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Flight by noninstrument-rated pilots into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) continues to be a serious concern for general aviation. On April 4, 2004, the private pilot of a Piper Saratoga was killed when he attempted to take off into low IMC from the Ukiah Municipal Airport in Ukiah, California.
Shortly before the accident, an air ambulance pilot approached Ukiah with the intention of landing. Although visual conditions prevailed, instrument conditions were slowly developing. The ASOS reported a ceiling of 100 overcast and visibility between one and one and three quarters miles. Because of the ceiling, the air ambulance pilot requested the localizer approach into Ukiah. During the approach, the pilot noticed that a fog layer beginning to blanket the valley, broke off the approach, and decided to land elsewhere.
While overflying Ukiah en route to another landing site, the air ambulance pilot heard the Saratoga pilot announce on the unicom frequency that he was going to depart on Runway 33. The air ambulance pilot queried the Saratoga pilot about the weather conditions at the field, and was told that the pilot intended to fly to Willows for coffee. Further questioning by the air ambulance pilot revealed that the Saratoga pilot intended to remain VFR.
Ground witnesses observed the Saratoga depart to the south, turn west, then back to the east, followed by the sound of a loud crash.
The NTSB determined the cause of the accident to be the noninstrument-rated pilot's intentional flight into IMC during takeoff, which resulted in spatial disorientation, the subsequent loss of aircraft control, and an uncontrolled descent into terrain. At the time of the accident, the pilot had accumulated 300 total flight hours, with 170 in the make and model. He had seven hours of simulated instrument experience, but no instrument rating.
According to the pilot's primary flight instructor, the pilot had exhibited brazen behavior in the past. During his primary training, the pilot conducted unapproved solo cross-country flights.
In 2003, 69 percent of all fatal weather-related accidents were due to VFR flight into IMC conditions; by far one of the most deadly types of accidents. Pilots without instrument ratings should stay clear of the clouds at all times. If you inadvertently enter IMC, focus on the attitude indicator and execute a 180-degree turn immediately to exit the clouds.
For more information about spatial disorientation, download the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Spatial Disorientation Safety Advisor .
Accident reports can be found in ASF's accident database.
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