By David Jack Kenny
Trying to continue flying by visual references when none exist is one of the most consistently deadly mistakes anywhere in general aviation. Flight instructors, the Air Safety Institute, the National Transportation Safety Board, and the FAA are among the parties who keep reminding us that accidents that begin as VFR into IMC generally end in one of two ways, both catastrophic: controlled flight into terrain (or its man-made equivalent) or, more frequently, an uncontrolled descent until impact. But of course reported ceilings and visibilities above VFR minimums are no guarantee you can actually see what you’re doing. The 1999 accident that killed John Kennedy, his wife, and her sister was just one in a long series of reminders that nominal VMC doesn’t always reveal enough of a visible horizon to show which way is up.
Another came on Oct. 21, 2013. As it happened, it also involved a low-time VFR pilot in a 1990s-model Piper Saratoga. The 225-hour private pilot and his wife took off from Alexander City, Alabama, at about 10:45 a.m. VFR conditions were forecast for their entire 500-nautical-mile flight home to Claremore, Oklahoma, though their route would cross a cold front in northwest Arkansas. Still, neither the area nor the terminal forecasts predicted anything more threatening than five miles’ visibility in light rain under a 5,000-foot overcast. The pilot had confirmed this with an outlook briefing the previous day and an update the morning of the flight. After departure, he got VFR flight following.
The airplane encountered the cold front about where it had been forecast. Three hours and 12 minutes after takeoff, the pilot advised that he was descending from 5,800 feet msl to 4,500 feet msl. A few seconds later the controller warned of “heavy rain uh at your twelve o'clock and approximately uh two miles … just south along your route of flight and then there's a heavier area uh approximately fifteen miles west … ." The pilot acknowledged but didn’t request any help in avoiding the weather. Six minutes later, the controller advised of “heavy precipitation … developing and building to the east” and recommended a vector to the north. The pilot acknowledged, but radar showed that just after commencing the turn the airplane began descending “at a high rate of speed” before contact was lost. The condition of the wreckage suggested a steep angle of impact with the engine producing power. Both on board were killed.
Archived weather radar suggests that light to moderate showers were in the vicinity when the pilot lost control. There were no reporting stations near the accident site; the closest two were each about 30 miles away. Drake Field at Fayetteville to the northwest reported a broken ceiling at 1,800 and a 5,000-foot overcast during the same period that Boone County in Harrison to the northeast reported ceilings at or above 6,500 feet, with a 7,500-foot overcast at the time of the accident. Neither radar nor satellite images revealed any evidence of convective activity. While it’s clearly impossible to be sure the pilot didn’t fly into clouds, the NTSB investigators concluded that he more likely lost control in reduced visibility caused by rain showers.
We lay great stress on thunderstorm avoidance, and rightly so. Even without convection, though, rain can reduce visibilities below levels that are comfortable for most of us, turning a flight in what’s supposedly VMC into an unexpected scramble to find a reliable horizon. When that horizon’s not there, the consequences may be dire.