The one smart thing I’d done already was slow down. I slowed even more and carefully made a smooth and level 180-degree turn. I retraced my steps, found the right road and made it home under a low ceiling that I would argue was still VFR.
When we arrived at our home base, I was greeted by my flight instructor and my dad, both of whom were clearly worried about what might have become of us. I never told them the whole story, and it’s possible my dad is learning this story for the first time here.
The saddest part of this risk matrix is we put new pilots in harm’s way by not properly preparing them for the very real challenges clouds can bring, especially when terrain is a part of the mix.
The sad truth is, we do a miserable job of preparing new pilots to deal with the very hard decisions that otherwise-harmless clouds will very likely force upon them on some flight in the near future. After my scary near-disaster, I felt a mix of emotions, the first of which was relief, followed soon by shame that I put myself and my brother in that situation. I felt somehow that I was less of a pilot for making the mistakes that led up to near-disaster. What I didn’t realize was that I was set up to make those mistakes and that any pilot with my experience and training would have performed the same. I should have been proud that I asked for help, listened and then made a really good 180 when I needed to.
I was in over my head, and this is the case for many new pilots facing clouds. Think about it. As a new pilot, I was expected to be able to gather and translate weather using an arcane teletype language, figuring out in the process what the weather was, what time it was for, what altitudes and areas it regarded and what the special hazards were, all as it applied to a flight that would cross a wide region of the country over treacherous terrain. Then, I was expected to know how to deal with changing weather mixed with rising terrain and growing darkness. Should I, by regulation, have been prepared for all of this? Yes. Is it realistic for us to expect new pilots to have this kind of knowledge? Clearly, it’s not.
What we should do is talk about the risks of clouds very directly, talk about thunderstorms and ice and terrain and loss of control so new pilots know what to expect. We need also to practice these things. The one thing I could have done on my flight was simply land at another airport and call it a day. I should have. I just wasn’t confident enough to divert. I hadn’t done it before, and I didn’t believe that’s what you do when things go south. You land and everything is immediately better.
The other thing we have going for us is technology. I’ve intentionally avoided talking about how new cockpit safety gear could help in these situations, but it can in a dramatic way. Good autopilots are standard equipment on many newer airplanes, so keeping the wings level even with a high workload is easier than ever. With moving maps, situational awareness is easy. Terrain awareness utilities can tell you with a glance where you are in relation to high ground. With tablet computers you can instantly get updated graphical weather via ADS-B or satellite weather. The tablet can also tell you where the nearest good alternate is. Teaching technology is teaching options. We owe it to new pilots to do that.