coming back alive


Visual Flight Rules are a set of regulations that a pilot may operate under when weather conditions meet certain minimum requirements.

The requirements are designed to provide sufficient visibility so that other aircraft can be seen and avoided. Under VFR, the pilot generally controls the attitude of the aircraft by relying on what can be seen out the window.

The pilot is responsible for seeing and avoiding other aircraft, terrain, and obstructions such as buildings and towers.


Instrument Flight Rules allow an aircraft to be flown in weather conditions that do not meet the minimum requirements for visual flight rules (VFR).

These are referred to as instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). In such conditions the pilot will control the attitude, altitude, and course of the aircraft by watching the flight instruments.

The pilot must have an instrument rating and meet recency of experience requirements pertaining to instrument flight. The aircraft must be equipped and type-certified for instrument flight.

The pilot will usually navigate by using electronic navigation equipment, compass headings assigned by Air Traffic Control, or in some cases compass bearings corrected for forecast winds.

While weather conditions can be much worse than allowed for VFR flight, there are still minimum conditions that must be present in order for the aircraft to take off or land. These will vary according to the type of electronic navigation aids available, the location and height of terrain and obstructions in the vicinity of the airport, and in some cases according to qualifications of the crew and aircraft.

Factors that Cause Crashes: Spatial Disorientation

Most problems related to disorientation can be traced to the inner ear, a sensory organ about the size of an eraser on a pencil.

The inner ear is similar to a three-axis gyro. It detects movement in the roll, pitch, and yaw axes that pilots know so well. When the sensory outputs of the inner ear are integrated with appropriate visual references and spatial orientation cues from our bodies, there is little chance to experience disorientation.

The problem occurs when the outside visual input is obscured; then, you're down to just the output from the inner ear—and that's when trouble can start.

A pilot suffering from spatial disorientation has difficulty in determining how they are flying in relation to the horizon.
Fluid in the inner ear reacts only to rate of change, not a sustained change. For example, when you initiate a banking left turn, your inner ear will detect the roll into the turn, but if you hold the turn constant, your inner ear will compensate and rather quickly, although inaccurately, sense that it has returned to level flight.

As a result, when you finally level the wings, that new change will cause your inner ear to produce signals that make you believe you're banking to the right. This is the crux of the problem you have when flying without instruments in low visibility weather.

Even the best pilots will quickly become disoriented if they attempt to fly without instruments when there are no outside visual references. That's because vision provides the predominant and coordinating sense we rely upon for stability.

The obvious method to prevent disorientation is the instrument rating. But, that rating alone is no automatic guarantee, because there is no such thing as "knowing how to fly on instruments."

You must continue to practice your skills. You are either formally trained and current—or you are unqualified.

icy wing
A plane's wing is coated in ice. In-flight icing can alter instrument readings and compromise the pilot's control of their aircraft.

Breathing is one of the most automatic things we do - over 20,000 times a day. Each breath does two things for our body. It expels carbon dioxide when we exhale, and takes in oxygen when we inhale. It's a delicate balance.

Although the percentage of oxygen contained in air at 18,000 feet is identical to that at sea level (a little over 20%), the amount of air our lungs take in with each breath contains half the oxygen found at sea level. Breathing faster or more deeply doesn't help. In fact, because you're consciously over-riding a system that is normally automatic, you'll be compounding the problem by exhaling too much carbon dioxide.

Supplemental oxygen

The solution is simple and familiar to most pilots: supplemental oxygen. Federal Aviation Regulations specify a 30-minute limit before oxygen is required on flights between 12,500 and 14,000 feet, and immediately upon exposure to cabin pressures above 14,000 feet. For best protection, you are encouraged to use supplemental oxygen above 10,000 feet..


Unfortunately, our body doesn't give us reliable signals at the onset of hypoxia - oxygen starvation - unless we have received special training to recognize the symptoms. In fact, it's quite the contrary. The brain is the first part of the body to reflect a diminished oxygen supply, and the evidence of that is usually a loss of judgment.


Everyone's response to hypoxia varies. Unless, as we've stated, you've had special training to recognize its symptoms, hypoxia doesn't give you much warning. It steals up on you, giving your body subtle clues.

The order of symptoms varies among individuals: increased breathing rate, headache, lightheadedness, dizziness, tingling or warm sensations, sweating, poor coordination, impaired judgment, tunnel vision, and euphoria. Unless detected early and dealt with, hypoxia can be a real killer.

So, don't decide you'll try to fly over that range of mountains, thinking you'll turn back if you start to feel badly. You may feel great...until it's too late! Use supplemental oxygen.

