Unfortunately, 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 Jan. 2, 2006, a Beech Debonair impacted 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, Mont., to Spanish Fork, Utah, a journey of about 400 nm through mountainous terrain.
Although visual meteorological conditions prevailed for the departure from Billings, a storm system was moving into northern Utah. Prior to departure, a flight service weather briefer advised the pilot that a 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 services at 9,500 feet msl. During the flight, controllers at Salt Lake Center advised him twice of deteriorating weather conditions ahead. The pilot acknowledged the advisories but 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, Wyo., following I-80 south, and that he would turn around and land if conditions continued to deteriorate. Fifteen minutes later, radar and radio contact were lost due to terrain while the airplane was descending through 7,100 feet msl over Wahsatch, Utah. (The elevation of Wahsatch is 6,742 feet.)
About 12:15 p.m., a witness observed the aircraft flying south along I-80 through Coalville, Utah, located 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 along the highway. 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 plane impacted 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 wreckage faced north, with a ground scar marking the initial impact point about 100 feet to the south.
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. He ignored numerous warnings about the weather ahead, flew dangerously low as the ceiling descended, and waited too long to implement his backup plan. When he finally did turn around, it was too late.
For VFR pilots, the lessons from this accident are clear: Don’t fly into an impossible situation. Don’t mess with IMC, no matter how close you are to your destination, no matter how familiar you are with the route. The results are almost always fatal. When weather conditions deteriorate below safe minimums, turn a timely one-eighty—and live to fly another day.
Posted Thursday, December 20, 2007