This article originally appeared as a feature in Flying Magazine.
Student pilots learn very early in their flying careers how to avoid cloud and maintain visual reference to the ground. Even so, the classic case of a VFR pilot caught in IMC remains one of the most chilling scenarios in general aviation. The situation is made all the more critical when rising terrain is factored into the equation. Controlled flight into terrain occurs when a pilot, in full command of his airplane, points the nose at something too dense to fly through, presumably because he cannot see it. Accident investigators continue to theorize about what possesses non-instrument rated pilots to press on into weather conditions they are not qualified to fly through.
On the morning of January 24, 2003, I was given a firsthand lesson on how swiftly a poor decision can turn a routine flight into a career-altering experience. I was a new flight instructor with just enough time under my belt to believe I knew what I was doing. My student was training for her commercial license and we had been impatiently waiting weeks for the weather to give us a break so we could brush up on her power-on stalls before the impending flight test. We departed out of Boundary Bay Airport, about 10 miles southeast of Vancouver International, in an older Cessna 172 with the ceiling at 1,500 feet and a strong headwind out of the east.
Throughout the Fraser Valley, just north of the Washington State border, the topography consists mainly of fields lying relatively flat and close to sea level. To the north and east, however, the terrain rises sharply into the Coast Mountains. That day, as the peaks had deceptively hidden in the low, overcast layer, we decided to remain over the more forgiving landscape. I had the student put on the instrument hood to practice timed turns and VOR tracking while I scanned the sky, looking for somewhere we could climb to a higher altitude. Instrument training is mandatory for VFR pilots to prepare them for the “unlikely” event they lose visual reference to the horizon, though its relevance has been debated. Accident statistics of non-instrument rated pilots caught in IMC attest that the instrument training allocated for a private, or even a commercial license is hardly adequate for a pilot to safely turn the aircraft around if it enters cloud. The irony was I had no idea how relevant that seemingly insignificant training was about to become.
About one hour into the flight, I thought my optimism had paid off as the overcast ceiling began to clear west of the city of Mission. As a VFR instructor on the west coast of British Columbia, one learns to take advantage of any indication of good weather, and this apparent opportunity was going to be no exception. The gap that had formed in the overcast layer looked to be at least three miles wide. “Good enough,” I thought, “and when are we going to get another chance?” That was my first mistake. At any rate, I decided to take a closer look, giving little attention to the mountains lurking in the misty horizon just two miles north.
We began a climbing left turn into the clearing. The scene was deceptively beautiful, with the ocean-blue sky luring the airplane higher, persuading me to forget about the dynamic weather that had been persisting throughout the day. I asked the student to clear the hood so she could appreciate the rapidly changing view out the window. I had been falling victim to an insidious illusion of improving weather as we approached the perceived open sky above. However, upon reaching 3,500 feet, I realized the clearing was not so promising as I had originally hoped. There was another layer forming rapidly only 1,000 feet above us while the gap we had initially climbed through had become significantly tighter, too tight to turn back. By that point, our situation had become painfully clear; the upper airwork was going to have to wait for another day.
I wasn’t nervous yet, I had a couple of hundred hours under my belt and I was still in charge of this flight, or so I told myself. There was little margin for error yet I somehow managed to find more than enough room for my ego. At that point, the responsible option would have been to call Vancouver Terminal and ask for radar assistance. They could have provided accurate information on my position, terrain elevation and suggested where I might have located more favourable weather. On the other hand, that would have involved admitting I had made a mistake, and I wasn’t ready to do that yet.
We continued eastbound toward what I had decided looked like another opening about 10 miles ahead. As we approached, I saw that it was nothing more than another illusion, leading us further into the trap, tightening the noose to the point where it was becoming difficult to breathe. At that point, all I wanted to do was to get out of the clouds and back where I could see the ground but I still hadn’t resigned myself to ask for help. The way I saw it, I had stumbled into this mess and I was going to lead us out of it. It’s funny how, at times, our eyes can only see what we want them to.
