Commit to the Gauges
February 29, 2012
Prior to departure, I called the weather folks to get an update and brief time. They told me there were no changes to the weather and for us to have a safe flight. Departing to the south was uneventful and actually pleasant. The atmosphere in the cockpit was relaxed, with everyone enjoying a smooth night vision goggle flight home. Our GPS had broken on the way to Lexington, so our primary means of navigation was the Mark 2 eyeball and map. As a backup, we had plugged in the electronic data management kneeboard.
Halfway to Nashville, the ceilings started to drop and I found myself closed in by a layer of fog and rain. Initially puzzled, I did what most aviators do and descended to stay below the cloud layer. The radar altimeter initially read 1,000 feet above ground level, then 700, 500 and finally 400. We entered the hilly area between the cities of Lexington and Nashville and, more importantly, a weather cell our forecasters weren't tracking. Within an instant, I found myself with two choices: descend farther and break right to follow a sucker hole, or commit to instruments and start my climb. Knowing that a descending turn in near instrument meteorological conditions would most likely result in a very bad situation, I pulled in power and started to climb. The whole process happened so fast that my pilot had no idea we were climbing until I calmly asked that he enter 7700 into the transponder.
We practice encountering inadvertent IMC with every annual proficiency and readiness test, so the initial entry was a non-event, but then what? I had practiced what to do while in Fort Campbell's airspace, but I was in the middle of nowhere without a GPS to tell me where we were. I then asked the PI to take the controls so I could figure the next step. We never practiced what to do when IIMC and in the middle of farm country!
Thinking back, I remembered an instructor pilot once told me about always having an en route low-altitude map for these types of situations. I grabbed mine and then realized we still had an operational EDM. With the aid of the EDM, I figured we were 15 miles south of the New Hope VHF omnidirectional range, and the ELA told me that Indy Center was the controlling agency. After contacting Indy and picking up an instrument flight rules clearance, we continued west under radar vectors to Fort Campbell. The weather broke about 20 minutes later with at least seven miles visibility and 4,000-foot ceilings, just as weather had told us. With the bad weather behind us, we canceled IFR and continued with our training on the reservation, just thankful to be home.
Don't be afraid to commit to IIMC. Breaking right and descending may have seemed like a viable option, but that would have been the most dangerous choice for the crew.
The first rule of business is to commit to the gauges, specifically the attitude indicator, and climb. Get away from the ground. All too often, we read accident reports stating that the crew decided to make a 180-degree turn instead of just committing to the instruments. Your life, as well as the lives of the crew, depends on the pilot in command, or the PI, being comfortable with immediately committing to IIMC. Just fly the aircraft. Our bodies are fantastic at lying to us about our movement in space. We call this spatial disorientation, and anyone with more than a day of flying has experienced this in some way. With clouds obscuring the horizon and only a few lights to work with, the descending turn would have been a prime condition to experience "spatial D."
Finally, always be prepared with the right publications. As professional aviators, Army pilots should always have current aircraft pubs with them no matter the training situation. Weather has been known to be wrong in the past, and just because you did not intend to fly in the clouds doesn't mean it can't happen. Know what to do and how to do it when things fall apart. We practice emergency procedures all the time, but do we ever practice IIMC procedures? Next time you are on a cross-country visual flight rules flight and in the middle of nowhere, ask yourself, "If I were to go IIMC right now, what would I do?" Be prepared. It may take you a few minutes to find the answer in the pub.