To the Letter

A Short Story About "Hole Hopping"

It was a sunny summer day. My friend, her daughter and I decided to go exploring with the airplane, a four-place high-wing. After spending a few hours at our destination, we decided to leave for home because weather was coming into the area.

Flight service told me that weather at home base was marginal VFR in light rain. That was not a problem as I passed by an alternate, in VFR conditions, less than a half hour from home base. I was flying at 3 500 ft AGL under 4 000 ft overcast; there was no precipitation and good visibility.

We were 15 minutes from home base; ahead of me was reduced visibility in light rain and a thin layer of cloud at 3 000 ft. To drop beneath that layer would mean another half hour flying around a hazard. But if this 3 000-ft layer was scattered, then I would only be above it for 5 minutes or so. From my shallow angle, it appeared to be broken. I have flown over broken cloud in the past for various reasons, always keeping a "safety hole" in sight. I kept going. Within 15 seconds, I passed a large enough hole todrop through. I looked out into the reduced visibility. I had a bad gut feeling.

Twenty seconds later, I was losing definition between my two cloud layers. My gut feeling screamed at me, and I did a 180° turn towards my "safety hole". At the hole, I put on half flap, reduced throttle and entered a steep spiral dive. The hole was now filling in and I wouldn't make it. I pulled up. My fear was coming on strong. I saw some cloud definition above me in the distance. Flaps off and into a full power climb, I couldn't out climb the cloud forming around me. My heart was racing.

I leveled off and entered a turn. I was being squeezed into an ever tightening turn. The stall warning was sounding continuously now. The instruments meant nothing to me. I was panicking inside and straining desperately to maintain any bit of visual reference to cloud definition. Some cloud definition straight ahead! I headed for it, still in slow flight. I'm losing sight of it! The cloud is building around me! Again, I was forced into a steep turn.

With the cloud still forming, I could just make out some cloud definition so I still knew which way was up. I was now completely trapped and stuck in a steep turn with the stall warning still sounding. It was hideous! I was terrified and as I waited for the cloud to consume me, I thought to myself: "I've really done it now, I've got about two minutes and it's all over. I'll be in a spin or a spiral dive." Then, whiteout! I was in a cloud. At that exact moment, I felt that we were flying straight and level. It felt like I had fallen prey to this death-trap cloud. And my panic was somewhat relieved with the surrender that I now felt.

Then, I caught a glimpse of the instruments. The bright blue of the artificial horizon caught my attention and confirmed a left bank, about 60°. Suddenly, a flash of cloud definition running 60° appeared across the window. Instinctively, the plane rolled level. We popped out of the cloud! I nosed down and the stall warning went silent.

I dropped below the cloud and flew home without incident. I was embarrassed and quiet. I was feeling the shame of putting my friends into a life-threatening situation and I was trying to hide it.

How could I hide it? I remembered boarding the airplane with the bad weather approaching, and my friend's daughter expressing her fear, and her mother telling her "don't worry because he [me] would never do anything to put us in danger." This incident all took place in under three minutes and within one sq. mi. (retrieved from the GPS-stored track).

As afterthoughts, I didn't ever think this would or could happen to me. What saved us?

  1. The high-wing didn’t stall (I couldn't make the stall warning go silent because I was panicking and reacting to my loss of visual reference).
  2. We popped out of the cloud before we went into an unusual attitude.

I always thought that I could outrun a cloud. While that may be true, I now know that I can't outrun a cloud that is forming. I believe this is the trap: From a distance, one doesn't really notice a cloud when it's forming. So I was lulled into believing that it is a slow and gentle process. But now, having flown in a cloud that is forming around me, I know that there is no outrunning it.  

I am writing this, not for the potential reader, but for myself. This may not save anyone's life, because you see, a few years ago, I was invited to a private storytelling by a pilot who had done the same thing. His story ended in a crash. There were tears in his eyes and his voice quivered as he recounted the moments of terror that he had lived through one month prior. With the emotion that he displayed, I was able to relive it with him and was grateful for the experience, thinking that I had learned from his mistake. In his story, I assumed that the layer below him was solid because he didn't say otherwise. So in my mind, "hole hopping" over a broken layer was still safe. Isn't it?

Name withheld

Thank you so much. The following image, from one of our popular aviation safety posters, summarizes well the morale of your story! —Ed.

A plain flying away from adverse weather. Titled: VRF flight into adverse weather can be deadly. It's better to arrive a little late in this world, than early in the next!

Tried and Tested: The Pilot Decision-Making Simulator

A simulatorIn December 2009, as a follow-up to the Safety Study on Risk Profiling the Air Taxi Sector in Canada, we made available on the Transport Canada Web site the Pilot Decision-Making Simulator, developed by inspector Gerry Binnema (now retired from TC).

This simulator was developed utilizing real life scenarios and has relied heavily on pilots' personal experiences as well as TSB investigations. The simulator will expose pilots to difficult decision-making processes and the resultant outcomes from their choices, and in doing so, highlight cues that may have otherwise gone unnoticed.

Situational awareness is key to the safe operation and completion of any flight. The goal of the decision-making simulator is to aid pilots with the development of useful mental models and consequently increase their ability to develop good situational awareness. Even the best trained crews and pilots can make poor decisions without good situational awareness. Try it!

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