One cloudy spring day a few years ago a Beechcraft Baron piloted by a high-time ATP and with a relatively experienced private pilot in the right seat hit a peak in the Ruby Mountains of eastern Nevada while en route from Truckee, California, to Salt Lake City. Both occupants were killed in the crash. The airplane, which was getting flight following from Salt Lake Center at the time of the mishap, hit terrain at 10,500 feet in controlled flight. An NTSB investigator concluded that the airplane had most likely been in visual conditions until just before it hit the steeply sloping terrain just a couple of hundred feet below the peak’s summit, which was the highest terrain in the area.
The tragic accident is also an intriguing one on several counts. First, the accident airplane was on the second leg of a two-leg trip that began earlier in the day in San Carlos, California. The flight was flown VFR, and the first leg, according to the NTSB report, went off without a hitch. The second leg, flown through the heart of the Sierra Nevada range in California and Nevada, was flown later in the day, also under VFR. The pilot did ask for and get VFR flight following services; with flight following, it’s important to understand that ATC’s role is limited. The pilot in command is responsible for maintaining adequate clearance from terrain and from clouds. In this case, it’s tragically clear that neither happened.
The NTSB’s finding of probable cause seemed to state the obvious, that the crash was caused by “the pilot’s continued VFR cruise flight into instrument meteorological conditions in mountainous terrain, and his failure to maintain clearance from terrain.” There was no sign of mechanical malfunction or medical emergency. The pilot apparently flew the Baron into the side of the mountain under control.
The question the NTSB does not attempt to answer in the report is why the pilot failed to avoid the mountain.
Why did investigators avoid the central issue in the investigation? We all know the answer. It’s because, most of the time, it’s impossible to say why pilots put themselves into situations that lead to their demise. There are a handful of commonly conjured answers: invulnerability, get-home-itis, machismo and improper crew coordination, among others. There’s also the possibility that the flight came to harm because of ignorance of the conditions or the risks, though that’s unlikely in this case, with a 13,600-hour ATP in the left seat.
I won’t attempt to speculate on why things went wrong, just that the risk was very high to begin with. You have a VFR flight off-airways being flown in mountainous terrain with mountain obscuration. The other higher risk factors are it being a multileg flight, there being two pilots on board for a noncrewed airplane, and the cloud tops being at or above oxygen altitudes.
While it’s almost always a good idea to be on an IFR flight plan when you can be, for those pilots who aren’t instrument rated, there are a number of things you can do to cut down on the risks. If the pilot of the Baron in question had recognized the risks and approached the flight differently, there’s a high probability, based on the statistics, that it would have ended happily instead of tragically.
Identify the Risks
The key to making VFR flight safer is to fly like the airlines do. Of course, that’s not always possible. A Bonanza pilot flying a 500 nm trip to an unfamiliar small airport doesn’t have the second pilot, the second (turbofan) engine, the dispatchers watching his back or the same level of required recurrent training as airline pilots have.
While flights of small airplanes come to harm for many reasons, the biggest risk factors can be summed up in three main categories: weather, terrain and loss of control. If we were to remove these offenders from the record, light airplane accidents likely would be cut by far more than half.
Use the Tools of IFR
The key to far safer VFR flight is to fly predictably and to avoid the big areas of risk. That means borrowing everything you can from the IFR playbook to keep from hitting the ground unexpectedly, which never ends well.
A flight that I make on a regular basis, from Austin, Texas, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a good case in point. This flight is fraught with peril: very high terrain, sky-high density altitude eight or nine months a year, regular severe weather along the route of flight and numerous military operating and restricted areas along the route that might limit diversions in bad weather and that might be regulatory hazards as well (if you happen to bust one while flying VFR).
On nice days, this is a fine trip to fly VFR, though you need to fly high as you reach west Texas to stay above the terrain. For an IFR pilot, this can be a challenging enough mission when the weather is bad, but when you’re VFR, the risks greatly ratchet up.
On this flight, you could and should ask for flight following. When you call to ask, remember to tell the controllers who you are (what aircraft type), where you are (they know their area, so you can reference any nearby VOR or decent-size airport), the altitude (which they use to confirm your Mode-C) and what your intentions are (where you’re going and what basic route). After you make first contact with your desired facility, fill them in on what you want: “Albuquerque Center, Cessna N12345, over Junction, 8,500 feet, destination ABQ, request flight following.” The controller will get back to you, confirm radar contact and give you a squawk code. Remember at this point that you are not, as is the case when you are flying on an IFR flight plan, under the controller’s control. He or she is merely issuing you advisories. You’re under no obligation in most cases to maintain your present altitude or track. Controllers are merely watching you on the radar screen. One thing they will do, however, is issue traffic advisories, workload permitting, which is a nice bonus.
