Sunday, October 09, 2005


Today has been a bit of a trying day. A small plane was bound from New Mexico to Arizona yesterday and never arrived at its destination. The family of the pilot reported him missing last night. The New Mexico Wing of the Civil Air Patrol had the lead for the search and rescue, but Arizona WIng (mine) was on standby. We did have one crew fly a route search, but the last known position had the plane well inside of New Mexico, so they weren't surprised when they didn't find anything. I've been following the mission on the Civil Air Patrol nets. Unfortunately, the worst happened. They found the plane a little while ago. The guy was flying in low clouds at about 7,000 feet -- but there were peaks in 9,000 - 10,000 foot range.

Now, this is not foolish as it may seem. Odds are the guy was a VFR pilot, which means he can't legally fly in the clouds (and probably hasn't had more than the barest minimum of emergency training on getting out of the clouds). When you find yourself trapped by developing weather, about the only thing you can do is go down below the clouds and hope you find an escape route. He probably knew he was in trouble, but was hoping he could get lucky, because at this point his options were just about completely limited. He didn't get lucky.

I was trained to fly solely by instruments when I flew for the Navy. We didn't learn visual navigation until much later in flight school, and none of us liked it -- it's too imprecise. I'm not an instrument-rated private pilot, but I think if I faced the situation this guy faced*, I would have climbed as high as my plane would go -- all the way to the minimum safe altitude for that region. Better to be lost than dead. The danger, of course, if you aren't trained to fly by instruments, is that you'll try to fly by "feel", but you often feel disoriented in the clouds, as though the plane were spinning when in fact it's not. If you correct the "spin," then you enter the spin you were trying to avoid. It's not a good situation any way around for the pilot who isn't comfortable with instrument flying.

I feel really sorry for this guy and his family. I don't know who was on-board, but I hope it was just the pilot. It's a sober reminder that flying isn't like driving a car, no matter how much we pretend that it is.

*Of course, the real answer is to never let yourself get into that situation in the first place. If the weather looks even marginal, you cancel the flight and hop a commercial plane. Or if you're already airborne and it starts looking ugly, you call up air traffic control and ask for a way around the ugliness. Once you're in it, you're pretty much already out of options.

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