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Owner's Corner

Lloyd Stephens, Aircraft Owner WVFC  

What Were They Thinking?

One of the scariest things involving an airplane that I have seen since I became a pilot didn’t happen while I was flying, but while I was driving.  It was nighttime and I was driving on 680 from San Jose toward Livermore.  It had been raining lightly in the San Jose area, with pretty good VFR under about a 3000 foot ceiling.  As I approached Sunol Pass the clouds were pretty much right down on the roadway and the rain had intensified to the point where forward visibility was quite limited, and I had to slow down and concentrate to see where I was going.  As I crested the pass I was extremely startled (we’re talking a major adrenaline rush here) to come face-to-face with a Mooney directly in front of me only about 50 feet above the roadway.  I thought at first that he was trying to land on the highway, but before I could take any action whatsoever, he went directly over me, so low that I could practically count the rivets on the plane.  As I turned around to look, he disappeared into the clouds behind me, with my fervent wish that he would make it safely to wherever he was going. 

I checked the paper the next day to see if they were reporting a crash in that area, but saw nothing, so I presume that he did make it.  He was very lucky.  There are power lines that cross over the road there--you know, the kind that have the big red balls attached to them--but they cross a bit above the road.  I went back and looked at them later and came to the conclusion that the Mooney must have gone underneath them.  He couldn’t possibly have seen them that night in the fog and rain, though perhaps he was flying so low because he knew they were there.  The question is:  What was he thinking to do that? 

Whether you call it “scud running,” VFR into IMC, or CFIT (Controlled Flight Into Terrain), that’s the same question we all ask when a perfectly good airplane is run into a hillside by a pilot trying unsuccessfully to go underneath low clouds.  One of the FAA guys once told me that the holiday season is the time of the year that the hillsides to the east get decorated---with aluminum.  Why is that, you might ask.  Is it because it gets dark earlier, or that people are in a hurry to get somewhere--shopping, visiting relatives, and the like? 

Those certainly are factors, but one of the principal reasons is that the good weather starts changing about now, and when the clouds and rain come, the weather is generally worse over the hills and mountains than it is in the valleys.  Aviation weather reports come from the airports in the valleys, not from the hills.  When you have ceilings in the valleys, you may have flyable VFR weather at valley airports, but it may not be flyable VFR over the hills.  A briefing for the flight may look pretty good, but if there are clouds over the hills, you may have a problem--and you need to recognize that. 

Unless they can go either IFR or over the top, most pilots look for the lowest points, generally the highway passes, and try to go through underneath the clouds there: Altamont Pass, Sunol Pass, and Pacheco Pass.  All of these have their share of accidents because pilots think they can make it through under the clouds, only to find out too late that they can’t.  The weather the night I saw the Mooney was good VFR under a ceiling in both Livermore and San Jose, but it was rotten over Sunol Pass.

When the clouds are obscuring the hills, make sure that you can get underneath them with sufficient clearance that you don’t end up in them--and maintain sufficient clearance over the terrain.  A GPS with terrain mapping may assist with this, but don’t think you can “just go through a few clouds” to get to the other side because of it.  Those of you with instrument ratings may think this doesn’t apply to you, but instrument rated pilots frequently get in just this type of trouble, not when they are flying on an IFR flight plan, but when they are flying VFR under the clouds.  (Consider the situation where you don’t want to fly IFR because of low freezing levels.) In fact, having an instrument rating may make you more susceptible to this kind of accident due to your comfort level in flying near, or in, clouds.  Some very accomplished pilots have met their demise this way.

Max Trescott, a WVFC “gold seal” flight instructor, wrote an article a couple of years ago on the incidence of this kind of accident in the Bay Area.  His analysis is pretty interesting--I encourage you to read it.  You can find it at:

You might ask why I’m writing this--I mean, what does it have to do with owners, anyway?  And the answer is that owners don’t want to see their planes decorating any hillsides in the foreseeable future, holiday season or not.  The loss of a WVFC aircraft in Alaska in July was just this type of scenario.  A VFR only pilot trying to go through a canyon underneath the clouds, found he couldn’t do that, and ended up crashing--killing both the pilot and his wife.  I’ve also seen flight tracks on Flight Aware for my plane indicating considerable altitude changes at low altitudes over the hills, pretty clearly to avoid clouds.  This is a concern for owners.  And it’s not just the airplane we worry about--it’s you, and your family and friends who fly with you.  Fly safely.  Bring yourself--and the plane--back in one piece.