Never Again

An instructor lets his guard down

August 1, 2007

I was scheduled to make a delivery flight of a late model Cessna Skylane. The buyer would come to Wichita to pick up the airplane, and I was to accompany him home to Orange County, California, and then give him and his partner a checkout in the airplane. We would finish the flight the following day by delivering me to Las Vegas, Nevada, where I would catch a commercial flight home.

The flight to Orange County went as planned. I checked out the two owners in the Skylane, and we then flew to Victorville, California, where we were to meet their friend who was to accompany us in his Piper Cherokee to Las Vegas.

It was late in the day and our arrival at Las Vegas would be after dark. I had checked the weather earlier in the day, and good VFR conditions were expected until midnight. The sky was clear in all directions. The three non-instrument-rated pilots had made this 150-mile trip many times and I was assured that their plan to follow Interstate 15 northeast into Las Vegas was a good plan — although it was night the highway had a lot of traffic and the car lights would provide a great path.

The Cherokee pilot tossed me a chart just in case I needed a reference. The pilot who had flown with me from Wichita accompanied me in the Skylane. The other partner flew with the Cherokee pilot in his airplane.

We reached cruising altitude about dusk. I discovered that the chart the Cherokee pilot had given me was a Los Angeles Terminal Area Chart — not of much use for this trip segment. But, at least the Skylane had great avionics, including GPS.

As dusk turned into dark, I noticed some lightning way off to the north. I figured the storm had to be more than 100 miles away considering the Stormscope was still clear. We were traveling northeast with a thunderstorm visible to the north. The storm was likely traveling southeast. We continued on, flying at 7,500 feet and following the highway. At least the headlights at night clearly showed the path of the road.

Then, I started to notice the stars disappearing. About five minutes later the car lights began to fade in and out. I realized we were flying into the bottom of an overcast. This was supposed to be a VFR trip. But now, we were at the base of an overcast, in a valley with high terrain on both sides, at night, and the storm's outline was just starting to grow on the Stormscope. It was time to pull the plug on our VFR flight if we continued on. The alternative would be to turn around. If we continued on we'd have to get into protected airspace.

I checked our position; we were about 10 miles northeast of the Daggett VOR. I got the center frequency from the IFR chart that I had taken along, and made contact with Los Angeles Center. I descended 500 feet just to maintain VFR for a few minutes. We were quickly radar identified, cleared to climb to 11,000 feet, and cleared by an airway routing to Las Vegas. Center verified that we were clear of terrain and that the storm was 50 miles northwest of Las Vegas, moving slowly southeast. We had time to finish the trip.

We were now safely in protected airspace and using the help of Center's radar to track the storm. As we made the let down into Las Vegas we could clearly see the storm safely northwest of the city lights. The landing was uneventful.

The Cherokee landed just behind us. I had heard Approach Control working the flight and knew they had made it through the pass. But, since they were VFR-rated pilots, and did not have the same IFR option we had, I believed they had turned around to avoid the deteriorating conditions.

When they got out of the Cherokee, neither pilot was speaking. The Skylane partner, who had flown in the Cherokee, told me that when they had encountered the deteriorating weather they had a very heated discussion about turning back or continuing on. It almost came to blows. They had descended very low over the crest of the mountain pass to stay below the overcast and maintain contact with the car headlights. When they crested the pass they could see the lights of Las Vegas. Both pilots knew that had been a dumb and dangerous thing to do, and yet they had continued the flight. The two were still not speaking to each other as we went to the hotel.

I am an instructor, and reflected on what had just happened. I shared my observations with the pilots:

We should have checked the weather a second time. Mountains can obscure developing weather. We should have had the correct VFR charts. We should have finished the day earlier so the flight could have been made during daylight. I should have filed IFR to begin with.

We all learned some important lessons. The Skylane partners and the Cherokee pilot got to see the value of an instrument rating in helping to provide safe alternatives. A few days after I got back to Wichita, I received a call from the pilot/owner who had flown with me in the Skylane.

He said the two friends had reconciled, and that he was scheduled to take his instrument practical test in about 30 days. Both of the other pilots had started instrument training. This was a valuable lesson for us all.

David Dewhirst, AOPA 238995, is an FAA aviation safety counselor who holds certificated flight instructor, air transport pilot, and commercial glider certificates. He has accumulated more than 8,000 hours in 100 different aircraft over 41 years.

"Never Again" is presented to enhance safety by providing a forum for pilots to learn from the experiences of others. Manuscripts may be submitted via e-mail to or sent to Editor, AOPA Pilot, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.