Aviation Safety Letter 2/2004

I Have Seen The Eyes of Death - Part I

Adapted from original article "I Have Seen The Eyes of Death," by Dr. John Albrecht, family physician, aviation medical examiner and active pilot.

December 6, 2000, Tofino Airport, B.C., weather was brilliant sunshine with a cloudless sky and a light westerly sea breeze - the scene was set. In the unseasonably warm conditions, an American businessman was preparing his Cessna 182 for his return flight to Oregon. He was completing his solo cross-country trip as a student pilot. The serenity of the morning was broken by the faint forlorn moan of the Leonard Island foghorn. With disbelief and apprehension for the rookie pilot, a quick telephone call confirmed that indeed a fogbank was moving in from the Pacific. A glance to the west revealed a thin white line on the horizon. His pre-flight seemed to take forever. At last he strapped in and fired up. With increasing alarm the onlookers realized that he was taxiing for Runway 28 - a westbound departure into a light wind. Another observation noted that the grey wall had reached the golf course at the western boundary of the airport and was advancing in leaps and bounds! Sensing trouble, one of the pilots jumped into a silent Beaver, hit the master switch and transmitted a brief warning.... "Dave, don't take off that way!" By this time, he was positioned on the threshold of 28 for takeoff and transmitted back, "I check that."

The aircraft began to accelerate. Initial relief turned to horror as the huddled group realized that he was not returning to the apron but taking off. The 182 climbed only to 250 ft AGL when it entered the fog bank at mid-field, and the right wing had already dropped as it was engulfed. Out of sight, the engine sounds gave testimony to the remainder of the flight. For several seconds they were normal and then rapidly increased into a shrill crescendo, a brief flutter, followed by the final impact. Then silence. The flight had been just under one minute in duration. One of the veteran pilots dejectedly confirmed what the rest feared."he just killed himself." A brief search in the mist located the burnt wreckage just a quarter mile north of the departure runway. The pilot's family had difficulty comprehending how a beautiful day could turn into tragedy.

As a family physician, aviation medical examiner and active pilot with 28 years of flying experience, I have some understanding of the factors involved in this preventable accident. A review of my of log books brings to vivid recall my four encounters with the terrifying condition that resulted in this crash:

  1. February 26, 1975 - Student pilot. Entered snow squall with instrument conditions east of Pitt Meadows Airport, B.C. Solo, 30 hr total time, instrument time - nil. Inexperience with deterioration from VFR to IFR conditions.

  2. August 21, 1977 - Private pilot. Encountered instrument conditions in heavy rain east of Denman Island, B.C., on flight from Comox, B.C., to Pitt Meadows, B.C. 320 hr total time, instrument time - 13 hr (Hood). Wife and two daughters. "Get-home-itis" with rental aircraft. Marginal VFR.

  3. July 17, 1978 - Private pilot. Inadvertently entered cloud over Bowen Island, B.C., in VFR conditions on flight from Pitt Meadows to Comox. 390 hr total time, instrument time - 24 hr (Hood). Wife and two daughters. Visual illusion of cloud proximity. Wife did not fly with me for the next 20 years!

  4. August 6, 1982 - Private pilot. Flew into a fogbank departing Ocean Shores, WA, for Newport, OR. 790 hr total time, instrument - 32 hr (Hood). Flying partner with one child each. "Get-home-itis."

In three of these situations, VFR conditions were forecast when instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) were encountered, after which aircraft control was in doubt, if it existed at all. There is only one reason that I am on this side of the twilight zone to take pen to paper - blind unmitigated luck. I hope that other pilots can learn from my past errors.

Each of the above scenarios has a common flight phenomenon - SPATIAL DISORIENTATION. Disorient means to mix up; confuse; to cause to lose one's sense of direction, perspective or time. Spatial disorientation is the loss of position sense in relation to the earth's surface. In the aviation environment, the ultimate consequence is loss of control with the terminal manoeuvre being a spiral dive - often vertical or inverted!

