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Ready for take-off

178 Seconds To Live

Updated: Dec 11, 2020

(Source: DOT pamphlet - Source: )

If you are ever tempted to take off in marginal weather and have no instrument training, read this article first before you go. How long can a pilot who has no instrument training expect to live after he 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 the graveyard spirals or roller coasters. The outcome differed in only one respect: the time it took to lose control. The interval ranged from 480 seconds to 20 seconds. The average time was 178 seconds – two seconds short of three minutes.

It's better to be on the ground, wishing you were in the air, than in the air, wishing you were on the ground, even if it is inconvenient.
Unplanned diversion due to weather closing in. KZN, November 2020.
It's better to be on the ground, wishing you were in the air, than in the air, wishing you were on the ground, even if it is inconvenient.

Here is the fatal scenario

The sky is overcast and the visibility poor. The reported 5-mile visibility looks more like 2 and you can’t judge the height of the overcast. Your altimeter says you are at 1500 feet but your map tells you that there’s local terrain as high as 1200 feet. 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 none-too-imaginary towers. With no warning, you are 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 realise 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 over!”

Now you have 178 seconds to live. Your aircraft feels on an even keel but your compass turns slowly. You push a little rudder and add a little pressure on the 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 several minutes left…).

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

Now 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.

Now 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 at an unusual angle – you’re almost inverted. You open your mouth to scream but…

-- you have no seconds left!


  • What if you had done a precautionary landing when things started getting bad?

  • If you fly into marginal weather, are you prepared to do a Precautionary Landing, even if it means damaging the aircraft a little, or causing you great inconvenience or even discomfort?

  • If you are not willing to do a Precautionary Landing should the need arise when flying into marginal weather, then DO NOT TAKE OFF or DIVERT post haste!

Arrive late, but arrive alive. Always stack the odds in your favour.

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