Often when such pilots sit around and exchange stories the subject of the 1999 crash of
John F Kennedy Jr's plane comes up.
Most pilots concur with the NTSB findings that Kennedy was flying a plane more powerful than he was used to into a cloud bank at night over water and became disoriented. We discuss whether there is any appropriate pilot training that could have avoided such tragic mishaps.
I am aware of how I learned to avoid this problem. It came decades after I had my pilots license.
I was taking off in a single engine plane from Oakland Airport with a cloud cover at roughly 1800 feet. The mountains to the north east of Oakland rise to about 2200 feet. The weather data indicated that clouds were less than 2000 feet thick. The top of the cloud cover should have been about 3,800 feet, well above the small mountain range.
I did something quite illegal as a pilot with only a license to fly in fully visual environments. I decided to circle and climb through the clouds. This was not a problem until I had climbed more than 3500 feet and was still in a cloud.
I realized at that point that my sense of direction including up and down was completely useless. I could only rely on the instruments in front of me.
I kept climbing and by the time I was at 5500 feet above the ground I was seriously doubting my brain, my butt and my instrument's. I tried not to show my distress to my passenger.
Fortunately for me, I came out of the clouds at 6000 feet. The cloud was a single giant funnel that was more than 2000 feet above the surrounding completely flat cloud layer.
I was very happy to see the blue sky. I learned a horrendous lesson about how important it is to trust your instruments more than your physical perceptions.
A sad lesson that John Kennedy Jr. had not been fortunate enough to experience in survivable conditions.