Moments later, I saw another opening just below us. This one was considerably smaller than the gap we had climbed through, but the inviting green turf of the farmer’s field indicated we were overhead an area of level terrain. A frantic debate began to churn inside of me. The voice of panic grew louder and louder, drowning out the voice of reason until it was the only sound I could hear. “This is your chance! If you don’t act now you will never get out of this!” The adrenaline was playing dangerous games with my mind, and I was down in the count. I slowed the aircraft, dropped a few degrees of flap and commenced a steep, descending left turn towards the field. Had I known then that the minimum vectoring altitude at my position was 7,000 feet, I may have thought otherwise. Nevertheless, through 3,000 feet as the clouds began to close in around me, I realized I had made a series of progressively rash and foolish decisions. At 2,500 feet the windows went stark grey. Strike three.
I rolled the wings level and frenetically scanned the instruments, desperately trying to find level flight. Almost immediately, I recalled the astute words of the instructor who had done my pre-solo check: “If you find yourself in cloud, climb!” Climb I did, but nowhere near fast enough. Finally willing to admit defeat, I tuned in the frequency for Vancouver Terminal and, in my best impression of Mickey Mouse, gave them our estimated position, and asked for radar assistance to reacquire VFR. The controller promptly identified us and asked if the aircraft was equipped for IFR flight. I told him “yes.” He then asked if I was IFR rated. I told him “no.” The pause on the other end must have only been a few seconds long, but I can still hear that deafening silence even now.
As we climbed through 3,000 feet, what broke the stalemate was the most terrifying sight a pilot could imagine. Charging at me through the mist at over 100 mph were trees. They were coming so fast, yet they move so slowly now when I see them in my mind. In that surreal instant, I don’t remember feeling any fear, but I pulled back violently on the control column as I felt the impact of the alpine forest smashing against the bottom of the airplane. The jolts were swift and sudden, only lasting a second or two, then everything went eerily smooth. The trees slipped ominously back into the cloud and the world faded to a dreadful shade of grey.
Reaching desperately for the mic button, my student entered the fray, screaming “We just hit trees!” over the frequency. Under most circumstances, the apprentice would leave the flying of the airplane to the instructor during an emergency, but I can understand why she wouldn’t have trusted me by this point. The controller told us to fly a heading of 230 and climb to 5,000 feet. I tried, but the instruments weren’t making any sense anymore. I could smell burning tree coming from the engine. I was struggling desperately to focus on the task at hand but the only thing I could concentrate on were those trees coming at me. Barely keeping the airplane under control, I began to wince, knowing at any second that same scene could replay itself but there would be nothing I could do. I had never felt so frozen nor been so certain that I was about to die, however, the irony was that in all of the danger, I had become my own worst enemy. Realizing my only chance would be to remain calm and fight the fear, I dug in and kept the aircraft climbing. It wasn’t over yet.
After the longest 2,000 feet of my life, I levelled the aircraft. As I continued to the southwest, the controller advised I was now 1,000 feet above the highest obstacle in my vicinity. No other words could have been more reassuring. From that time on, I was able to forget about the trees and focus on flying the airplane. After a protracted five minutes, we broke out into the most glorious span of blue sky I think I will ever see. The clouds slipped behind us, the grey was gone, and I could see the sun sparkling on the water of the Fraser River below. We had come through the worst of it and the world had never looked so beautiful.
We managed to continue VFR back to Boundary Bay under the intensely watchful eyes of the Terminal controllers. The smell of the smouldering branches had subsided, but we weren’t out of the woods quite yet. The landing gear struts had been damaged, the fairings having been torn from the airplane, and I didn’t know how well the nosewheel was attached, if at all. With my apprehensions outweighed only by my desire to get back on the ground, I conducted the approach with extreme caution. As we nervously touched down, I held the nose off the ground as long as possible before gently setting it down to the runway. Thankfully, it held up, and so had we.
I can’t express enough gratitude to the controllers in Vancouver Terminal for their help in getting me through that morning. Sometimes, what we see as pilots and what we are willing to admit to ourselves are very different things. The lessons I learned that day will never leave me. Since becoming a controller myself, I’ve been able to call on that experience to assist aircraft through various emergencies of their own. Sometimes a calming voice and another set of eyes are all that a controller can offer, but that can be just what a young pilot needs, even if he won’t admit it.