I.L.A.F.F.T.: Just A Thin Layer From Disaster

A young pilot deals with compounding concerns on a short flight home.

It must have been about two years after I received my private pilot license in Switzerland. At 28 years of age, I was happily married with two healthy boys, aged 2 and 4, and a promising banking career lying ahead. The world and future looked bright, and I was going to take the opportunity to fly when I could. The reason for the next trip was to visit a  refinery—situated near the Italian border—that  belonged to the bank. I visited the plant regularly  

to coordinate the bank’s activities with the  factory and normally took the car, which made  for a round trip of approximately six hours. This  time—and considering the beautiful weather—I  decided to take the airplane instead.  With barely 150 hours in my logbook, I  felt that I should invite my former flying instructor, who had a total of approximately  20,000 hours, to accompany me to south Switzerland, which required a crossing of the Alps.

It was the most beautiful October day when we left relatively early in  the morning from our military air port in the alpine upland in a Cessna  FR172 Reims Rocket. The 172, how ever, was not IFR-equipped and  didn’t have an autopilot.  

The flight down was uneventful and beautiful. There was no wind, and my gorgeous country lay at my disposal as far as the eye could see. 

The moment we entered the cloud, the whole world changed—from bright sunshine to near darkness; from a normal-sounding engine to a muffled, distant-feeling motor; from a happy, cheerful cockpit to a quiet and worryingly narrow environment.

I had a busy and successful day and met with my instructor at around  4 p.m. at Lugano Airport. Working all day and meeting after meeting did not give me time to think about the return flight—or prepare with any flight planning at all.  

Because the weather was so beautiful on both sides of the Alps when we left, I do not remember if we even checked the weather. 

On the way back, the flight north was great—quiet and nothing to worry about until we approached the valley where our home airport was situated. The valley runs almost straight from south to north and, on both sides, is surrounded by a couple of mountains, all at a height of  around 10,000 feet.  

A solid cloud layer of fog was  creeping up the edges of the valley,  and when we reached the vicinity of  the field, it was completely covered. We kept going on and discussed  what we could do. I definitely had  “get-home-itis” and did not want to go back south and take a train home, which meant missing dinner and missing the boys before they went to bed.

So I sheepishly suggested that— because the layer might not be thick—we could enter the cloud in the middle of the valley, follow its course, and “fall out” underneath the cloud layer after only a very brief descent. Much to my surprise, my former instructor consented. We agreed that, entering the top at around 8,000 feet, we would execute a climb and return to the top at no lower than 6,000 feet if we didn’t have ground contact. I reduced power and slowly but cautiously approached the layer.  The moment we entered it, the whole world changed—from bright sunshine to near darkness; from a normal-sounding engine to a muffled, distant-feeling motor; from a happy, cheerful cockpit to a quiet and  worryingly narrow environment. The valley ran a course of approximately 010 degrees—nearly due north.  So, I followed it precisely and let down with a descent rate of about 500 fpm. Upon reaching 6,000 feet, we were still solidly in the soup. 

Instead of opening full throttle and resuming a climb, I kept descending, hoping my former teacher would not realize that I was reneging on our agreement to stop at that altitude. 

At 5,000 feet, we were still in it. Suddenly, I realized that we could have encountered crosswinds in the valley, and though I kept diligently to  the heading, we could drift sideways and be pushed completely off course. 

The next thought that crossed my mind was to imagine how it would feel if we were to hit a mountain at a speed of about 100 mph. Realizing this could actually happen any second, I advanced the throttle, pulled up carefully and ascended on that same course, making sure not to pull too hard on the controls and watching my airspeed cautiously.  

The next minutes were deadly quiet in the cockpit—and for certain the longest of my life. The urge to pull back a little harder in order to expedite the climb had to be fought against and required all my self-discipline.  A lot of thoughts—both important and minor—crossed my mind. Am I going to see my family again? How is the insurance coverage in such a case? How do I get from the airport to the train station in Lugano? When would I get the airplane back to the  home airport? 

As we cleared the cloud tops again at 8,000 feet, we were exactly where we were supposed to be, and the sun was still the same one and as bright as before. We turned back south, landed at the airport from which we had departed  approximately 40 minutes prior, and took the train back.  

It was the first time in my life that I enjoyed a train ride more than a flight. I have read ILAFFT since the early 1970s and learned something from most of the stories.  

I do hope that no serious pilot learns from this article. I would hope that there are no aviators who would try the same as I did with youthful recklessness and without the gadgets available today, such as GPS and the associated instrument approach procedures. The question remains, though, whether today, with all these marvelous toys, the story would have ended differently. Maybe the temptation to risk such an adventure is even greater now, but then there are other  challenges, such as vertigo, somato gravic illusion, stalls, icing and even  military IFR traffic (because we did  not monitor any such frequency).  

So, the answer is to not even think about doing what I did.

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