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Air Safety Institute Safety Spotlight

Tunnel vision

Too many VFR pilots plunge ahead into instrument conditions despite the obvious danger. They develop an expectation of success--a tunnel vision that blinds them to the deteriorating conditions around them.

On January 2, 2006, a Beech Debonair struck terrain about 10 nautical miles north of Heber City, Utah, killing the noninstrument-rated commercial pilot. The pilot had filed a VFR flight plan from Billings, Montana, to Spanish Fork, Utah, a 400-nm journey through mountainous terrain. Although visual meteorological conditions prevailed for Billings, a storm system was moving into northern Utah. A flight service weather briefer had advised the pilot that VFR flight into the area was not recommended. The pilot responded that he could "get a long ways down there and then take another look."

The pilot departed Billings shortly after 9 a.m. and requested VFR flight following at 9,500 feet msl. During the flight, controllers at Salt Lake Center advised him twice of deteriorating weather conditions ahead. The pilot reported that he was currently in VFR conditions and would continue.

At 11:51 a.m., radar indicated that the pilot had descended to 8,000 feet msl.

He reported that he was over Evanston, Wyoming, following I-80 southwest, and that he would turn around and land if conditions continued to deteriorate. Fifteen minutes later, radar and radio contact were lost because of terrain while the airplane was descending through 7,100 feet msl over Wahsatch, Utah (elevation 6,742 feet).

About 12:15 p.m., a witness observed the aircraft flying southwest along I-80 about 16 nm north of the accident site. The witness, a private pilot, stated that the ceiling was about 500 feet and there was light snow and sleet falling. He estimated the airplane was flying about 300 feet agl.

Ten minutes later, another witness observed a low-flying aircraft headed southbound. The witness reported, "It was snowing hard and there was little visibility." At 12:29 p.m., one radar return was recorded from the airplane. This final return showed the aircraft located approximately one-half mile north of the accident site at an altitude of 7,000 feet msl.

The airplane struck terrain shortly thereafter at an elevation of 6,933 feet. The pilot had apparently turned 180 degrees in an attempt to escape instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).

The NTSB determined the probable cause of the accident to be the pilot's continued VFR flight into IMC and his subsequent failure to maintain terrain clearance while maneuvering. Contributing factors were low ceilings, snow, and mountainous terrain.

The pilot in this accident seemed fixated on reaching his destination. For VFR pilots, the lessons from this accident are clear: Don't mess with IMC, no matter how close you are to your destination, no matter how familiar you are with the route. When weather conditions deteriorate below safe minimums, turn a timely one-eighty--and live to fly another day.

For more information, take the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Weather Wise: Ceiling and Visibility online course and read the Do the Right Thing: Decision Making for Pilots Safety Advisor.

An aviation technical writer with the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, Carl Peterson creates interactive courses and other safety education materials for the aviation community. He has been flying since 1989.

By Carl Peterson

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