Trust your instruments
Aircraft Type – Cessna 206
Location – Karamea, NZ
One cool morning following an overnight in Karamea (on the West Coast of New Zealand’s South Island) I obtained a weather forecast and found it was good for our flight with a warm front expected to hit the West Coast after 5pm local time. It was about 8:30am when I loaded my Heaphy Track tourists into the old Cessna U206. I had about 2 hrs gas on for a 35 min flight back home to Motueka. Motueka was separated from Karamea by a mountain range for the entire length of the flight. But the weather was good.
I was flying up the valley following the Karamea river with rising terrain on both sides in order to gain enough altitude to cross over the Cobb Valley and start a descent into Motueka. Everything seemed good until about our 3rd turn up the valley when on my horizon (about 2 miles distant) I noticed a small amount of cloud forming. I was still about 1000 feet above the rising valley floor in a valley about one and a half miles wide.
Suddenly the valley began filling in with thick cloud, like steam appearing out of thin air. I started a left turn of about 30 degrees angle of bank so I would have enough room in the valley for a full u-turn if I needed it. Suddenly I was plunged into thick cloud. Now I was scared. I had no formal instrument training, just the bare CPL minimum requirements. I could sense that some of the passengers were questioning the need for a sudden turn and now I find myself busy trying to make a u-turn in IMC without bumping into a mountain.
My right leg was physically, and probably visibly, shaking. Battling the fear of killing all aboard my aeroplane and recalling all the things that you read in crash comics and have drummed into you about VFR pilots lasting 70 seconds in cloud without an instrument rating, I decided to steepen up my turn. Within a few short seconds, my stall warning sounds, so I back it off a little and reduce the back pressure trying not to freak out. Not pretty. I was over controlling everything and adrenaline was peaking now.
No ground or water beneath me now, but at least I’m pointing away from the highest terrain. I knew a heading of about 280 degrees was going to at least get me out over the coast. I was still below the height of the valley walls and was not out of mountain goat territory yet! “Trust your instruments” was all I could hear in my mind. It was the voice of a captain who used to pop in to see us once every so often. Before I have any time to digest the thought I get the “leans!”. Now I feel totally disorientated, and begin battling with what my mind is telling me to do verses what the instruments are saying. Right in the middle of this life and death inner turmoil the passenger behind me asks, “What time are we getting there?” (probably really trying to ask, “What the heck is going on up there!”)
“Good morning folks, welcome aboard,” were the next words that left my mouth, “we are 18 miles to the East of Karamea passing 5000 feet on climb. Due to the weather I expect we will be touching down about 9.15. Thanks and I’ll update you a little closer to Moteuka.” What a croc! I had no idea if we would live though this.
Another few minutes pass and finally it’s getting brighter. Blue sky! I’m now at 9000 feet and to my horror I’m sitting above a sea of cloud as far as the eye could see. I think I’m somewhere over the west coast and above the highest terrain for 200 plus miles. Now my focus is fuel, so I make another 180 turn toward Motueka. Twenty five minutes go by and I should at top of descent. But I see that I have no distance information. So it’s is all guess work from here. I switched on the only working nav aid in the aircraft, the ADF and tuned it to the Appleby NDB which I knew was 15 odd miles to the east of Motueka. I tuned up the local traffic frequency. I could now hear some local aeroclub traffic doing low level training. This was good news – I was nearly home. I was too scared to call Nelson tower (about 16nm to the Sth East) and ask for help as I knew I would get into hot water and who knows??? So I soldiered on. Not smart!
Still above a layer of solid cloud I had now convinced myself I was past the worst terrain. I would start a circling descent and hope to find a hole. I pulled some power off and lowered the nose and started a 500-600 ft/min descent at about a 15 degree angle of bank. Within a few seconds we plunged back into IMC. I had made about 3 descending orbits when I saw another layer of cloud about 2-3000 feet below. I steepened up the roll and descent rate as I was now visual with the next layer below. I was now at about 3000 feet AGL on top of another solid layer of cloud. I started another shallow descent thinking my position was now over rolling terrain between 500 – 1500 feet above sea level. So my new bug out height would be about 2000 feet. I was badly hoping for a hole! Down I went, and within a few seconds I saw some trees out to my left which meant the coast was to my right. I kept the descent up and broke out about 1900 feet AGL. Even though I was now visual with the ground it took me a minute to recognise my position. Nothing mattered now that I was visual again with the ground! I found a couple of landmarks and made a beeline to the airport. The weather was getting worse. I sighted the field and made a short low-level approach. I still can’t remember the runway I landed on, but I remember the feeling of utter relief.
By the time the passengers had been picked up from the airport the weather had come in and the visibility had dropped to a couple of kms in steady rain and the cloud base came down to about 300 feet. Knowing how close 5 fare-paying tourists and myself had come to being another statistic in the mountain ranges of the South Island of New Zealand keeps me thankful to know those three words – “Trust your instruments.”