180-degree turns sound easy until they are not
April 11, 2022
Forty-five years ago, before I was instrument-rated, I was flying from Garden City, Kansas, to Oklahoma City. At about 5 p.m. on that October afternoon, air traffic control advised me of a line of thunderstorms northwest of Oklahoma City along my route of flight. The controller suggested I turn east to Enid, Oklahoma, and approach Oklahoma City from the north.
As this was a change in my flight plan, I had to find the Enid VOR frequency. When I looked up, I found myself in a cloud, technically known as visual flight rules (VFR) flight in instrument metrological conditions (IMC).
Without outside visibility, I immediately looked at the attitude indicator, which indicated I was in a left 12-degree banked turn, although it felt like I was in straight-and-level flight. I rolled the wings to a level attitude, and in the most professional voice I could gather, I informed my passenger friend that the weather was looking marginal and that I was turning around. Then I made a left standard rate turn to the “W” on the heading indicator. I began thinking about the risk factors: VFR pilot flies into IMC and the day started at 7 a.m. and was now nearing evening twilight. Composure and the absence of panic were essential here. A few moments later, we were out of the clouds and I could see town lights and most importantly, the lights of an airport. Shortly, we landed 138 miles from our original destination in Gage, Oklahoma, where we summoned a taxi to take us to a motel. The next morning, skies were clear all the way to Oklahoma City.
The 180-degree turn was easy, because of good training and recent flight currency. That I was directed to turn east to Enid helped, because I needed to turn to a heading of west to complete the 180-degree turn. If I had not been told to turn east, and under the pressure of the circumstances, would I have remembered to check and determine what heading I needed to turn to? In training, I was instructed to time the turn for one minute, but threatened by a real situation, would I have remembered that? Ever since that event I have told this story to my students and have emphasized these words: “Make sure you know when to stop your 180-degree turn.”
Remember to be prepared. That is what safe flying is about.