Don't be a statistic

By Joe Hincke,
Board Member, Transportation Safety Board of Canada

This article was originally published in English in the May 28th 2013 edition of Canadian Skies e-newsletter in association with the Helicopter Association of Canada (HAC).

In January 1996, I was the commander of a crew flying a Sea King helicopter from the Squadron in Victoria, British Columbia, to home base in Dartmouth, Nova Scotia. It's a long trip, but fairly straightforward, and the initial leg passed with little difficulty. After making our way from Victoria to Penticton, we refuelled and headed north to Sicamous. After that, it would be onward to Revelstoke and Golden, before we were to make our way through Kicking Horse Pass and then to Calgary.

As a navigation exercise, a visual flight rules (VFR) trip through the Rockies isn't all that hard to plan. Winter, however, brings a special set of challenges. In our case, a major weather system was influencing the ara. Still, we were optimistic, and the forecast gave us cause to hope: cloud layers weren't expected until 7000 feet, and the summit of the pass lay at "just" 5300 feet. By maintaining altitude at 1000 feet above ground, we would remain under the clouds and remain in visual meteorological conditions (VMC) the whole way.

The first indication that things might not be so easy came at Sicamous, as snow flurries reduced visibility to almost nothing. Such are the vagaries of local weather in the mountains, and we knew this was likely to be only temporary; unfortunately, the short winter days had left little room in the schedule for waiting, not if we wanted to complete an already tight leg in daylight. But pushing onward at night seemed even dumber—a sucker bet almost guaranteed to temp the Gods of Cumulus Granite. Thus, the decision was made to remain overnight at Kelowna and try again early the following morning.

Our prudence was rewarded with a promising start the next day: although the forecast remained unchanged, we made good time past Golden, and soon we were turning to follow the Trans-Canada Highway through Yoho National Park on the way to the pass.

Which is exactly when the rain started and things got interesting. Thanks to all the extra moisture in the air, low scudding clouds began to form, obscuring the mountains on either side of our route. Combined with the snow cover on the ground, visual navigation was becoming a potential issue. I cast a wary eye on the thermometer, well aware that the Sea King doesn't like ice. (The temperature had been holding steady at about 5 degrees Celcius, but if it dropped to freezing as we climbed, our day would quickly turn difficult.)

And we were definitely about to climb. Elevation through the pass increases significantly during the last 10 kilometers, from about 4000 feet to 5300. In the back of my mind, a small but persistent voice began to ask questions about the various options ahead: specifically, at what point our plan might require changing.

It didn't take long. Over the next several minutes, the intermittent cloud transformed into a thick wall, completely obscuring our route. Mountains are both very large and very hard, and flying in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) through a mountain valley that was rising in front of us seemed a very poor choice. Heeding the voice in my head, I executed a rather vigorous 180-degree turn and descended back into clear air.

At this point, free of cloud and within sight of the surface, we were able to take stock of the situation. We had fuel to return to Golden, if necessary, but we also had enough to try the pass again, to see if we could make it through under the cloud layer. After reorienting ourselves and identifying the rail line and Trans-Canada Highway that lead west, that's exactly what we did—resuming our flight up to and over the pass without further incident.
Not all pilots have the same experience.

In 2012, the Transportation Safety Board released an updated edition of its safety watchlist, which identifies the issues posing the greatest threat to Canada's transportation system. One of these issues is controlled flight into terrain, or CFIT. It's what happens when an otherwise sound aircraft, under pilot control, is unintentionally flown into the ground, water, or some other obstacle—such as a mountain, in heavy fog or cloud, or during situations like those I encountered in Kicking Horse Pass!
Between 2000 and 2009, there were 129 of these collisions in Canada. That's just 5% of aviation accidents, but with 128 deaths, it's almost 25% of all aviation fatalities.
Here are three things pilots should do to help avoid becoming a statistic:

  • Remember that weather can change rapidly, particularly in mountains or due to local effects.
  • Keep your options open: Whatever the plan, and no matter how sound it seems, always leave yourself an out—even if that means turning around or, in the case of helicopters, landing and waiting things out.
  • Listen to that little voice: Know what your limits are—in advance—and give yourself permission to take action when your internal alarm starts to ring.

—Joe Hincke is a Board Member of the Transportation Safety Board of Canada. He is also an experienced Sea King pilot with over 3000 hours on type. Early in his career he made a conscious decision that, given the choice, he would rather stand in front of his peers or supervisors to explain why he made a decision in marginal conditions than do the same in front of Saint Peter.