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Training and Safety Tip: Hard lesson

It was a typical April morning. Scattered cumulus clouds lingered at low levels, with hazy visibility. I was about to make a short flight to deliver an aircraft 16 miles to the northwest. Since I was instrument rated, I was not concerned about conditions. Besides, METARs at both airports indicated visual flight rules (VFR) skies. No need to check radar. A short hop, sunny skies, low cumulus clouds, and VFR conditions. What could possibly go wrong?

Photo by Chris Rose.

Before takeoff, I did my usual checks. But in my haste, I neglected to set the gyro heading indicator to the magnetic compass. I advanced the power and launched skyward.

Having flown this route many times, I navigated solely by landmarks and paid more attention to remaining below the Class B airspace shelf than to the snow flurries that began to appear all around me.

A tell-tale accumulation made its presence known on the leading edge of the left main tire. Visibility began to deteriorate but I could still see slant range, identifying features and structures on the ground. I assumed the visibility had to improve. After all, 7 miles away, I could hear aircraft in the pattern at my destination airport doing touch and goes. It couldn’t get any worse, could it?

Almost immediately, my visual options disappeared when I lost sight of the ground in a full-blown, local snow squall. I looked at my compass and heading indicator, noticed they didn't agree, and instantly reset the heading indicator to the compass—probably one of two correct things I did that morning.

I then immediately executed a 180-degree standard-rate left turn. I knew there was an 800-foot communications tower just to the southeast of my course. I recalled the 1968 incident where a North Central Airlines Convair 580 clipped the guy wires of a TV tower near Sioux Falls, South Dakota. (Thankfully the aircraft landed safely, minus a propeller.) I was determined not to repeat that incident. A few seconds later, I was back in blue skies and heading (as intended) back to where I had taken off. I was thankful for the good outcome. The sun never looked brighter the rest of the day.

Every flight offers a lesson—some nudging and benign, others harsh like mine. A good pilot's task is to tune in and learn. In constructing the chain that almost led to an accident, complacency was a major cause but experience offered an escape. That was my last “casual” flight.

Allen Alwin

Allen Alwin is a certificated flight instructor-instruments with more than 2,300 hours of dual instruction given, and an FAA Wright Brothers Master Pilot Award recipient.
Topics: Weather, Situational Awareness, IFR
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