After reading a great article here on www.pilotplanet.com by Marc Nathanson about hazardous attitudes and flying F-4s, I thought I’d share one of my experiences in dealing with my own hazardous attitudes. Now I don’t fly F-4s or have ever served in our nation’s military, but I think my experience closely parallels that of Lt. Col Nathanson’s, and I hope other’s can learn from my mistakes. I’m just lucky enough to still be here!
Written by: PilotPlanet User XWindsRUS
I’m going to start with a little background about how this situation ever even became an issue. I found myself in this situation back when I was training for my commercial pilot’s certificate. I was doing my training at Delta Connection Academy out of KEWB in Massachusetts. I was a college student hoping to begin a career in aviation and was really excited during my training. Basically, I was young, eager, and invincible!
Now as many students and pilots alike know, during your commercial training you are required to do a solo cross-country flight with landings at three different airports, and a segment of that flight must contain a straight leg distance of 250nm. At the time of my training, this flight had to be conducted under VFR conditions. It was also a policy of Delta Connection Academy that if you had to land at any other airports during this flight, or if you filed and flew IFR, then you would be required to complete the flight again. Ok, that’s a little harsh, but admittedly I understood why; if you had to land somewhere you didn’t plan on or if you had to fly IFR, then obviously you didn’t do a good job pre-flight planning and that just won’t cut it for commercial pilots, right?
So on a sunny morning in mid-November I launched into the clear autumn skies in a C-172RG for a beautiful and fun flight. My planned route would take me from KEWB in MA, to KGLF in NY, then up to KMSS in NY, and finally over to KBTV in VT before heading home to KEWB. The reason I choose this route? Simple. It was one of three pre-approved routes at our DCA training location and it just happened to be that the girl I was dating in college was going to be in Burlington, VT visiting family and friends. I thought it would make for a nice break in my day to stop and spend some time with her, maybe grab lunch and see the town.
The flight was going exactly as planned and the weather was holding as forecasted, however I knew there was a cold front far off towards Western NY and was making its way from West to East like most fronts do in the United States, but it wasn’t expected to reach my planned route until hours after I planned on landing back at KEWB. I had a beautiful view of the fall foliage and was getting a kick out of messages that farmers would cut into their corn fields for pilots to see. I saw giant peace signs, religious symbols, even giant corn mazes! The only eventful occurrence of the flight was landing at KMSS where there was no control tower and it seemed like everyone was speaking French on the CTAF! I thought English was the universal language of aviation! Try flying near Quebec sometime! Thankfully, I had a few years of French back in high school and at least could discern if they were in left or right traffic patterns.
After my recurrent training in French, I took off from KMSS and had an easy and uneventful hop over to KBTV 77 miles to the East. I flew over the beautiful city of Burlington VT, and I landed at KBTV after having the joy of watching formations of F-16s from the Green Mountain Boys ANG make the skies look like their playground! I had to admit I was envious! I won’t bore you with the details of my time in Burlington, but I can say that the city is gorgeous in mid-November and I had a wonderful time. I had such a great time that I didn’t want to leave! So, I didn’t. I stayed and hung out with friends for much longer than I originally planned. That was my first mistake.
My C-172RG was ill equipped by today’s modern avionics standards. I had no GPS, a single VOR, and a DME. Not the best for navigation at night over mountainous terrain in an unfamiliar area. I was confident though and prided myself on my navigation skills and cockpit management. After all I had a solid 175 hours of training and I aced my IFR check ride. I was an ace right? I could handle a simple night cross-country! Remember that cold front that was supposed to arrive hours after I planned on being home? Well, the funny thing with cold fronts is that they will often move faster than predicted and my hours of delays hanging out with friends didn’t help. So, on a crisp cool evening with impending skies, I launched my humble C-172RG back into the skies VFR and headed home to KEWB.
