Clouds aren’t al­ways harm­less, but they can bite


Flying - - CONTENTS - By Peter Gar­ri­son

Santa Paula Air­port, in South­ern Cal­i­for­nia, lies be­tween two moun­tain ridges ori­ented gen­er­ally east-west. The closer of them, a cou­ple of miles south of the run­way, rises 2,000 feet above the air­port elevation. On an Au­gust morn­ing in 2015, a low stra­tus layer had crept up the val­ley from the Pa­cific, cov­er­ing the air­port. Fif­teen hun­dred feet deep, it would thin and even­tu­ally burn off, prob­a­bly by mid­morn­ing.

The pi­lot, 82, of a Cessna P337G, a pres­sur­ized Sky­mas­ter, wanted to get to Cal­i­for­nia City, in the desert north of Los An­ge­les, to have his an­nual signed off by a me­chanic there. He had more than 3,000 hours, held an air­frame and power plant me­chanic’s li­cense him­self and had a com­mer­cial li­cense but no in­stru­ment rat­ing. He was in good health and did not use any med­i­ca­tions.

At 9 in the morn­ing, the 337 took off from Run­way 22. An air­port em­ployee fa­mil­iar with the heights of nearby ter­rain said the ceil­ing was about 300 feet. He watched the 337 as it dis­ap­peared into the low clouds, then reap­peared, made a tight left turn and pro­ceeded north­east­ward along the riverbed be­tween the run­way and the foothills. The pi­lot had not yet re­tracted the land­ing gear. The watcher thought the de­par­ture suf­fi­ciently un­usual, in light of the low ceil­ing, that he turned on a VHF ra­dio to lis­ten for an ELT sig­nal.

At around 2 in the af­ter­noon, an em­ployee of an oil-ex­trac­tion fa­cil­ity high on the moun­tain south of the air­port no­ticed some un­fa­mil­iar de­bris and went to in­ves­ti­gate it. It turned out to be the wreck­age of an air­plane.

The 337 had struck the moun­tain­side 1,223 feet above sea level, about 1,000 feet above the run­way elevation and less than 3 miles from the air­port. The de­bris trail was aligned gen­er­ally south­ward. For some rea­son, the Na­tional Trans­porta­tion Safety Board’s anal­y­sis char­ac­ter­izes this di­rec­tion as “con­sis­tent with the pi­lot at­tempt­ing to re­turn to the air­port.” In fact, if the pi­lot had in­tended to re­turn to the air­port, he would have turned left, not right, and would not have been at 1,223 feet msl.

The NTSB’s 11-page de­scrip­tion of the wreck­age doesn’t men­tion whether the land­ing gear was up or down, but pho­to­graphs sug­gest it was down at the time of im­pact.

The NTSB at­trib­uted the ac­ci­dent to “the non-in­stru­ment-rated pi­lot’s

The 337 had struck the moun­tain­side 1,223 feet above sea level, about 1,000 feet above the run­way elevation and less than 3 miles from the air­port.

de­ci­sion to con­duct a vis­ual flight in in­stru­ment me­te­o­ro­log­i­cal con­di­tions.” I sus­pect that this anal­y­sis, while not false, omits some nu­ances. For one thing, this was a highly ex­pe­ri­enced pi­lot who most likely knew how to han­dle an air­plane in IMC. Lack of an in­stru­ment rat­ing does not nec­es­sar­ily im­ply lack of in­stru­ment-fly­ing abil­ity. Climb­ing through a stra­tus layer is the most ele­men­tary of IFR op­er­a­tions. His wife and son both “thought that it would have been likely that the pi­lot would have tried to get above the fog layer to con­tinue the flight to

Cal­i­for­nia City.” In other words, he had prob­a­bly done it be­fore.

If this were the case, why did he make the fa­tal turn to the south, which is the one di­rec­tion that a pi­lot leav­ing Santa Paula would ab­so­lutely not go?

I can’t know, ob­vi­ously. But it does strike me that a P337 with one aboard ought to be able to punch through a 1,500-foot stra­tus deck in lit­tle more than one minute. The NTSB said the con­di­tion of the wreck­age sug­gested that the air­plane had been fly­ing “pat­tern speed” at im­pact. In that case, it took about two min­utes to travel from the wit­ness’s last sight­ing on the down­wind leg to the crash lo­ca­tion, climb­ing at only 500 fpm.

