Using a cross-country airplane for reliable transportation almost requires an instrument rating.


Way back in the Dark Ages, when we were younger and less experienced in airplanes, a buddy and I spent a long holiday weekend huddled in my cold, dark Washington, D.C., apartment waiting on better weather. We had a Piper Archer II reserved for the period, along with a hotel room in Key West, Fla. Try as we might, we couldnt figure out how to get around an area of low ceilings and visibility perched in our path over the Carolinas. Both of us were in the early stages of work on the instrument rating; two half ratings doesnt equal one full rating.

In hindsight, we could have gone west into the Ohio Valley and turned left to get to Florida. We were so focused on getting there along the route we had painstakingly planned, however, the “go west, young men” option didnt occur to us until it was way too late. Never mind how we were going to get back to D.C.

In the end, we bagged the whole trip, canceled our reservations, put some Jimmy Buffett on the turntable and turned up the heat. It definitely wasnt the same, but we were still around to talk about it. The buddy is now a captain for “a major airline” and Im, well, your editor.

That was just one example of flights we both had to cancel for iffy weather early in our respective flying careers. Even though weve long since added the instrument rating and other qualifications to our certificates, we both still are forced to cancel trips for weather-related reasons.

The point of all this is that, without the instrument rating, there are some flights we just shouldnt make. Once the rating is earned, weather flying is less stressful and more predictable. Until then, however, we need to exercise a healthier respect for poor weather.


On December 11, 2005, at 1716 Central time, a Cirrus SR22 was destroyed during an in-flight collision with terrain near Arco, Minn. Instrument marginal visual conditions prevailed at or near the accident site. The private pilot and both passengers were fatally injured. The flight departed the Wayne (Neb.) Municipal Airport (LCG) at 1608, with an intended destination of the Flying Cloud Airport (FCM) in Minneapolis, Minn.

Earlier, the pilot received a weather briefing during which he was informed that VFR flight was not recommended along his planned route. Nevertheless, the flight departed and was soon receiving flight-following services from ATC. An hour later, the Cirrus was near the Brookings (BKX) VOR, with its course varying from easterly to northeasterly. According to the radar track data, about 1715:09, the aircraft entered a climbing right turn and continued in that turn until the final radar data point at 1716:20. Altitude returns increased from 2100 feet msl at 1715:09, to 2800 feet msl at 1716:20, after which no further radar data was recorded. The flights emergency locator transmitter was detected; the wreckage was located about seven hours after the crash.


An automated weather observation at Marshall Airport-Ryan Field (MML), 15 miles east-northeast of the accident site, at 1715, included 10 sm visibility, few clouds at 400 feet agl and overcast clouds at 800 feet agl.

The non-instrument-rated private purchased the accident airplane approximately one month prior to the accident. He completed the transition-training course for new Cirrus owners conducted by the University of North Dakota on November 30, 2005. He logged 26.8 hours in the SR22, all in the accident airplane, during the course. His total flight time was 271.9 hours; he had 41.6 hours in Cirrus SR22 aircraft at the time of the accident. Total time on the aircraft at the time of the accident was 317.8 hours.

Sunset occurred at 1645 at the site on the day of the accident. Civil twilight ended at 1719.

All major aircraft components were found at the scene. The engine and propeller were imbedded about four feet into the ground. The propeller blades exhibited S-shaped bending along with chordwise scratches.

The accident airplanes calibrated airspeed was derived from radar and winds aloft data. According to the calculations, the airplane maintained 120 KCAS or greater until 1715. About that time, data indicated the airplane entered a right turn, which continued until the final radar data point at 1716:20. The airplanes calibrated airspeed decreased to approximately 41 knots during that time.

The pilots operating handbook lists the airplanes stall speed at gross weight in various flight configurations. With the center of gravity (CG) located at the forward limit, the published stall speed was 69 knots calibrated airspeed in level flight with flaps up. The stall speed increased to 74 knots and 82 knots at a 30-degree and 45-degree bank angle, respectively. With the CG at the aft limit, the corresponding stall speeds were two to three knots lower.

Probable Cause

The National Transportation Safety Board determined the probable cause of this accident to include: “The pilots inadvertent cruise flight into instrument meteorological conditions, and his failure to maintain control of the aircraft after experiencing spatial disorientation. Factors associated with the accident are the pilots improper planning/decision making, low ceilings, a dark night, and spatial disorientation.”

Another factor should be included: The pilots failure to obtain/maintain an instrument rating if he intended to operate his highly capable cross-country machine at night and in poor weather.

Its easy for me write, “Get an instrument rating if you intend to use a personal aircraft for reliable transportation.” But the reality is that weather and unwarranted low flying-scud running-create unwarranted risks. The AOPA Air Safety Foundations 2006 Nall Report had this to say: “The deadliest pilot-related accident categories were maneuvering, weather, takeoff/climb, and descent/approach….

Weather accidents comprised only 4.6 percent of total accidents, but nearly one in six (13.6 percent) of fatal accidents. Most often, these resulted from pilots continuing VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).”

And thats what happened here. Combine the low ceilings, twilight and relatively low time-both in type and total-and the recipe is for a spatial disorientation accident and/or controlled flight into terrain. The ability to file and fly an IFR clearance, at altitude, would have saved the day.


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