Pre-Flight Planning: Your Key to Flying Safely

Prior to embarking on a flight, there are several steps that you as a pilot are responsible for taking in order to ensure that the flight goes safely and smoothly:

  1. Study Current Weather reports and conditions for the route to be followed

  2. Know the airway facilities available on your route and the conditions of those facilites.

  3. Know the Air Traffic Control Rules and procedures pertaining to that particular flight.

Pre-Flight Inspection: Every flight should be preceeded by a preflight inspection of the plane. 

Cabin Inspection: 

  1. Ensure that all required paper work is available

    • Airworthiness certificate

    • Registration certificate

    • Operating handbook

    • Weight and balance data

  2. Remove the control wheel lock

  3. Check that the ignition switch is off and keys are not in the ignition.

  4. Switch on master switch.

  5. Check fuel quantity, but be aware the gauges are only completely accurate when reading empty.

  6. Lower flaps.

  7. Master switch off.

  8. Fuel valve on.

Inspect your fuel quality and quantity before departing.

Exterior Inspection: 

  1. Inspect the empennage.

  2. Remove tail tie down.

  3. Check for free movement and security of elevator and rudder. Ensure balance weights are secure.

  4. Check antennae.

  5. Inspect right flap. Check sliders and security of flap, there should be only slight movement possible.

  6. Inspect the right aileron by checking the hinges and ensuring that there is freedom of movement and that the control wheel moves in the correct direction when the aileron is moved.

  7. Inspect the leading edge of the wing.

  8. Remove wing tie-down.

  9. Check right main wheel. The tire should be in good condition and adequately inflated. There should be no signs of brake fluid leaks.

  10. Drain a small quantity of fuel from the right fuel tank drain valve and check for water, sediment and proper fuel grade.

  11. Inspect upper surface of wing.

  12. Visually check fuel quantity by removing fuel cap and looking in the tank.

  13. Secure fuel cap.

  14. Check oil level.

  15. Pull out the fuel stainer drain knob and collect a sample of fuel to check for/remove any sediment and/or water.

  16. Look inside cowling for small animals, lost wrenches, oil leaks, etc.

  17. Inspect the nose wheel and fairing. The nose wheel strut and tire should be properly inflated. There should be about two inches of nose wheel strut exposed and no significant leakage of oil from the strut. Check the shimmy damper and the nuts and bolts for security. While inspecting the nose of the airplane, remain clear of the arc of rotation of the propeller at all times.

  18. Check propeller and spinner for damage such as nicks or cracks and security.

  19. Check alternator belt.

  20. Ensure air intake filter is unobstructed

  21. Landing light should be clean and operational.

  22. Inspect static source opening.

  23. Inspect upper surface of left wing.

  24. Visually check fuel quantity by removing fuel cap and looking in the left tank.

  25. Inspect the pitot tube.

  26. Inspect the leading edge of the left wing. Check stall warning device and fuel vent.

  27. Remove wing tie-down.

  28. Inspect the left aileron by checking the hinges and ensuring that there is freedom of movement and that thecontrol wheel moves in the correct direction when the aileron is moved.

  29. Inspect left flap. Check sliders and security of flap, there should be only slight movement possible.

  30. Check left main wheel. The tire should be in good condition and adequately inflated. There should be no signs of brake fluid leaks.

  31. Drain a small quantity of fuel from the left fuel tank drain valve and check for water, sediment and proper fuel grade.

Now stand in front of the airplane and take a minute to consider if you have overlooked anything embarassing, like the tail tie down, or hazardous, like fuel caps not secured. If everything looks good, your airplane is ready to fly.

The Most Common Types of Accidents

modern era. While the number of accidents continues to decline to record low levels, the most common types of accidents keep showing up in the same relative proportions.

37% of All Accidents: Descent & Landing

In order for an airplane to stop flying, it must return safely to the ground. Taking an airplane from being airborne and level at its cruise altitude to being tied back down at a parking spot involves four or five basic steps; descent, approach, landing, go-around (an aborted landing), and taxi. Taken as a group, these five stages of flight represent 37% of all accidents.

18% of All Accidents: Taxi & Takeoff

In order for an airplane to fly, it must leave the ground. Taking an airplane from being tied down at a parking spot, to being airborne and level at its cruise altitude involves four basic steps: preflight, taxi, takeoff, and climb out. Taken as a group, these four stages of flight represent 18% of all accidents.