I have had, and I sup­pose many other pi­lots have had, the ex­pe­ri­ence of for­get­ting to re­tract the land­ing gear and then be­ing puz­zled by the poor climb rate. You nat­u­rally as­so­ciate climb rate with power, and so you spend some time think­ing some­thing is wrong with an en­gine or with the power set­tings be­fore you fi­nally dis­cover that it’s the gear that’s hold­ing you back. Per­haps that hap­pened, and in the dis­trac­tion of fig­ur­ing out what was wrong the pi­lot lost aware­ness of his head­ing.

But it’s equally pos­si­ble that he saw a bright spot in the clouds — a “sucker hole” — and turned to­ward it. Stra­tus decks are of­ten thin where they touch moun­tains. It’s hard to be­lieve, how­ever, that any­thing would in­duce a pi­lot fa­mil­iar with the area to turn to­ward the moun­tains south of the air­port. They are an in­tim­i­dat­ing pres­ence, even in clear weather.

If the temp­ta­tion to punch out through a thin cloud layer with­out of­fi­cial sanc­tion is too pow­er­ful for some pi­lots to re­sist, de­scend­ing through a “hole” in an over­cast — some­times lit­tle more than a thin spot — runs a close sec­ond.

Holes in the clouds, and the false hope they bring, might have played a part in a dif­fer­ent ac­ci­dent. This one took place in moun­tain-free Ne­braska on a win­ter Sun­day in 2016. The 115-hour, non-in­stru­ment-rated pi­lot of a Cessna 172 needed to get from Columbia, Mis­souri, to Sioux City, Iowa, to be at work the next day. There were IFR con­di­tions along the route with cloud tops at 4,500 feet, and he chose to fly above the over­cast. Sioux City was IFR when he ap­proached, and he de­cided to di­vert to Wayne, Ne­braska, a lit­tle to the south­west, where the re­ported con­di­tions were VFR with scat­tered clouds at 200 feet.

By now it was night, dark and moon­less. The pi­lot be­gan his de­scent. He was on flight fol­low­ing; his ex­changes with the con­troller sounded care­free and rou­tine. But he never reached Wayne. He flew, un­der con­trol, into the ground, 8 miles from the air­port.

A flight in­struc­tor who hap­pened to be nearby at the time of the crash wrote to the NTSB in­ves­ti­ga­tor, “The weather was very strange at that time. I re­mem­ber be­cause in my 16 years of fly­ing, I’ve never en­coun­tered weather like this: There were lit­er­ally clouds on the ground. It was 15 de­grees [Fahren­heit], and these clouds on the sur­face were puffy white cu­mu­lus-type clouds in my head­lights. It wasn’t like walls of fog that you some­times see. Vis­i­bil­ity went from 6 sm to less than ¼ in sec­onds. Ceil­ings were also very low … and there was freez­ing fog as well.”

Nei­ther the pi­lot nor the con­troller could an­tic­i­pate that re­ported VFR weather would col­lapse into freak­ish IMC. But on the other hand, to de­scend in moon­less dark­ness over un­lighted ter­rain with­out hav­ing the des­ti­na­tion in sight re­quires some dar­ing and a firm faith in one’s own skills and good luck. With rel­a­tively lit­tle fly­ing ex­pe­ri­ence, the pi­lot pos­si­bly did not even re­al­ize the pit­falls — il­lu­sions, dis­ori­en­ta­tion, ver­tigo — of night VFR fly­ing over un­pop­u­lated ter­rain. Did he know how low he was? The de­scent was really an IFR op­er­a­tion, and nei­ther train­ing nor ex­pe­ri­ence had pre­pared him for it.

A cen­tury ago, it was the rash­ness of fly­ing that drew peo­ple to it. Pas­sions have cooled since then, and for the most part air­planes have be­come time-sav­ing con­ve­niences or os­ten­ta­tious ac­ces­sories. The re­li­a­bil­ity of pi­lots, how­ever, has not kept pace. Air­planes can still re­vive the old bravado in us, not al­ways with happy ef­fect.

By now it was night, dark and moon­less. The pi­lot be­gan his de­scent. His ex­changes with the con­troller sounded care­free and rou­tine. But he never reached Wayne.

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