A VFR pilot flew into IMC and lost control of his airplane. It was a tragic loss — he was a good pilot with 300 hours in this aircraft. Stories and reports such as these still send chills down my spine. Every time I call for a preflight weather briefing I think: What is the forecast for the area that I'm flying to? What is the en route forecast? What are the actual conditions? Then I ask the briefer for the winds aloft and the forecast for the alternate airport. I ask for the briefer's opinion and then make my decision to fly or not to fly.
On March 9, 2000, I did just that. My plan was to fly to Spokane, on to Pasco, and then to Wenatchee, Washington. The forecast for the Spokane area was scattered clouds at 500 feet, broken at 1,500, and overcast at 2,500. The forecast was for clearing at the time of my arrival with the ceiling at 5,000 feet. For the Pasco area, my alternate, the forecast was for scattered clouds at 2,500 feet and an overcast layer at 5,000 feet. I departed Pearson airport in Vancouver, Washington, at 8:45 a.m. to the west on Runway 26. I looked at the sky and thought how great this flight was going to be. As I reached 250 feet I found myself in the clouds! Where did these come from, I wondered. Nothing was on the AWOS and I didn't see them while I was on the ground. As quickly as they appeared, they left, and I found myself at 300 feet. I turned to my intended heading and radioed to Portland Approach for flight following into Spokane. During our discussion of transponder codes, I mentioned the light clouds at the end of the runway, which they could see from the tower. They said they would pass that information on as others requested clearance to fly through Class C airspace from Pearson.
I climbed to 7,500 feet and leveled off for the duration. When I reached Cascade Locks, about 25 nm from my departure point, I started losing sight of the ground. The ceiling was gone, but the floor was at about 5,000 feet. I set the autopilot on my Cessna Cardinal and kept current with my position using the GPS and my chart. I would set the GPS for two different locations and then intersect to verify my position. As I turned north at The Dalles VOR, the ground started to come into view again. I passed by my waypoint at Sunnyside, Washington, and I could see Yakima on the left and Pasco on the right.
As I reached the Spokane airspace, Grant County Approach handed me over to Spokane. I told them that the cloud cover below was pretty thick and if it continued, I would turn back and go to Pasco. Spokane greeted me and gave me the current conditions. They said the ceiling was coming down fast — it was at 1,100 feet with five miles' visibility. I told them I was flying VFR and that I was circling down to get below the cotton. I leveled at 1,000 feet agl and was just clear of the clouds, and the visibility was about four miles, if I looked into the valley. I had the airport displayed on my GPS at seven miles, but the ceiling was crashing. Spokane called and said it just dropped to 900 feet. I acknowledged that and said I was turning around and heading back into the clear for Pasco. They acknowledged. I saw this little knoll below me with what I hoped to be wrecked cars on top as I turned. I then turned my attention to my instruments, airspeed, and GPS. I looked up after that brief check and hello, IMC! "OK, I can do this, I've read this time and time again," I thought. I mentally reviewed the 5 Cs. Climb. "Up I go." Circle. "Left is my best turn." Communicate. "Spokane, I'm really in the soup here, the weather crashed in and I'm not rated for this stuff." Confess. "Spokane, I've had about four hours of IFR instruction, and I have read the instrument manual. The last IFR lesson I had I got vertigo, but I'm doing OK now." Cooperate. Spokane called, "Continue climbing and circling, and I'll check the altitude of the tops for you. How are your wings if you can see out — are they OK?" I replied, "They look good, no ice, a little frost." Spokane responded that the freezing level was at 3,500 feet. Since I was at 4,200 I kept an eye on it. Spokane added that the tops should be at about 6,000 feet.
My God! I'm in this stuff that looks so peaceful from above, how can it be this disturbing? It's not that bad as long as the clouds don't spit ice on the wings. I climbed through 5,200 feet thinking I would break through the tops soon. It seemed like 20 minutes had gone by, but it had only been about five. I kept looking at the instruments, GPS, and wings. I finally got a glimpse of a hazy silhouette of the sun. I'm going to be all right! I called Spokane and told them I was on top at 6,500 with a thin coat of ice on the wings. They cleared me to continue to my alternate at 7,000 feet.
Spokane handed me off to Grant County Approach, who greeted me back into the area and informed me that Pasco looked good, but this weather was very fickle and Grant County airport was another alternative. I arrived at Pasco with my reserve fuel, about 1.5 hours. I was cleared to land on Runway 21, and it wasn't until then that I realized how rattled I was — looking at the numbers for Runway 12 as I turned final! At about 500 feet I realized what I was doing and called the Pasco controller. He said, "We were listening to your discussion with Grant County; you're cleared to land on 12. Relax." I thanked him, pulled into the FBO, and asked for fuel and a place to eat. I continued my trip later without any weather to interrupt me.
I have read of this type of incident happening to others and resolved that I would continue to be prudent and not tempt the "cloud gods." I had flown above the cotton before and had wonderful flights. This wild card seemed to have nothing to do with the forecast, and yet it had everything to do with it. It played against my judgment. I could have read into the terminal area forecast with the ceiling at 2,500 feet at Geiger, along with the weather we just had in our area (which moves to the east), and deduced that the ceiling had a good chance of dropping to zero. In hindsight, I used poor judgment. I was the pilot in command, and the fly/no-fly decision was mine alone. Had I been able to read the takeoff message from Pearson, I would have aborted the original flight plan and reversed the route.
This message is clear to me, and I hope it's clear to others. The decision to fly or not is yours, period. Read all the weather "messages" you have at your disposal — they are so useful and abundant!
Theodore Orr, AOPA 1400652, is a private pilot with 350 hours. He's a small-business owner and has flown his Cessna 177B Cardinal more than 270 hours since he purchased it in September 1999.
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