17% of All Accidents: Mechanical Problems

Airplanes are made up of thousands of precision moving parts. The design, manufacturing, and maintenance standards used by GA are higher than in any other field of endeavor, with the sole exception of space flight. In spite of GA’s world-class standards, mechanical problems will crop up with every manmade machine, and the airplanes of GA are no exception. Mechanical problems account for 17% of all accidents

7% of All Accidents: Flight Maneuvers

While flying, an airplane must maneuver through the air by speeding up, slowing down, making turns, climbing, or descending. Pilots often practice various maneuvers to enhance their skills. All pilots, and particularly student pilots, spend time mastering specific maneuvers, including techniques for recovering from unusual attitudes. Taken as a group, maneuvering flight represent 7% of all accidents.

4% of All Accidents: Fuel Mismanagement

All airplanes except for gliders or sailplanes use some type of fuel to power their engines. Airplanes can have very simple fuel systems with only one tank and no fuel pumps, or more complex fuel systems with multiple fuel tanks, pumps, and fuel selector switches. In addition, most aircraft require a specific type of fuel. Fuel mismanagement such as running a tank dry, selecting an empty tank, using the wrong type of fuel, or running out of fuel, represent 4% of all accidents.

3% of All Accidents: Weather

The atmosphere is the ocean upon which all airplanes fly. And the atmosphere is a very dynamic, rapidly changing, and sometime forceful place. There are times when pilots misjudge the weather they face. In the vast majority of these weather encounters, the pilot escapes by turning back, changing course, or landing early at another airport. Weather accounts for 3% of all accidents.

Alcohol and Flying: A Deadly Mix

Studies of how alcohol affects pilot performance

  • Pilots have shown impairment in their ability to fly an ILS approach or to fly IFR, and even to perform routine VFR flight tasks while under the influence of alcohol, regardless of individual flying experience.

  • The number of serious errors committed by pilots dramatically increases at or above concentrations of 0.04% blood alcohol. This is not to say that problems don't occur below this value. Some studies have shown decrements in pilot performance with blood alcohol concentrations as low as the 0.025%.

A hangover effect, produced by alcoholic beverages after the acute intoxication has worn off, may be just as dangerous as the intoxication itself. Symptoms commonly associated with a hangover are headache, dizziness, dry mouth, stuffy nose, fatigue, upset stomach, irritability, impaired judgment, and increased sensitivity to bright light. A pilot with these symptoms would certainly not be fit to safely operate an aircraft. In addition, such a pilot could readily be perceived as being "under the influence" of alcohol.

The use of alcohol and drugs by pilots is regulated by Federal Aviation Regulations. Among other provisions, this regulation states that no person may operate or attempt to operate an aircraft:

  • within 8 hours of having consumed alcohol

  • while under the influence of alcohol

  • with a blood alcohol content of 0.04% or greater

  • while using any drug that adversely affects safety

Ideally, total avoidance of alcohol should be a key element observed by every pilot in planning or accomplishing a flight.

Alcohol avoidance is as critical as developing a flight plan, a good preflight inspection, obeying ATC procedures, and avoiding severe weather.


ELT: A Downed Pilot's Best Friend
An Emergency Locator Transmitter (ELT) broadcasts a distinctive signal and works withthe;COPSAS - SARSATsatellite system to help locate planes that have crashed.

An ELT is automatically activated when it is subjected to a sudden physical shock (ie. a plane crash.)

When an ELT is activated, there are essentially two ways for a response to be intiated: either someone hears it, or it is heard by an orbiting satellite.

Someone hearing it, (typically an aircraft flying overhead) will report it to the nearest Flight Service Station and this will set the Search and Rescue ball in motion.

The satellites are also monitored directly by U.S and Canadian Air Force Rescue Centres.

Once a signal has been detected and local Search and Rescue teams have been activated, air and ground rescue teams use direction-finding radios to triangulate the source until it is located and shut down.

ELTs dramatically reduce the false alert impact on SAR resources, have a higher accident survivability success rate, and decrease the time required to reach accident victims by an average of 6 hours. 

Presently, most aircraft operators are mandated to carry an ELT and have the option to choose between either a 121.5 MHz ELT or a 406 MHz ELT.

Your ELT should be mounted on a substantial structure, facing forward. It will help rescuers to locate you should you crash.

Emergency Beacon Registry It could save your life! The Canadian Beacon Registry is maintained by the National Search and Rescue Secretariat. The Registry contains basic owner information on the following types of emergency beacons:

  • Emergency Locator Transmitters (ELTs)

  • Emergency Positioning Indicator Radio Beacons (EPIRBs)

  • Personal Locator Beacons (PLBs)

Your frequently asked beacon questions are answered by Canada's beacon registrar.

