Anyone who knows me, knows that I fly. I have a small single engine airplane made Cirrus Design (model SR-22 if you care). It's a safe plane – it has a parachute and all the electronics to let you know where you are and what's going on around you. I love it.
I like to think I'm a conservative pilot – probably average in skills, but that mainly comes with experience. I have about 600 hours flying time and I am certified to fly in the clouds (IFR rating for you pilot types). Pilots and people die in planes primarily due to pilot error. Pilots from time to time make bad decisions. For example they decide to fly when they're too tired, or penetrate bad weather, they attempt to control the airplane beyond its aerodynamic capabilities – a whole host of bad decisions can lead to death. Typically it is three bad decisions in a row that end a life: they decide to fly when tired, then they decide to fly into questionable weather, then they try to do a 6G turn to get them out of a thunderstorm they just flew in!
Today I made three bad decisions and lived. I never thought I could be so stupid – every crash report I read (and I read a lot of them to keep be alert) I say to myself "That dude was stupid, I would never have made that decision – what was he thinking?"
In Colorado we don't get the type of weather that you can practice flying in the clouds – our clouds are either thunderstorms (really bad for flying) or contain ice (really, really bad for flying – the worst is volcanic ash BTW). Well today I take off and it is beautiful, but as I head north I see a cloud layer below us that is socking in the few airports I use to practice landings. I say to myself, "Guess I won't be doing any practice landings today." You see I'm trained to fly into clouds but I don't feel I'm up to the task – it's been a while since I had actual "in the cloud" experience. I do practice flying "as if I'm in the clouds" a lot, but it's not the same. The real deal is much more – well real. To simulate flying in the clouds you wear this visor that blocks your vision so you are forced to fly on instruments. I haven't done that for about 3 weeks. That said, I was completely legal and current when I went flying this morning – but that really doesn't matter. I like to fly about once a week to keep my skills fresh and I know when I'm rusty. Today I was rusty.
Well as I get up there I'm thinking – "It's so rare to get clouds in Colorado that aren't deadly – too bad I'm not with my instructor; we could fly around a bit and I could get some real experience." I had a safety pilot with me today – someone to say "Dude you're about to…" but he was less experienced than me so I can't blame him. We check the weather at the surface and realize the clouds go almost to the ground – no way to do an actual approach (that's flying through the clouds, descending to the airport using instruments and radio guidance, until you break out, see the runway and land). The minimum cloud ceiling for this airport is 200 feet – that's flying down until you are 200 feet above the airport, if you break out of the clouds and see the runway you can land. If you can't see the runway, you do what is called a missed approach and climb back up to say 2000 feet above the ground and enter a holding pattern. I know this is all technical but if I don't explain it you non flying types you won't get it.
Being a conservative pilot I have told myself many times, "I will NEVER attempt a landing when the ceiling is lower than 1000 feet." Why? I don't have enough experience and losing a couple of hundred feet can happen in seconds – if you're too close to the ground and lose your bearing for a second – you die!
Well here we are flying and my safety pilot says, "Want to get some actuals – how about descending and holding in the clouds?" I figure why not – we'll be plenty high, it's such a rare opportunity for some solid practice, plus if I get vertigo I can just pop up a tad and be out of the clouds. We get a clearance to descend and do a hold – but guess what, we're too high – the clouds are lower than we thought. I offer the wise suggestion, "Well why not just shoot the approach, I know we can't make it so we'll just go missed." Mistake #1. You see my personal limit is to NEVER attempt a landing below a 1000 foot ceiling – I figured I wasn't landing; I wasn't thinking a missed approach was simply a subset of an attempted landing – I should have said NO. But I didn't.
When I do practice flying by instruments, I realize it takes me a while to shake off the cobwebs before I regain my proficiency. Flying an approach in clouds requires all of your skills to be finely honed. Today I realized that my skills were rusty so I figured I'd use the autopilot for this first attempt; just so I don't get overwhelmed. If all goes well I would try another approach by hand. I also decide that I will not descend all the way to 200 feet above ground because it's dangerous, so I planned to go missed at 600 feet above the ground. Once again below my personal limit.
The autopilot was a good decision until I turned it off. Why did I turn it off; well that's what I always do when I do practice landings. Once you get within a certain distance from the airport you turn off the autopilot and land the plane by hand. So I did – but I wasn't landing. I start hand flying the plane in the clouds with plenty of cobwebs impeding my skills. Mistake #2.
Everything is going fine – I'm focusing on keeping the plane level and following my course until it is time to climb out. My plane is setup to land, flaps extended, lights on, etc… because that is what you do when you fly an approach. When you go missed and decide to climb out, you remove your flaps, give full throttle and begin your climb. When you take out your flaps, the plane will sink without adding power and pulling up on the yoke. Well about this time I decide I had enough and I wanted to go back to the happy land of daylight (elapsed time is about 90 seconds from when I entered the clouds). I take out the flaps, but then I realized that I'm not on course so I immediately turn the plane. Unfortunately this distracted me for a second and I forgot to add power! Mistake #3.
About 7 seconds later I look at my vertical speed gauge and notice I'm descending at 1000 feet per minute – 30 seconds from impact. I jam the power pull up and yelled "Oh Shit!" My safety pilot is still trying to process everything – we begin to climb and 10 seconds later we are up above the clouds. He then says, "What?" I'm totally shaken – I never thought I could make so many stupid decisions so quickly. I regain my composure and continue flying in the clear.
The only thing that saved me was realizing that I made a bad decision about two minutes into the little practice approach. Had I gotten confused for a few more seconds I wouldn't be writing this post.
Why am I sharing this – because writing about it and putting it out in the world will help crystallize the lesson I learned today. If I keep it to myself, I may forget it. Note to self, "Don't forget today – you can be stupid."
What the hell was I thinking?