Disorientation—178 Seconds

What is experienced by pilots who inadvertently fly into cloud?  The following is published by Transport Canada in one of its safety-promotions brochures—Take Five for Safety:178 seconds— which describes (quite dramatically, actually) what could happen:

If you’re ever tempted to take off in marginal weather and have no instrument training, read this article before you go.  If you decide to go anyway and lose visual contact, start counting down from 178 seconds.

How long can a pilot who has no instrument training expect to live after he or she flies into bad weather and loses visual contact?  Researchers at the University of Illinois found the answer to this question.  Twenty student “guinea pigs” flew into simulated instrument weather, and all went into graveyard spirals or rollercoasters.  The outcome differed in only one respect: the time required until control was lost.  The interval ranged from 480 seconds to 20 seconds.  The average time was 178 seconds—2 seconds short of 3 minutes.

Here’s the fatal scenario:

The sky is overcast and the visibility poor.  That reported five-mile visibility looks more like two, and you can’t judge the height of the overcast.  Your altimeter says you’re at 1500 but your map tells you there’s local terrain as high as 1200 ft.  There might even be a tower nearby because you’re not sure just how far off course you are.  But you’ve flown into worse weather than this, so you press on.

You find yourself unconsciously easing back just a bit on the controls to clear those non-too-imaginary towers.  With no warning, you’re in the soup.  You peer so hard into the milky white mist that your eyes hurt.  You fight the feeling in your stomach.  You swallow, only to find your mouth dry.  Now you realize you should have waited for better weather.  The appointment was important—but not that important.  Somewhere, a voice is saying “You’ve had it—it’s all over!”

You now have 178 seconds to live.  Your aircraft feels in an even keel but your compass turns slowly.  You push a little rudder and add a little pressure on the controls to stop the turn but this feels unnatural and you return the controls to their original position.  This feels better but your compass is now turning a little faster and your airspeed is increasing slightly.  You scan your instrument panel for help but what you see looks somewhat unfamiliar.  You’re sure this is just a bad spot.  You’ll break out in a few minutes, but you don’t have much time left.

You now have 100 seconds to live.  You glance at your altimeter and are shocked to see it unwinding.  You’re already down to 1200 ft.  Instinctively, you pull back on the controls but the altimeter still unwinds.  The engine is into the red and the airspeed, nearly so.

You have 45 seconds to live.  Now you’re sweating and shaking.  There must be something wrong with the controls; pulling back only moves that airspeed indicator further into the red.  You can hear the wind tearing at the aircraft.

You have 10 seconds to live.  Suddenly, you see the ground.  The trees rush up at you.  You can see the horizon if you turn your head far enough but it’s an unusual angle—you’re almost inverted.  You open your mouth to scream but . . . . . . you have no seconds left.