Pucker Factor

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This page last updated on 01/26/2019.

Copyright 2001-2019 by Russ Meyer

"What people commonly call fate is mostly their own stupidity."  - Arthur Schopenhauer

I was a VFR rated pilot with about 150 hours.  My flying buddy, Larry, and I planned to do a little cross-country from Dallas to Waco to Mesquite and back to Dallas.  About 2 hours of flying.

The day of our flight arrived.  I called the FSS and got a briefing which said "VFR not recommended."  Visibility around Dallas was 7 miles in haze and fog.  A bit further South (towards Waco), the conditions were worse.  Usually I never fly when the FSS says VFR not recommended.  I called Larry and said, "Well, it looks like our flight is cancelled."  Larry said, "It looks OK to me, I can see blue sky out my window and the sun is out.  Besides, the sun will burn off any fog by the time we get to the airport.  We can take off and if it gets very bad, we can just turn around and land."  I really didn't want to go, but Larry was pretty persuasive.  I finally caved and said OK.  Larry was right...I could see blue sky out my window too...but it was really hazy.

We got to the airport, pre-flighted the plane and launched.  I was going to fly to Waco where we'd swap and Larry would do the piloting.  After leveling at 3500 feet, I noticed the visibility was indeed quite bad but tolerable.  I couldn't make out the horizon.  I had to look down about 20 from horizontal to catch sight of the ground.  As we progressed South, our flight plan called for intercepting a highway and following it to Waco.  We were going to intercept the highway at a big junction, which should be almost impossible to miss.

I noticed the haze was getting worse and a thick overcast was developing.  It was a bit odd.  The haze was imperceptibly changing into an overcast.  It wasn't like the cloud deck you'd normally see, with clear air underneath.  It was just condensing all around us...rather than being confined to a layer.  It was more like a very deep fog which was gradually getting denser.

Now I had to look down at an angle of about 45 to see the ground.  I decided to descend in order to keep the ground in view.  I checked the map and noted some towers in our area which were as high as 1750 MSL.  I dropped down to 2500, which should give us plenty of tower clearance.  It was becoming harder to navigate because I couldn't spot landmarks through the haze.  Finally, we intercepted the highway.  We flew along the highway for a few miles and came to a big junction.  Great, we were within 20 miles of our destination.  Our destination airport was well away from the highway, so eventually we had to strike out cross country to find it.  The visibility was really poor so I told Larry I thought we should turn back.  "Aw were almost there!," he replied.  He gave lots of plausible reasons for carrying on...he convinced me again.  I had to drop down further to 2000 MSL to stay in contact with the ground.  I told myself this was as low as I would go...I was beginning to lose track of where we were, and I didn't want to get tangled up in the towers around there.  Our tower clearance was now only 250 feet; an absolute bare minimum in my mind.  I hoped the altimeter was accurate.  Then came time for our turn away from the highway.

As we went cross country we were just dead reckoning.  We were too low to receive VOR signals and visibility was so poor we couldn't find landmarks.  After about 10 minutes, I realized I could only see the ground for about mile in any direction.  We could easily fly right past the airport without even spotting it.  We pressed on a few more minutes before I realized I could now only see the ground by looking almost straight down past the wheels.  Then it got dark...we must have flown under an especially thick layer of cloud.  I told Larry we were turning around, and did a really stupid thing.  I guess the tension was getting to me or something...I racked the airplane around into a 45 banked turn.  It didn't even occur to me to do a gentle standard rate turn.  It also didn't occur to me to look at the artificial horizon.  As we entered the turn, the first thing I noticed was a gradual increase in wind noise.  I couldn't figure this out at first.  Then I saw the airspeed indicator winding up well into the yellow arc.  I rolled out of the turn a bit and gave some gentle backpressure on the yoke.  There...everything was OK again.  Continuing in the turn I began to notice that it was getting real quiet and the controls were mushy...I glanced at the airspeed...ahhh!  It was already under the white arc and sinking towards a stall!  I pushed to nose over and watched the airspeed more closely.  With virtually no ground reference, I was straining to keep the airplane flying at the right airspeed and attitude.  I felt like I was skating on the knife edge of control.  This is exactly how countless VFR pilots have killed themselves.  Continued VFR into instrument conditions, loss of airspeed, culminating in a stall and spin.  There were several more less severe airspeed excursions during that short 180 turn...it was the longest turn of my life.  After I rolled out and stabilized on a reciprocal course, I suddenly felt almost ill.  I had cramps in my neck, arms, and legs, and you know how folks talk about pucker factor...man that is a real phenomenon!  I had to have Larry take the controls for a few minutes before I recovered.  I thought we'd had it.

We landed at the first airport we could find...Lancaster.  I opened the door and just fell out of the airplane.  I could hardly stand.  I had to sit on the wheel for a minute before I felt I could get up and walk.

I've read books for years about how some dumb VFR guy kills himself by flying into poor weather.  I sat around the hanger with the rest of them in judgmental condemnation of the stupid sap.  How can someone knowingly fly into an overcast...idiots!  It's quite easy to sit around nice and safe on the ground, analyzing the situation after the fact, with lots of time to think about it, and see what the guy did wrong.  It's armchair quarterbacking.  In real life, conditions sneak up on you.  Something that doesn't look too bad gradually evolves into something that looks really bad.  I've found that once I start to compromise..."oh let's just go up and see how it looks"...things have to be clearly bad to break that cycle of compromise.  The problem is in flying, by the time something has clearly become a bad situation, your life is in danger.  I have to set limits and stick by them, otherwise I get suckered into this compromise mentality that leads by measures to wreckage on the side of a mountain.  You have to decide to land or not to fly before conditions get to the point where they are near your limits.  That takes discipline and maturity.  I aged 10 years in that one hairy turn.  I'll never do it again, and I'll never let a friend talk me into something I'd not normally do...for his sake and mine.

For the record, I've had a lot of time under the hood, probably more than usual for a VFR pilot.  I always did very well.  My instructors almost always complemented me on my hood skills.  Somehow, all that training went out the door during that one turn.  Why didn't my training kick in?  Why didn't I just transition to instruments?  I've thought about it a lot.  I think that since the ground was still visible, albeit hardly visible, I was clinging to that.  I had not mentally given up on flying the plane VFR.  I had this choice, cling to whatever hope remained of flying the plane by visual reference or put my rusty, marginal, instrument skills to the acid test in an emergency situation.  My response was, "Stick to the devil you know."  That decision was foolish and could have gotten Larry and I killed.  The hood work was always a game.  I never took it as seriously as I should have, and was unprepared to rely on it when the emergency arrived.



The Fog

The fog comes
on little cat feet.

It sits looking
over harbor and city
on silent haunches
and then moves on.

          - Carl Sandberg