If a VFR pilot follows all of the preventative guidelines but still finds him/herself up to his/her neck in instrument conditions, is there any hope of survival? During my years as an Aviation Medical Examiner, I have heard some fascinating anecdotes. One private pilot en route to Tofino inadvertently entered a band of cumulus clouds near Nanaimo. After a roller coaster ride of terror lasting close to 45 minutes he and his passengers were spit out near Courtenay - a little older and infinitely wiser!
The real champion was a student pilot flying out of Bellingham, Washington. He was climbing out on a solo VFR flight to Oregon. Just above circuit altitude he entered cloud. Aware of the risk of adjacent hills he elected to climb. At 4000 feet he broke out into brilliant sunshine, in an extreme banked attitude. After regaining control and his composure he notified Bellingham Tower of his predicament. - Cloud below as far as the eye could see!
After orbiting for several minutes he was handed off to Vancouver ATC. A calm voice provided radar vectors northward along the invisible coastline. At a break in the cloud he transmitted his intention to descend but was advised against this by ATC as airliners were passing below cloaked in cloud. Eventually he was guided to a cloud break over Georgia Straits and authorized to shuttle down below the overcast. He then navigated VFR back to Bellingham for an uneventful landing and the undeserved wrath of his instructor.
Survival is possible as demonstrated by this fortunate young pilot. He did everything right and did not lose control of his aircraft despite a prolonged climb in total instrument conditions.
The first hurdle will most likely be recovery from an unusual attitude - Spiral dive, departure stall or even a full spin. Next will be your total trust in the visual interpretation of the flight instruments. If there is a discrepancy, revert to the most trustworthy limited panel (turn and bank indicator, altimeter, airspeed indicator, vertical speed indicator and magnetic compass).If there is risk of icing turn on the pitot heat and activate the alternate static source. Scan with your eyes and avoid sudden head movements (coriolis effect). Unless turning, keep the wings absolutely level. (no bank, no spiral dive). Maintain directional control with gentle rudder adjustments. Trim for level flight and use the control column as little as possible. Declare an emergency! You need all the help you can get, but you have to fly and maintain control of the aircraft. That is your key to survival. ATC can provide vectors to VFR conditions or an airport with Precision Approach Radar. They cannot climb aboard and fly for you. If time permits, slip in a short prayer - it can never hurt.
Thus ends my Personal Survival Kit for Spatial Disorientation. During the writing of this article, a Cessna 182 was lost with four souls near the Coquihalla toll booth. Another VFR flight pushed into IMC! I can only hope that this information will save some aspiring aviators from a similar fate. As the old adage goes - Learn from the mistakes of others, for you will not live long enough to make them all yourself.
I am forever indebted to these dedicated instructors for keeping my neck out of a premature noose:
John Brongers (Student Pilot, Instrument Teaching Endorsement), Bob Gilmour (Private, Commercial, Aerobatics, Instructor), Jim Hora (Night), Lloyd Stanley (Commercial, Aerobatics), Tom Collins (Float), Jean Marc Ranger (Float), Terry Bach (Instructor), Craig Leonard (Instructor), Steve Sanghera (IFR), Fraser Carpenter (IFR), Andrew Soltau (IFR), Ron Harcus (IFR Introductory Course, IFR DFTE on many occasions).