While the disorientation accident is preventable, no pilot is immune to the deadly phenomenon. It is difficult for the uninitiated aviator to comprehend the danger of pressing on from visual to instrument conditions.

The Eyes of Death may come in a group of six...
The Eyes of Death may come in a group of six...

The Transport Canada "Take Five....for Safety" entitled "178 Seconds," describes the typical scenario of scud running. It refers to a research project set up to determine how long non-instrument rated pilots take to lose control of their aircraft in simulated instrument conditions. The range was 20 to 480 seconds with an average of 178 seconds! Once in instrument conditions, their average lifespan was just under three minutes - of the 20 students all eventually lost control.

Several years ago on an instructor re-ride, Roy Israel gave me an in-flight demonstration that is nauseatingly vivid to this day. He mimicked the flight control inputs and gyrations of a recent commercial pilot candidate flying straight and level under the hood. The initial transgression was a gentle right spiral dive, then a brief correction to straight and level. Next the nose came up and we rolled left and into a spiral dive that was near vertical with alarming speed. It was all we could do to throttle back and recover before the engine redlined. My mouth was dry and heart raced as my mind drifted back to 1978 and Bowen Island...

The weather for this flight from Pitt Meadows to Comox was VFR, as forecast, with residual cumulus over Howe Sound and the North Shore mountains. The trip was uneventful as we droned westward toward Bowen Island. A cloud bank over the mainland did not appear to be a problem. POOF! Instant grey, uniform and everywhere. No horizon, mouth dry, fast pulse. Wife: stone silent! Oldest daughter in the rear seat, a seasoned aviator..."Daddy, it's foggy outside." A quick look left then right, still no horizon. A swivel over both shoulders and still no outside reference. The engine droned on but my brain says we're suspended in time and space. A voice inside my head shrills, "Jack, you are in deep trouble!" Check the flight instruments. Impossible! We entered this mess straight and level and my mind and body feel the same but...the airspeed indicator is unwinding through 50 kt and the attitude indicator shows the little aircraft profile in a nose up and right bank attitude. Unusual attitude with a stall seconds away! Recover, nose down and level the wings. Turn to reciprocal heading and wait and wait and....time stands still, loses all meaning. Then POOF! English Bay, anchored freighters and a natural horizon! The rest of the flight was uneventful.

This brief insightful encounter with disorientation made me an instant believer of its deadly peril. I was astounded by the rapid transition from controlled flight to an unusual attitude in mere seconds. Contributing factors included surprise, distraction and the surreal world of instrument conditions. Under these conditions, 24 hr of hood time was almost not enough to survive. There is no doubt that in-cloud ("actual" IFR) experience is invaluable. The importance of recognizing and recovering from unusual attitudes was driven home, as was the pre take-off setting of the heading indicator for the reciprocal turn. In retrospect, I did commit two errors: the turn, rather than rate one (3° per second), was a steep aerobatic fighter pilot variety and to the right towards the concealed peak of Bowen Island. I will never know how close we came to terrain and I don't care to. There was a touch of panic and the adrenalin was flowing hot. But we survived to fly another day.

It is difficult to describe the emotional and physical reactions in this situation. In aviation, a close encounter with another aircraft always results in a strange metallic taste in my mouth - the taste of raw adrenalin. However, the absolute dysphoria and terror of spatial disorientation is by far the worst and for many pilots the last they will experience. One of my sage flying instructors, John Brongers, put this into perspective after I recounted to him my Bowen Island fiasco. "Jack," he asked, "if I was sitting in the right hand seat, instrument rated, and told you I could fly you out of this mess, would you sign this blank cheque?" I responded "Yes, immediately!" The amount was immaterial and the recipient could have been the devil himself. I call this "Lotto Equivalent" dysphoria. It is hard to convey to the non-aviator the intensity of the mental anguish.

In Part II of this article, Dr. Albrecht will address the specifics of spatial disorientation. In the meantime, the lessons described here should suffice to make us think twice before flying into deteriorating weather. - Ed.

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