I’ve done relatively little scud-running over the years. That’s mainly because I earned an instrument rating at about the same time I started using personal airplanes more and more for transportation rather than recreation. It’s difficult to say which came first—the utility an instrument rating affords or the need to use an airplane for personal transportation—but in my case, the two developed at about the same time.
My most memorable scud-running flight involved flogging a Skyhawk between Columbus, Ga., and Knoxville, Tenn., one summer afternoon. Writing about it now, I don’t recall the exact reason I determined getting an IFR clearance wasn’t the way to go, but that’s the decision I made. I presume it had something to do with either the airplane or the weather.
The airplane was equipped with auxiliary fuel tanks in each wingtip, and one of the transfer pumps had failed, making unavailable some 12 gallons of fuel but, more important, creating a wing-heavy situation if I wanted/needed the fuel in the other tip tank. The weather, meanwhile, offered six to eight miles of visibility beneath the white puffies lining up to become thunderstorms that afternoon. Thinking back on it, I’d guess storms already were forming along the likely IFR route. Staying low and VFR to avoid them seemed like the best plan.
Before takeoff, I spent a few minutes with my sectional, identifying airports along the way with NDBs (this was well before GPS) and used the airplane’s ADF to help navigate from one to the other. My basic plan was to fly from one airport to the next, evaluating the weather as I passed each one, fully prepared to duck into the next one or turn around and go back to the last one if the need arose. It didn’t, and I made my business appointment that afternoon without further drama.
This little war story isn’t told to puff up my ego or credentials. Instead, I use it to help demonstrate there are ways to reliably and relatively safely fly a VFR cross-country at low level and in less-than-ideal conditions. It requires planning, real-time monitoring of weather and other conditions, and always leaving yourself an opportunity to divert—or turn around—and land at a suitable airport.
One thing we never should do when scud-running—or circumnavigating thunderstorms, for that matter—is enter an area of reduced visibility without knowing what’s on the other side. Here’s why.
On May 9, 2010, at 1028 Pacific time, a Piper PA-28-235 collided with trees and terrain approximately eight miles northeast of the Livermore (Calif.) Municipal Airport. The non-instrument-rated private pilot and passenger, who also held a private pilot certificate, were fatally injured. The airplane sustained substantial damage.
A witness living near the accident site was outside when the airplane crashed. She heard the airplane but did not see it due to fog. She stated the airplane sounded lower than most that fly in the area, and the engine sounded normal. She then heard what she believed was the sound of the airplane’s impact with terrain.
The pilot was in communication with Northern California Terminal Radar Approach Control (Tracon) and had requested VFR flight following services to the San Carlos (Calif.) Airport. There were no distress calls from the pilot.
The first identified point of impact was an area of 50-foot-tall trees, at an elevation of 2412 feet msl. The debris path continued in a direction of about 100 degrees magnetic. The first identified ground impact was approximately 110 yards from the trees. The debris field continued with large sections of the left and right wings, the main wreckage and empennage, and the engine. The length of the overall debris field was approximately 290 yards.
All major aircraft components, including control surfaces, were accounted for. The control cables were traced to the ailerons and all separations were broomstrawed. The flap control surfaces appeared retracted and there was no damage on the trailing edges. Control cables were traced from the cockpit attach points and then aft. All cables were still secure at their attach points. There was no evidence of catastrophic engine malfunction or fire.
A radar plot showed a flight track from the northeast to the southwest at about 3000 feet msl. In order to reach the destination, the airplane would have crossed over an area of hilly terrain that rose to about 2300 feet. When the track reached the hilly terrain, the radar targets showed a descent to 2600 feet and a turn to the south-southeast. The last radar target was at 2799 feet at 1028. The accident site was about 10 miles southeast of the straight-line path from its departure point to its destination.
According to Lockheed Martin Flight Service, no weather services were provided. Additionally, there was no record of a weather briefing being obtained from either DUAT provider.
At 1053, the closest official weather observation station reported visibility of 10 sm, few clouds at 2200 feet and a broken layer at 4000 feet. Light rain was reported north of the accident site. Weather radar records indicated light precipitation moved through the area near the accident site about 12-15 minutes prior to the accident. No precipitation was falling at the accident site near the accident time.
The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident to include: “The pilot’s continued visual flight into instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in a collision with obstacles and terrain.” There’s not much else to add, but there are lots of questions.
One question unexplained in the NTSB’s accident report is why ATC—from which the Cherokee was receiving VFR flight following—didn’t warn of the rain showers and rising terrain ahead. While the weather may or may not have been visible on the controller’s radar screen, he or she had to know of the flight’s proximity to the terrain.
But the real question is why pilots decide to press on at low altitude and in lowering visibility. Perhaps the pair in this Cherokee was familiar with the area and thought they knew where they were. Perhaps they weren’t paying attention and flew into an area of reduced visibility unawares. We’ll never know.
What we do know is attempting to continue VFR in IMC doesn’t have much of a future. The accident files are filled with examples like this one. Unless you’re prepared to change your plan and divert, or turn around in the face of worsening weather, you might be next.