So I’m on a ferry flight, scud-running because its Marginal VFR and I’m hungry for discounted R44 hours, when in front of me I see the entrance to a small valley. On the hill to the left is a tower whose wires follow the hillside down to the right. The overcast layer sits just above top of the tower.
My navigator (the aircraft owner) says to fly towards the tower. I express my concern with the overcast layer, but staring at his ipad (at a program which apparently tells him we are high enough to not hit anything) he says to stay at this altitude and we’ll be fine.
As we pass over the tower (barely) I express my concern as I begin to see the fog getting a bit too close, but my navigator says he still has reference to the ground so we’re ok. A few moments later the ground disappears, the white fills the windscreen and I say, "…and we’re IFR". Staring at his ipad he instructs me to make a 180 to the left. Staring at the Artificial Horizon I make the turn, however struggling to not make it too steep.
Eventually the ground reappears, but as we find ourselves now trapped in this valley surrounded by hills and fog I find myself getting slower and slower in a struggle to stay VFR. Soon after he expresses his concern about my airspeed, "You wouldn’t want to have an auto at this speed", the ground disappears and the white once again fills the windscreen, to which I reply again, "…and we’re IFR"
This time, still staring at his ipad, he instructs me to head slightly left. Again staring at that Artificial Horizon, I’m able to keep the "wings" level, but cannot seem to keep the nose level! Despite watching the blue get higher and higher on the gage, I just can’t get myself to push forward on the cyclic! I have no idea what the other gages are saying since all I can focus on is that one!
As it turns out (although unbeknownst to me) I was getting into Settling with Power and was now dropping vertically, a fact suddenly realized to me as the ground finally reappeared accompanied by the Low Rpm Horn and the helicopter shuttering!
Out of the corner of my eye I see him reach for the controls (which confuses me) so I say, "You got it?", he says, "No", to which I dump the Collective and lower the nose.
After regaining control I see a clear patch of dirt on top of a hill to my right and express my desire to land there, to which he replies that it seems to be clearing towards that highway to the left so follow it. This time the path does clear up, we exit the valley and within ten minutes land at a small airport, where I tell him I’m done and get in a cab.
This was all just to get a handful of hours in an R44 in order to meet the time in type minimums for a summer job next year!
So why did I do it? What I told myself I’d never do? What I thought only a moron would do? Intentionally fly VFR, in a VFR only ship, towards what was obviously IFR?
I’d been to several IIMC seminars from the FAA Wings Program to two Rotor Safety Challenges, as well as "Land and Live" at Heliexpo! I’d heard many accident reports of pilots killing themselves trying to dodge the clouds! Robinson Safety Course stories of R44 IIMC deaths! I knew better, yet I still did it!
All I can think of, is that the night before the flight he imparted several stories of ferry flights he had done with much more experienced pilots than he. Flights where he took the controls because they were not comfortable flying into the Marginal VFR conditions, including one nasty rain storm and one scud running incident in the mountains, in which he actually saw lightning. So I guess, maybe, that I just didn’t want to seem like a pussy? Plus I really wanted those discounted hours!
He, the aircraft owner, and just a private pilot, had more total time than me, but less than half my helicopter time. He was an instrument rated fixed winger with apparently most of his time from long cross-countries such as this flight was to be. So maybe that’s why I trusted his direction? He’d done this flight many times before.
One thing I did find odd though. When we found ourselves trapped just before that second IMC encounter and I found myself slowing more and more, to which he remarked that I should speed up because I wouldn’t want to do an auto at such slow a speed? It stuck me as odd that I was concerned with hitting something as visibility got worse and worse (which is why I kept slowing down) but he was concerned with an engine failure?! Is this because he was an experienced instrument pilot, even if it was fixed-wing? I am not instrument rated.
Regardless of his direction, it still comes down to me. This was my fault, not his. I was the one on the controls! We should be dead, and if that Low Rpm Horn had come on just two seconds earlier, when all I could see was a wall of white, we would be dead!
So here’s a great example of poor decision making. Hindsight is always 20/20 and we never should have taken off in Marginal VFR for a ferry flight in an R44! Not to mention the many opportunities I had to land!
You know after surviving that first Inadvertent encounter with Instrument Meteorological Conditions one might think that I would have said, "This is f*cked up!" (which I actually did say) and just landed? Yet I continued on, trying to find a way out of that fog covered valley!? In fact the idea of landing never even occurred to me until after that second encounter! A fact that I still struggle to understand?
I don’t know how long I was in the white, but it felt like an eternity! An eternity waiting for a sudden SMACK! Not a good feeling to have, and one I’ll never forget!