One thing the controller won’t do, however, is help you pick a good altitude to fly or keep track of that altitude. Under IFR, the controller generally issues you an altitude, so there’s no guesswork involved. With VFR you’re the boss. So stick to the airways, learn how to read the charts to identify the minimum safe altitudes in your sector, and choose an altitude that gives you plenty of clearance. En route, I usually like to fly 5,000 feet or higher above the terrain. Sometimes in areas of very high terrain, that’s not possible without supplemental oxygen, but it’s a good rule of thumb. Having 5,000 feet to work with in case of an engine failure is a lot better than being barely above pattern altitude.
Fly the Airways
A great approach on this flight if you’re VFR-only is to ditch the “direct to” button on the navigator and fly airways. I can’t stress enough how much just this tactic can help. For one, most airways will follow the lowest terrain along your route of flight (that’s why they were invented, remember), so you don’t have to figure out your terrain clearance. The airways have done it for you. In good weather this helps you figure out your desired altitudes ahead of time, so you know if there’s a healthy climb required ahead. When the weather’s bad, it gives you an out.
Stock Your Tool Bag
Being too low en route seldom (not never) causes accidents in clear weather. It’s when the weather gets dicey that things get hairy.
The two biggest tools to have at your disposal are, one, being able to keep your airplane under control if you somehow lose visual reference and, two, having a way of knowing where the terrain is to avoid hitting it if you were to go IMC. If you’re flying the airways when this happens, unless there’s severe ice or convection, there’s no emergency involved. You just keep flying the airplane by reference to the instruments. Remember, the single biggest risk with inadvertent VFR into IMC is losing control of the airplane.
There’s no excuse for not knowing where terrain is in this day and age. If you don’t have panel-mounted terrain advisory capability, get a portable or handheld with terrain built in. Even the iPad is a great resource here. Bottom line: Know where you are and where the terrain is in relationship to you.
Have an Out, Always
Brief your situation too by saying something to the effect of “If we lose visual reference with the ground, we’ll maintain control of the airplane (use the autopilot), call approach control and when safe do a 180-degree turn back to where we were just in the clear.” This is merely an example of the kind of briefing you might conduct. What your options are will depend entirely on your flight situation. In some cases, a 180 might be ill-advised. Sometimes staying the course, confessing and asking for help will be the best bet. For those pilots worried about enforcement, remember that it’s a lot better to be alive and in trouble than dead.
Perhaps the most important skill a VFR pilot can have is the ability to go land somewhere other than the desired destination. This sounds easy, but it’s not. Flying to an unfamiliar airport at which you hadn’t planned a stop can make many pilots extremely anxious. If you’re one of them, do yourself a favor. Treat this skill like you did learning to fly on instruments. It might not be the most natural thing in the world, but learn to do it anyway. Be able to use your navigator’s “nearest” function with your eyes closed to help you find a good diversion, including noting how long the runways are, whom to talk to, how to get the weather information and whether there’s fuel. Get to the point that finding that information becomes second nature. Then go land there. When you’re all out of good ideas, being safely on the ground pretty much eliminates the risk.
Know Your Stuff
To be really prepared to fly VFR in marginal conditions — and the weather can turn marginal faster than you think it can — it’s important to hone your skills. First, you need to be comfortable flying solely by reference to the flight instruments. When you find yourself in the clouds, it’s sometimes with little or no warning. You need to be able to transition to the attitude indicator and supporting instruments without a second thought. You also need to be on top of where you are and where the terrain is at all times. Today that’s easier than ever, thanks to the widespread availability of moving map displays and terrain awareness utilities. Also, know how to ask ATC for help and how to avail yourself of that help. I know a lot of controllers. They are great people who would do anything to help a pilot avoid a bad outcome. Finally, know the weather. (VFR-only pilots arguably need to be better students of weather patterns than IFR pilots.) What are the systems in play for your flight? What are the hazards? What are the possible changes in pattern? What are the capabilities of your airplane? What are your capabilities? What’s your comfort level?
Have a Plan, Always
One of the biggest danger zones in VFR cross-country flying is not having a plan. There are two big reasons for heading out unprepared, and frankly they both stink. First is that you’re in too much of a hurry to make a plan. On a benign weather day on a familiar route, that’s probably not a big deal. But if there’s marginal weather or the risk of marginal weather, launching without a clear idea of what you’re going to do is like leaving a loaded gun lying around, safety off. This leads me to the second reason pilots go off on a marginal day without a plan: No good plan has sprung to mind, so they launch anyway, hoping they’ll figure something out along the way. Instead, figure it out before you launch. And if you really can’t come up with a solid plan, then don’t go. It’s really that easy.
Many pilots believe that flying VFR is the purest form of flying, and there’s a lot to be said for that point of view. Then again, it’s clear that when there are risk factors associated with the flight, the risks to VFR flying can be great. By applying some of the principles of IFR flying to our VFR trips and by carefully examining the risk factors, having a plan and being smart and proactive when confronted with in-flight hazards, we can greatly cut our risks and, in so doing, greatly increase our enjoyment of flying VFR.