Snowstorms? Now?

Here’s a winter story to cool you off in the hot summer months. Once again, a student got me into trouble. But of course it was my fault for letting it happen.

Back in the late 1970s I had a student named Bruce who was a technical wizard; he held several patents for electrical devices. We became good friends and went to aviation events together. So it came to pass that we decided we needed to go to the National Museum of the Air Force, located at Wright-Patterson AFB near Dayton, Ohio. Neither of us had been there before. It was like a pilgrimage.

Bruce was well along in his training and nearing his checkride. He was especially good at navigation, mostly with VORs in those days. He was also very good at instrument flight because as a kid he had flown an F-86 Sabre Jet simulator a lot, like 70 or 80 hours. He got to do this because his father was an engineer for General Electric at their jet engine plant in Schenectady, New York. Bruce’s dad sometimes had to work on weekends and he would take Bruce with him (to give his mom a break, I guess) and put him in the F-86 sim to give him something to do. Nice, huh?

At the time I owned a 1973 Cessna Skyhawk, equipped for instrument flight, and I was instrument-rated. The weather was supposed to be pretty good between the Philadelphia area where we lived and Dayton; basically high overcast with good visibility, so we didn’t file IFR. I put Bruce in the left seat so he could experience a longer cross-country flight than most students would get to enjoy.

Off we went. Bruce was doing his usual good job of flying. At some point in the flight I became very tired. I decided I would take a cat-nap. I told Bruce I was going to sleep for a few minutes, and he could wake me up if he encountered anything he didn’t like. I don’t know what the FAA’s rules are for PIC’s who sleep, but I don’t want to go there. I’m sure the statute of limitations has run out by now. I’ll just say it seemed like a good idea at the time.

By and by I felt an elbow poking me in the ribs. Bruce was waking me up. I was more than a little groggy. I asked, “What’s up?” I had already scanned the panel; all the instruments looked good. He said, “Look outside.” I put my seat in the upright position and looked out. There was nothing to see. Visibility was zero. We were flying in hard snow. There was no ice accumulation (snow bounces off), and Bruce is doing a great job of controlling the plane, so I asked, “Where are we?” Bruce proudly said, “I’ve been keeping track of our position using a cross-bearing off the XYZ VOR. We’re right here.” And he put his finger down on the chart, right smack in the middle of a big RESTRICTED AREA just east of Wright-Patt.

There I was, flying in IMC without a clearance in a restricted area. “I’m doomed,” I thought. They will see us on radar and “tag” us. We’ll either get intercepted or have to call Wright-Patt Approach upon landing at Dayton-Wright Brothers Airport. Either way I’ll be in serious trouble. What was the shortest way out? Since we were in the middle, it would be just as short to keep going, so we did. I didn’t want to call because I would be making it a matter of record that I’d busted a restricted area and flown IFR without a clearance. Then the FAA would have to do something about it.

All of this consideration of what was wrong: where we were (oh rats!); what’s the shortest way out; and should we call and ‘fess up; took some time. After I sorted it all out and decided that I really had to call, we were very close to the western edge of the restricted area. Then, as if by magic, we flew out of the snow into clear air. We just continued to Dayton Wright Brothers and landed. I was sure there would be a message to call some ATC facility, but there wasn’t. I never heard a word from the FAA or the military. I guess the restricted area was “cold,” and only we knew we were flying in snow. We got away with it.

The lesson for CFIs here is always be vigilant about what your student is doing. No sleeping! Students who fly well can lull you into a false sense of security. The problem is that even proficient low-time students don’t know all the necessary related information. Bruce could navigate and drive the airplane with respect to the flight instruments, but he had no idea about the requirement to file an IFR flight plan, receive a clearance, and be in contact with ATC. He thought being right-side-up and on-course was all there was to it.

I’ll add one more snowstorm story. This time I knew exactly what my student was doing. In the 1980s I used to fly from the Philadelphia area to a grass strip in the Adirondack Mountains in upstate New York called Old Forge. My wife’s parents had a very nice summer home on a nearby lake. It was a 6.5-hour drive, but only a 2.5-hour flight. We flew there in my Skyhawk whenever we could.

On one trip I was bringing my brother-in-law Butch back to our home near Philadelphia to do some work on our house. I was teaching him to fly, and since we were leaving after dark he could get in his night cross-country. It was cold out, and with a high overcast and no ground lights in the mountains there wasn’t any horizon. You had to fly on instruments whether you were rated or not. I was keeping an eye on Butch and he was concentrating on the job at hand. We weren’t talking, and the radio was turned down. It was quiet. Pretty soon I heard a subtle hissing sound, “shssssssssss…..”. Butch didn’t notice, but I had heard it before.

I said to Butch, “Why don’t you turn on the landing light?” He looked over at me sort of quizzically, but his hand went down and he poked a finger at the toggle switch. The light came on, and there was a wall of white. Snow! Butch said “What do we do now?”’ I said “Turn off the landing light.” Then I said, “You keep flying like you have been, and I’ll get us an IFR clearance.” I fished out a chart, figured out what sector of Boston Center we were in, and called. I gave Boston our approximate location and told them I was “having difficulty maintaining VFR” and asked that our flight be made into an instrument flight. After finding me on radar and issuing a squawk code I was immediately given a clearance to our destination, Quakertown, Pa., (UKT).

The point of relating this second snow encounter story is that it illustrates what I should have done in the first one. When I woke up and found out that Bruce was flying in snow I should have determined the proper frequency and called ATC immediately. It’s not necessary to say that you are IFR, thus admitting and having recorded an FAR violation. Rather, if you use the “difficulty maintaining VFR” phraseology, ATC gets the message. They know you probably can’t see a damn thing, and they get you a clearance very quickly. I’m not advocating flying along until you are solid IFR, and then calling, by any means. But if it happens, calling and getting the clearance is much safer than doing nothing. The Big Sky theory doesn’t always work.

Larry Bothe is an FAA Designated Pilot Examiner, FAASTeam Representative and Gold Seal Instructor in the Indianapolis, IN FSDO area. He is also a Master Certified Flight Instructor and has over 7000 hours in more than 80 types of aircraft. Larry is part-owner of a 1961 7EC Champ and may be contacted at

Be first to comment