The Stevens Crash and Scud Running
I don't know what caused the the crash in Alaska that claimed five lives, including that of former Alaska Senator Ted Stevens, but the conversation has been all about the high stakes game that is continued VFR into IMC in high terrain. There are certainly other possible factors, but I think everyone would be surprised to see that not be a factor in this crash.
The two times I've come closest to killing myself in an airplane were decades ago, and both involved continued flight into terrain in worsening conditions. In one case, flying in the San Bernardino Mountains of Southern California, I simply turned around and went back to where I knew the terrain was lower and conditions were better. In the second case, I pointed the airplane's nose in the direction of what I knew to be the lowest terrain and climbed like all get out, picking up a clearance and topping out only 7,000 feet later.
I resolved never to get myself into a similar situation again.
In both cases, the weather was far worse than forecast, and in both cases, I had an out, though my adrenaline got pumping pretty good in both instances.
I do think the trap is in the thinking as much as in the flying. When you find yourself in such a situation, you need to ask yourself, "How far am I willing to go? "What's my out?" "Where's the lowest terrain and how do I get there?" and "How much do I really need to get to where I'm going?"
The ideal solution, of course, is never to get into such a situation in the first place, which is my goal. I fly IFR whenever I'm travelling any distance or whenever I fly is the weather is marginal. And I leave myself as many outs as possible. Altitude, alternate airports, extra fuel, and a credit card with high limits all go into the reserve column.
I also make it a point to never fly to get somewhere for someone else. If we get there on schedule, that's fine. But I make it known that the schedule is mine, not theirs. If the weather is uncoperative, and this has only happened a couple of times in 15 years of flying IFR, then so be it. We'll do it some other time or not at all.
And I embrace TAWS technology. I want to know where the terrain is and how to avoid it. When flying the Quest Kodiak a couple of years ago in the Snake River Valley, we were able to find our way in a very low stress way using TAWS to give us plenty of outs. With even handhelds having terrain awareness utilities on them, there's simply no excuse to fly low with weather and in the hills without knowing precisely where the rocky parts are.
I'm curious to find out just what happened in Alaska the other day. I have my suspicions, but I'll reserve any comment until I learn more.
But I can't pass up the opportunity to talk about scud running, whether or not that turns out to be a factor in the crash. With the possible exceptions of dog fighting and low-level aerobatics, it's the riskiest thing we can do in an airplane, and we need to do a better job of both managing and, better yet, avoiding that risk altogether.