|Illustrations by Chris Gall|
In Joni Mitchell's 1969 song “Both Sides, Now,” a haunting and sentimental little earwig, the singer laments that after looking at clouds “from both sides now,” she really doesn’t know them very well at all. The same could be said for many pilots. Even after thousands of hours in the air sorting out this kind of visible moisture and that, clouds remain enigmatic. And potentially deadly too, something Joni failed to mention.
Clouds are the dividing line between visual and instrument flight, and, for pilots, they represent a crucible of sorts, a multifaceted challenge with which we must deal before moving on to new levels of experience, capability and opportunity in our flying.
It goes without saying that the pilots least prepared to deal with clouds are new pilots. They not only have the least overall experience but by the time they pick up their private certificate and are turned loose on the airways, they typically have zero experience negotiating clouds. This was true for me when I got my instrument rating.
The end result is, new pilots are forced to deal with extraordinarily complex decision-making processes when they come into conflict with clouds for the first time. Too often, that learning process ends in tragedy.
Every year a couple dozen accidents, most of them fatal, result from pilots inadvertently flying into the clouds. The actual crash at the end of the chain can be caused by one of two things: losing control of the airplane in a catastrophic nature and flying under control into terrain that was obscured by clouds.
The Bad Side
The scenarios are frighteningly common. In the loss-of-control accident chain, the pilot typically lets the airplane overbank. Whether this is through inattention or turbulence, the result is usually the same. In a too-steep bank, the airplane overspeeds, the pilot realizes the error too late, pulls back and overstresses the wings and/or the tail, which fail — end of story.
In the controlled flight into terrain scenario, the pilot does a good to passable job of controlling the airplane when he enters the clouds but a poor job of knowing where the terrain is.
Darkness as well as clouds can precipitate both of these accident types. The common thread is reduced visibility.
Other, less common accidents result from pilots inadvertently flying into clouds. Icing or thunderstorms can cause these. There have been a couple high-profile examples of both of these accident types recently, including a TBM that apparently iced up over New Jersey and a PC-12 that flew into a thunderstorm in Florida. In both cases, the pilots were instrument rated and the cause of the accident seemed to be running into weather conditions that exceeded the aircraft’s capabilities.
Another relatively uncommon accident type is mechanical failure, one that promises to become even less common, as historically the most typical instrument failure that has led to a fatal loss of control in IMC crashes is that of the attitude indicator (or its power source, the vacuum pump). With solid-state attitude sensors and multiple backups common on recent-production airplanes, the likelihood of such a failure is remote.
Most accidents, however, are simply caused by the pilot losing control with no immediate, precipitating cause, i.e., no thunderstorms, no ice, no mechanical failure, nothing that would prompt us to say, “The pilot was simply dealt a bad hand.” In many accidents, the cause is simply reduced visibility en route, a factor instrument pilots at some point early in their journey to IFR proficiency don’t think of as much of a factor at all. When a flight comes to harm with loss of life, it is exceptionally sad to know there likely was nothing other than harmless clouds that lay between a safe arrival and unspeakable tragedy, but very often that is precisely the case.