“How far is it across the Channel?” asks an interviewer, played by John Cleese. “Oh, about 21 miles from Dover to Calais,” replies Mr. Obvious (Terry Jones).
“And what’s the farthest you’ve managed to jump in practice?”
“A little over six feet.” Sure enough, the record jump attempt proves…anticlimactic. The sketch provided a particularly sly reminder that willpower and optimism come out second best when they take on the laws of physics.
In general aviation, this is proven the hard way year after year by a tiny minority of aviators who can’t resist putting it to the test. Often they feel that an immediate need to complete the flight outweighs the very real risk that they won’t complete it regardless. Making the attempt in the face of known mechanical problems, hazardous weather, or simple inexperience can vastly increase the cost of not reaching that destination.
Shortly before 3:00 p.m. on the afternoon of January 3, 2016, a Cessna 172N stopped for fuel at Columbia, Missouri (KCOU) on the way from Jackson, Tennessee (KMKL) to Sioux City, Iowa (KSUX). It took on 26 gallons. While on the ground, its 111-hour private pilot called Flight Service to get a weather briefing for the final leg. The briefer advised the 31-year-old caller that Sioux City was IFR and expected to remain so. Low clouds covered much of the remaining route, including northern Missouri and western Iowa, with tops reported between 2,500 and 4,500 feet msl. Weather in eastern Nebraska was “beautiful,” but instrument conditions also were expected to develop there around his anticipated time of arrival; temperature/dew point spreads were already narrow and decreasing. The pilot responded that his job and vehicle were in Sioux City, so the briefer identified Wayne, Nebraska (KLCG), 28 nautical miles west-southwest, as the nearest airport reporting clear conditions.
They discussed the option of flying VFR over the cloud deck, but because the pilot was not instrument rated, the briefer recommended against it. Instead, he suggested flying northwest to Kansas City, then turning north on the west side of the Missouri River. He also recommending stopping at Omaha to reassess the situation. The pilot replied that he’d decided to fly direct to Sioux City above the clouds, diverting to Wayne if conditions required. The briefer advised him to get weather updates en route and provided him with a list of the appropriate frequencies.
The Cessna took off on the 287-nm final leg at 3:40 p.m., an hour and a half before sunset. The moon had gone down in mid-afternoon. The pilot requested and received flight following. Around 6:30—an hour and twenty minutes after sunset and nearly an hour after the end of civil evening twilight—he reported clear skies and good visibility above the clouds to the Sioux City approach controller. The controller asked him to “let me know when you get ground contact” and advised that Sioux City was under a 700-foot overcast. Wayne and Norfolk, Nebraska, still reported clear skies. The pilot responded that he was beginning his descent without ground contact, adding “I’m sure getting fairly close,” and said he planned to land on Runway 36 at Wayne.
Descending through 2,000 feet, less than 600 feet above ground level, he still could not see the ground. The controller provided an updated observation from 10 minutes earlier that included a 200-foot scattered layer at Wayne. The pilot continued to descend, reporting negative ground contact at 1,800 feet. Acknowledgement of the loss of radar contact was the last transmission received from him.
A CFII who happened to be driving along the highway half a mile away later told investigators that “In my 16 years of flying, I’ve never encountered weather like this….Visibility went from P6SM to less than ¼ in seconds,” with “puffy white cumulus type clouds” on the ground and a temperature of 15 degrees Fahrenheit. The wreckage was concentrated in a small area at the end of a short debris path, suggesting a steep angle of impact. The next METAR from Wayne, recorded six minutes after the accident, listed the ceiling as overcast at 200 feet. Norfolk, another 25 nm southwest, stayed clear with good visibility for two more hours.
If he’d recognized his peril, made a second diversion, and landed safely at Norfolk, he might have learned a vital lesson in risk assessment. A VFR pilot flying over a low overcast has nowhere to go in the event of engine trouble, illness, or anything else unexpected. It only gets worse at night. If he’d chosen a route that got him as close to home as possible while avoiding the clouds, whatever it is he needed to do still might not have gotten done the next day, but at least he’d have had a chance to do it the day after.