The Danger of Small Planes

Small planes are increasingly becoming the mode of transportation of choice for many North Americans.

In the United States and Canada, general aviation aircraft annually log nearly twice the number of hours flown by commercial airliners and carry over 200 million passengers a year.

One reason for the popularity of small aircraft travel is its relative inexpensiveness: weekend hobbyists can rent a single engine plane for as little as $85 an hour.

Of course not just anyone can fly a plane: To get a pilot's license you must be 17 years old and have completed 40 hours of private flying instruction in addition to completing several knowledge and medical tests.

The dangers inherent in small aircraft flying is that upon receiving their license, many pilots become overly ambitious, attempting to fly in conditions beyond their experience.

No amount of training can prepare a pilot for all of the real-life situations they may face while in the air.

The best way to ensure that your first flight is not also your last, is to be aware of the potential risks you may encounter and to take all the necessary safety precautions to prevent an accident from occurring.

plane wreck
There were 297 plane accidents in Canada in 2003, resulting in 58 fatalities.
Factors that Cause Crashes: Weather

Weather decision making is the most difficult and variable factor we deal with in aviation. There are really just a few weather situations that make continued safe flying difficult or impossible for instrument rated pilots: 

Thunderstorms and Other Convective Weather: Hazards associated with convective weather include thunderstorms with severe turbulence, intense up and downdrafts, lightning, hail, heavy rains, icing, wind shear, microbursts, strong low-level winds and tornadoes. Between 1989 and 1997,

55% of turbulence incidents were caused by convective weather.

Tips for Safely Flying in Thunderstorms: 

  • Avoid cells by 20 miles--this means having 40 miles between two cells.

  • Provide extra distance from cells moving at 20 knots or greater and the cell at the south end of a line of storms. This cell does not have to compete for moisture with other cells so it has an abundant "fuel" supply to generate turbulence.

  • Surface dew point and temperature are a good indicator of storm severity. Thunderstorms forming over an area where the dew point is 50 F or higher with more than a 30 degree spread between temperature and dew point indicate a potential for extremely strong storms.

  • If flying a radar-equipped aircraft, learn to use the antenna tilt feature effectively to identify tops of the moisture and to determine if rain is so heavy that it is attenuating the radar beam.

  • Cell shapes and rain gradients provide key information on the hazards of storms. Many commercial training courses are available for instruction in use of weather radars. Remember, radar is for avoiding, not penetrating, storms.

  • Storm hazards are linked to the overall instability of the atmosphere. Check the convective outlook, or "AC Note" as it's referred to, which categorizes the thunderstorm risk in a warning area as "slight," "moderate," or "high." Use extreme caution when flying in the warning area, especially where the risk is moderate or high. The "AC Note" is accessed by FSS briefers with the command: RQ MKC AC on request. DUATS provides this in the "Severe Weather Warning" section.

  • Check the winds at 18,000 feet (500 milibar level). If they are southwesterly, you can expect storms to form.

  • Consider flying in the morning before the afternoon heat can trigger storms.

  • Consider delaying takeoff when a cell is closer than 20 miles to the departure airport.

In-Flight Icing: Between 1989 and 1997, in-flight icing was a contributing factor in nearly 11% of all weather-related accidents involving general aviation aircraft. Icing poses a danger to aircraft in several ways: 

  • Structural icing on wings and control surfaces increased aircraft weight, degrades lift, generates false instrument readings and compromises control of the aircraft.

  • Mechanical icing in carburetors, engine air intakes and fuel cells impairs engine performance, leading to a reduction in power.


Non-convective turbulence can be a major aviation hazard. All aircraft are vulnerable to turbulent motions. Non-convective turbulence can be present at any altitude and in a wide range of weather conditions, often occurring in relatively clear skies as clear-air turbulence.

The effects of turbulence range from mild jostling of the aircraft to sudden accelerations that can result in serious injury and loss of aircraft control.

Ceiling and Visibility: Low ceiling and reduced visibility are safety hazards for all types of aviation. Studies indicate that ceiling and visibility were cited as contributing factors in 24% of all aviation accidents between 1989 and 1997.

Low ceiling and poor visibility accidents occur when pilots who are not properly rated or are flying an aircraft not equipped with the necessary instrumentation encounter such conditions, resulting in loss of control, or controlled flight into terrain.

Controlled Flight Into Terrain

What is CFIT?

