I can’t see a thing


We are still pushing the weather, even when we know it is below legal limits or it is less than safe.

When the weather is already bad, it doesn’t take much change to reduce the ceiling and visibility to zero. It takes time to see and avoid an obstruction.

The Cessna 172 struck mountainous terrain about five nautical miles south of Nelson, B.C. and was substantially damaged. First responders took about five hours to find the site and could not revive the pilot. Weather in the area included low cloud/fog. There was a post-crash fire, however the 406 ELT worked long enough to be picked up by an over flying aircraft and satellite.

The de Havilland DHC-2 Beaver had departed the Cambridge Bay, NU waterdrome for Surrey River, NU. Upon turning out of Ferguson Lake to follow the river, the aircraft immediately encountered thick fog. The pilot attempted to turn around and in the process struck terrain. The aircraft was substantially damaged but the pilot received only minor injuries.

A Cessna 206 was enroute from Minstrel Island, B.C. to Renton, Washington with a pilot and three passengers on board. The pilot flew the aircraft into a cliff at 1,600 feet ASL killing all on board. The weather was reported to be below VFR with severe turbulence. Other pilots had reportedly cancelled their plans to fly in the area due to the weather.

The pilot of a Cessna 310 was flying from Lindsey to Kitchener/Waterloo, Ont. He had received a weather briefing that included a report of three miles visibility in fog at Kitchener and 2 1/4 miles in fog at nearby London. The cloud above the fog was reported to be scattered at 9,000 feet.

The C-310 was radar identified by the Toronto Area Control Centre 39 miles north of Toronto at 4,500 feet. The pilot next contacted the Kitchener/ Waterloo Control Tower and was told the weather was below VFR limits with the ceiling at 4,000 feet AGL and 2 1/2 miles in fog. Special VFR was approved for the arrival at the airport.

Shortly thereafter, an Area Control Centre Controller saw the aircraft descend from 4,500 in a seemingly controlled descent until it was lost to radar just before it crashed into rising terrain. The pilot was not wearing his shoulder harness and was fatally injured.

The pilot of a turbine powered Otter was inbound to the airport when he received a METAR only two minutes old that reported a measured ceiling of 300 overcast, with a visibility of two miles in light rain and fog. Two minutes later the Otter pilot acknowledged receiving a pilot report from an IFR aircraft that reported breaking out of cloud at 900 feet (554 feet AGL) on approach to runway 11.

Special VFR was approved for the Otter’s approach to the airport. Radar data indicate that the pilot then turned west to a heading of 310 degrees to approximately parallel the inbound localizer track to runway 11. After the aircraft passed abeam the NDB, the pilot turned left to line up with localizer for his approach and reported he was 7 miles northwest of the airport. A few minutes later the aircraft crashed into rising terrain at 860 feet ASL about six miles west of the airport killing all three on board.

The rules say we can fly in weather as low as a 1,000 foot ceiling and one mile visibility during the day in uncontrolled airspace. Any precipitation, VIRGA or rising terrain can reduce the ceiling and visibility to nil in an instant. Once we have committed ourselves to flight in such poor or deteriorating conditions, we are not likely spending much time looking at a map or our altimeter, as we are too busy trying to see ahead.

The map will indicate the height of towers and will show the areas of rising terrain. The altimeter used in conjunction with the map should keep us safe. If it becomes necessary to descend to remain VFR to below an altitude that will clear all terrain and obstructions, it is past time to turn around.

All of the pilots described above were aware of the poor weather conditions ahead.

The use of navigation aids like the GPS, ADF, VOR or ILS can be very useful in locating the airport, and in assisting with the approach to it. We still must know the height of all obstacles between us and the airport, and stay above them on the way in.

When using the instruments to assist us in poor weather, there is the temptation to pay too much attention to the instruments, and not enough attention to looking outside.

It appears that more of us need to think about what our weather limits should be, and then develop the mindset that we will turn back when we reach those limits.

A ceiling of 1,000 feet may be acceptable if there is no chance of precipitation or fog, and the visibility is at least three miles. If there is a chance of precipitation, maybe we should require a ceiling of 3,000 feet, or even 5,000 feet in hilly or mountainous terrain.

Any time the visibility is forecast to be below three miles or drops below three miles, we should be thinking of postponing a flight or turning back. Precipitation or fog can lower a ceiling by 2,000 feet or more, and lower the visibility by two miles or more in an instant.

We also need to spend some time looking at our maps in the planning stages of a flight and we need to think about safe altitudes.

We must determine the difference between what is legal and what is safe, and we must decide if we would rather be late is this life or early in the next.

Dale Nielsen is an ex-Armed Forces pilot and aerial photography pilot. He lives in Abbotsford, B.C., and currently flies medevacs from Victoria in a Lear 25. Nielsen is also the author of seven flight training manuals published by Canuck West Holdings.