing sites might also be prudent.
As he crosses the low ridges, and while dialing in the VOR frequency, the throb of the engine stops, and a small voice in the student’s head says, "Time’s up."
Down below he has spotted a long straight road about a mile away to the north, and a wide-open field the same distance away to the south. Which is the better choice for the off-airport landing?
What is the surface wind’s direction? Are there obstructions? Should he plan a traffic pattern or slip off his altitude for a straight-in approach?
Pitching to establish best-glide airspeed and rough-trimming to relieve elevator pressures, he makes his choice and turns toward the landing site. It’s going to be close. If only he had activated that VFR flight plan, someone would eventually issue an ALNOT (alert notice).
Suddenly, the engine surges to life and the voice in his head—in his ears, actually, because it is coming from the instructor in the right seat—says, "Looks like you would have just made it. Let’s go home."
It’s said that an accident results from a chain of events. Stay safe by breaking its links at the earliest opportunity.
Safety and Education
The low-time pilot was trapped above the clouds, with bad weather for hundreds of miles. He had no autopilot, no GPS, and was not talking to ATC. Fortunately, an air traffic controller spotted him and took action.
If the decision to take off was made knowing that no return to the departure airport was possible, what’s the backup plan?
A visitor pulled up to my hangar in an S-class Mercedes recently with a few questions—and assumptions—about flying.
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