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Proficient Pilot: Scud Running

How worsening conditions lure pilots onward

It has been my good fortune to have become acquainted with many famous pilots. A favorite was Frank Tallman, an aviator whose exploits as a motion-picture pilot are the stuff of which legends are made.

One of his most famous stunts involved flying a twin Beech through a steel-rimmed Coca-Cola billboard for the 1963 movie It’s a Mad, Mad, Mad, Mad World. Moviegoers, however, never got to see what happened after the D18 popped out the other side. According to witnesses, flying through the thin plywood caused the propellers to bend aft and necessitated an immediate forced landing.

I recall sitting once with Tallman and a few other pilots under the wing of his B–25 photo plane (the one he flew through the Grand Canyon during the filming of the first Cinerama movie in 1952). His planned flight had been delayed because of weather, and he had time to hangar fly with some of his admirers. We huddled in rapt attention, pouncing on every morsel of aeronautical lore. There was so much to learn from such an aviator.

Someone asked Tallman to describe his most dangerous “stunt.” But he did not. He instead said matter-of-factly that he did not consider his type of flying as hazardous. He claimed that his assignments were so thoroughly and precisely planned that the outcome of each was predictable. He added that the variables of weather gave him greater cause for concern than the demands of performing for the camera.

Tallman then described a fascinating phenomenon he said occurs while flying low in poor visibility. “When a pilot is scud running in gradually worsening conditions, he might glance rearward to appraise his escape option. But when looking aft, the pilot observes the landmarks disappearing into the veil of limited visibility behind the aircraft. This creates an illusion that can lead him to believe that conditions behind are worsening or closing up. Contributing to this deception is the illusion that conditions ahead are improving. This is because the airplane’s forward motion allows progressively more of the landmarks ahead to come into view.

“As a result,” he continued, “a pilot can be lured into believing that continuing straight ahead is his best alternative. He becomes reluctant to turn around while he still has the time and opportunity to do so. This illusion—coupled with a pilot’s natural mindset to proceed with a planned course of action—probably is a factor in many scud-running accidents.”

This phenomenon becomes more deceptive as airspeed increases. This is because the disappearance of objects behind the aircraft and the emergence of those ahead occur more rapidly. Excessive speed adds to the risk for another reason. When flying at 180 knots, for example, it takes only 20 seconds to cover one mile, which might be the limit of forward visibility. Precious little time is available to see and avoid obstacles. But at 60 knots, the pilot has a full minute to appraise and react to the obstacle in his windshield.

To discourage scud running, the aviation division of Transport Canada once asked pilots to contemplate these questions:

  • How much airspeed is lost when a pilot rapidly rolls into and holds a 45-degree banked turn?
  • How much room is needed to make a 180-degree turn?
  • How much additional space is required if turning from the upwind side of a valley to the downwind side?
  • How far away can a pilot see a wire?
  • How much distance is flown from the time a pilot first sees a wire strung across his flight path until he can react and begin a climb?
  • How prepared is a pilot to cope with a fuel tank running dry or having an engine fail at very low altitude?
  • Can your windshield withstand hitting a two-pound bird?
  • Do you still feel like flying at low altitude in limited visibility?

Other questions might include:

  • Does a scud-running pilot always know his position?
  • Does he know the location and height of all nearby obstructions?
  • If conditions worsen, is he prepared to declare an emergency and climb into the overcast?
  • If unable to fly on instruments, is the pilot prepared to make an emergency, off-airport landing?
  • If a scud-running pilot has passengers on board, what right does he have to expose them to such hazard?

Some years after our memorable hangar-flying session, Tallman used an object lesson to teach the aviation community much more than he had intended. He taught that knowledge and experience are worthless unless put into practice. Tallman—one of America’s greatest pilots—was killed while scud running in a Piper Aztec through the mountains near his home airport.


Barry Schiff

Barry Schiff

Barry Schiff has been an aviation media consultant and technical advisor for motion pictures for more than 40 years.

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