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How A Patch Of Fog Caused This Crash On Short Final

You've heard it again and again... Flying VFR into IMC is deadly, especially if you're a non-instrument rated pilot. You may think to yourself, "I'd never put myself into that spot," but the reality is that there are dozens of experienced, proficient, smart pilots that have gotten into some pretty bad weather situations. Here's how...

The accident you'll read about below is one of the rare cases where a pilot flew VFR into IMC and crashed, yet lived to file an accident report.


It Was A Short Flight

On December 7th, 2012, the pilot flew from the Santa Paula Airport (KSZP) to the Tehachapi Airport (KTSP), California, in his Bellanca Citabria (N8595V). At the departure field, it was a clear afternoon with great flying weather. But, as the pilot said in his accident report, "according to there were areas of patchy fog at KTSP." Here are the weather reports for his destination between takeoff and the time of the accident:

By now, you may be thinking, "I know where this is going, and I would never take off on a flight with those weather reports." But let's dig a little deeper.

The route between KSZP and KTSP was only 56 miles, and the pilot decided his diversion airport was going to be L71, just 21 miles to the East of KTSP. At the diversion airport, just a quick 10 minute flight away, the weather was perfectly clear.

In the hope that "patchy fog," typical of Southern Califronia, would burn off or move away from the destination airport upon arrival, the pilot decided to try and make the flight work. With otherwise good VFR conditions aloft, and plenty of airports reporting VFR conditions just a few minutes away, it's easy to see why the pilot chose to take off and fly to Tehachapi. You can probably think of a few times when you've been faced with similar situations.

_Night Flier_

The Arrival

Approaching the airport, the pilot reported that he "began to see low patches of fog creeping over the mountains in the area," well below his flight path. As he flew over Tehachapi, he got visual sight of KTSP and began descending to pattern altitude for a landing on runway 29.


According to the accident report, "he initiated a descent to the traffic pattern altitude and observed fog approaching the airport's perimeter. The pilot further stated that as the airplane was on the final approach path, about 3 miles from the airport, the visibility began to decrease. In an effort to maintain visual contact with the airport, he maneuvered the airplane below a fog bank and elected to continue the approach in instrument meteorological conditions" (NTSB).

This was the point of no return. The pilot made his go/no-go decision. On the approach, the airport was surrounded by fog similar to this:


Disoriented In The Fog

According to the pilot, "as I turned a 3 mile final for runway 29, the runway was still in sight and everything seemed to be VFR, so no diversion was neessary." But just seconds later, "the fog still kept creeping in and my visibility got a little worse, but I made the unfortunate and wrong choice to stay on my straight in approach instead of diverting, since I had the airport in sight. I dropped below the ceiling of oncoming fog with the airport still in sight when conditions immediately went IFR."


What happened next is exactly what you'd expect... "The airplane descended to about 500 feet above ground level and became surrounded by fog, resulting in the pilot losing visual reference. Shortly thereafter, the airplane touched down in a plowed field and rolled onto its right side, sustaining substantial damage to the fuselage and the right wing" (NTSB).

Probable cause was determined as, "the non-instrument-rated pilot's continued descent into instrument meteorological conditions during the landing approach and his loss of situational awareness, which resulted in a collision with terrain" (NTSB). Spatial disorientation is almost always a contributing cause of VFR into IMC accidents.

Kathryn's Report

What Could Be Done Differently?

You might be wondering, why didn't he immediatly go around? The pilot stated, "when I realized I was in trouble and should initiate a go around to get back above the fog it was too late. My wheels touched down in the field. It all happened VERY fast. The time frame from my choice to continue the approach to touchdown in the field was about 30 seconds." Learn how to prevent a crash with a go around.

If you're an experienced pilot, you've probably been in situations similar to this... The airport is in sight and you're on a final visual approach but conditions are getting worse. Do you continue or should you go around? That's the PIC decision you're forced to make.

Keep what you just read about in mind the next time you're faced with that decision. Remember that the best pilots aren't afraid to fly the 10 minute trip over to their alternate and wait it out. Don't be fooled by airports reporting VFR nearby; they could give you a false sense of security to push the boundaries of safety on a flight. Having an "out" is important, but getting stuck in IMC just a few hundred feet above the ground is nothing to mess with.


What do you think about this case study? Tell us in the comments below.

Swayne Martin

Swayne is an editor at Boldmethod, certified flight instructor, and an Embraer 145 First Officer for a regional airline. He graduated as an aviation major from the University of North Dakota in 2018, holds a PIC Type Rating for Cessna Citation Jets (CE-525), and is a former pilot for Mokulele Airlines. He's the author of articles, quizzes and lists on Boldmethod every week. You can reach Swayne at, and follow his flying adventures on his YouTube Channel.

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