About an hour into the flight (now completely dark) it began to rain. I guess my cold front finally showed up. No sweat though I still easily had more than my legal VFR minimums of 3sm visibility and I was still confident. This is when things began to turn sour quick! If anyone were familiar with the region SSE of KBTV they’d know that there are a series of N-S running mountain ridges that top out around 4000-4500ft. The weather at departure called for a 7000ft broken ceiling; so I decided to fly at 5500ft VFR to keep myself clear of the mountains, clouds, and at an appropriate VFR altitude. The temperature at the surface was 11º C (335ft above SL). There is a 2.5º C cooling rate of air as you ascend typically. That would make the freezing level to be…uh oh…5500ft!!!
I knew that icing was a very real and serious threat to me at this point and I needed to make sure I stayed clear of ice. I used the very scientific approach of monitoring my O.A.T gauge and continually scanning my windscreen and leading edges of my wing with my trusty flashlight to look for any signs of icing building up. I thought that the easy answer of descending into warmer air wasn’t safe because of the towering cumulous granite below me that I couldn’t see. Well on one of those scans with my flashlight across my leading edges and windscreen I noticed a solid layer of ice forming on my wings! How could this be possible? My O.A.T. still read +2ºC!! Funny thing is I know I never checked to see if my O.A.T. was properly calibrated to 0ºC and I never even though to check maintenance logs or even ask a single person if anyone ever did that. I just assumed it was correct (you know what they say about assuming right?). I didn’t really have a choice at this point. I had to descend.
I quickly double-checked my single VOR against VOR stations that were near perpendicular to my predicted location and verified that my crossing radials agreed with my DME and located my position on my sectional chart at night by myself with no auto-pilot. I remember thanking my instructor out-loud for training me to a higher than required standard. I was grateful for the training I received earlier on. So, I descended into warmer air below and the ice melted off! Whew, I was out of it…or at least I was for the next 5 minutes. My route was taking me SSE and the front was coming from the West to East. The weather was deteriorating quickly and I was growing nervous. I had to repeat my procedure of locating my position and descending at least two more times. I distinctly remember finally clearing the mountains of VT and arriving back into MA just north of KORH. I thought I needed to land and wait out the weather, but decided to push on past KORH enroute back to KEWB. The problem with landing at KORH and calling DCA to let them know I wouldn’t be arriving back at base that day was that I would have to do the flight all over again. I was in college, and I was broke. The flight was costing me thousands of dollars already and I literally couldn’t afford to do it again. At that moment I valued my life at a few thousand dollars… and I pressed on.
Now I was in pouring rain and if anyone asks I of course still had 3sm visibility, but it was quickly deteriorating. I passed KORH and made a straight line shot towards KEWB. I tuned the ATIS and listened to information 'Whiskey' (I remembered the code because I desperately wanted some at that point) and they called the ceilings at KEWB at 9000ft Broken, 10-mile visibility, and light rain. Right after I wrote the ATIS down I remember missing a cloud by of course no less than 500ft above me and looking at my altimeter and noting I was only 1000ft AGL! I assumed with the weather 15sm ahead being reported at 9000ft Broken that I would be well clear of any clouds, I learned that just because the ATIS says the weather is one thing, it doesn’t mean it still is, especially 15 miles away from the airport.
I spotted my home airport a solid 9sm away and entered the traffic pattern as instructed and made an uneventful landing in the rain at night. I was safely on the ground! I taxied my dutiful C-172RG back to DCA’s ramp and shut her down in the appropriate parking space, opened my door, got out and went down on my knees where I was humble enough to kiss the tarmac. I knew I was lucky, and I was definitely grateful to be kneeling on solid ground safely. Unfortunately, too many stories don’t have a happy ending like mine. I was lucky, not skillful, but lucky to still be here.
In conclusion, there was a host of hazardous attitudes that I displayed that I should have been more alert to. How could all of this been avoided? I easily should have stuck to my planned schedule, I shouldn’t have left KBTV when I knew that front was approaching, I should have made an 180º and returned safely to KBTV when the weather began to turn sour, or I should have landed at KORH and waited out the weather. Overall I shouldn’t be here today. I got lucky, really lucky. I just hope that by telling this story fellow pilots might take an extra second and think about their decisions before launching into situations they know are not ideal. I never had someone put my invulnerable, macho, and impulsive self into place. I had to learn it the hard way and have now approached flying with a new sense of respect that it deserves.