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I was at the end of a weeklong VFR tour of the southeastern United States in a Cessna 182. I had flown a wide circle from Maryland through the Carolinas, across Georgia, down into Alabama, and back up through Tennessee. It was time to go home, and I was tired.
Just a few days prior to embarking on this trip, I attended a safety lecture by Richard McSpadden, executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Institute. His topic? Controlled flight into terrain, one of the deadliest hazards for VFR pilots who stray into instrument meteorological conditions only to hit the ground they cannot see.
I was baffled at how any pilot could violate the cardinal law of VFR flying: Remain clear of clouds. It’s not like we can’t see them coming. We know it’s illegal to leave visual conditions during a VFR flight. Why do pilots get trapped by this? What tempts them to break that hard-and-fast barrier and knowingly fly into non-visual conditions?
Two weeks later, skimming mere feet below a solid layer of clouds with my heart pounding and the proverbial lump in my throat, I discovered precisely how some pilots get tempted into breaking that cardinal law. I looked at how close both the ceilings and the terrain had become, and the deteriorating visibility as spotty rain showers were developing, and I had a terrifying thought: “This is exactly how I become an accident case study video for the Air Safety Institute.” I could feel McSpadden’s disapproval if he knew where I was and what I was doing. I made one of those promises we make when we realize we are in serious trouble: “If I get out of this alive, I will never…”
It should have been a simple 3.5-hour flight on a gorgeous day from Tullahoma, Tennessee, back home to Frederick, Maryland. The Cessna Skylane’s performance and fuel range meant that I could easily make the trip nonstop and be home before lunchtime. The summertime forecast had the potential for severe thunderstorms brewing in the region by midafternoon, so it was important to get the trip completed or I might get stuck on the road for at least another day or two.
I climbed to 11,500 feet msl to cruise above the scattered but growing cumulus clouds that were gathering along the western slopes of the Appalachians. All seemed pleasant, but about an hour into
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