Controlled Flight into Terrain (CFIT) occurs when an airworthy aircraft under the control of a pilot is inadvertently flown into terrain, water, or an obstacle with inadequate awareness on the part of the pilot of the impending disaster.

CFIT Accidents occur most frequently in General Aviation operations, comprising 4.7% of all GA accidents.

  • 17% of all GA fatalities are due to CFIT

  • CFIT accidents are fatal 58% of the time.

  • CFIT accidents occur 64% of the time in daytime and 36% at night

  • 51% of CFIT accidents occur in Instrument Meteorological Conditions, 48% in Visual Meteorological Conditions and 1% unknown.

  • The impacted terrain was flat 45% of the time and mountainous 55%

CFIT Countermeasures

A sheriff inspects a damaged plane that crashed into a hill while making a landing.


Countermeasures for CFIT prevention can be grouped in two main categories: aircraft equipment and training/education.

Findings from accident investigations have indicated that many CFIT accidents could have been avoided if some type of terrain warning system or an improved navigation system had been installed on the aircraft and/or if pilots were better informed of CFIT related hazards and how to avoid them.


Advances in technology have resulted in cockpit equipment that can significantly improve a pilot's situation awareness. Some of this technology is now cost effective for general aviation applications. Global Positioning Systems (GPS) are now used extensively throughout commercial and general aviation operations. Used correctly, these systems can provide increased navigation capability and accuracy, instrument approaches in locations where no ground-based approach aids are available and better situational awareness.


Specific training and education in the area of CFIT awareness/avoidance is perhaps more important than equipment improvements. In some countries CFIT avoidance training is mandatory for most commercial and business operations.

An overloaded aircraft may fail to become airborne, while out-of-limits centre of gravity seriously affects the stability and controllability.

Pilots must appreciate the effects of weight and balance on the performance and handling of aircraft, particularly in combination with performance reducing factors, such as long or wet grass, a 'tired' engine(s), severe or un-coordinated manoeuvres, turbulence, high ambient temperatures and emergency situations.


The effects of overloading include:

  • reduced acceleration and increased take-off speed, requiring a longer take-off run and distance to clear a 50 ft obstacle;

  • decreased angle of climb reducing obstacle clearance capability after take-off;

  • higher take-off speeds imposing excessive loads on the landing gear, especially if the runway is rough;

  • reduced ceiling and rate of climb;

  • reduced range;

  • impaired manoeuvrability;

  • impaired controllability;

  • increased stall speeds;

  • increased landing speeds, requiring a longer runway;

  • reduced braking effectiveness;

  • reduced structural strength margins;

  • on twin-engined aircraft, failure to climb or maintain height on one engine.


Balance refers to the location of the centre of gravity (cg) along the longitudinal axis of the aircraft. The cg is the point about which an aircraft would balance if it were possible to suspend it from that point. There are forward and aft limits established during certification flight testing; they are the extreme cg positions at which the longitudinal stability requirements can be met.

Exceeding the forward cg limit usually results in:

  • difficulty in rotating to take-off attitude;

  • increased stall or minimum flying speed against full up elevator;

  • extra tail downforce requires more lift from wing resulting in greater induced drag. This means higher fuel consumption and reduced range;

  • inadequate nose up trim in the landing configuration neces- sitating a pull force throughout the approach making it more difficult to fly a stable approach;

  • difficulty in flaring and holding the nose wheel off after touch down. Many modern aircraft have deliberately restricted elevator travel (for stall behaviour reasons). Inability to hold the nose up during a bounce on landing can result in damaged nose landing gear and propeller;

  • increased loads on the nose landing gear.

Exceeding the aft cg limit usually results in:

  • pitch up at low speed and high power, leading to premature rotation on take-off or to inadvertent stall in the climb or during a go-around;

  • on a tail wheel type, difficulty in raising the tail and in maintaining directional control on the ground;

  • difficulty in trimming especially at high power;

  • longitudinal instability, particularly in turbulence, with the possibility of a reversal of control forces;

  • degraded stall qualities to an unknown degree;

  • more difficult spin recovery, unexplored spin behaviour, delay-ed or even inability to recover.


While flying is generally a very safe way to travel, the danger of small planes tends to come in the form of human error.

Many small plane pilots fly infrequently and overestimate their skills. The combination of a big ego and a small plane can be tragic.

plane wreck

Firefighters search through the wreckage of a downed plane for survivors.

Careless flying and inexperience put those on the air and on the ground in danger.

Cocky pilots will inevitably be tempted by the forces of nature and their egos will literally come crashing down.