178 Seconds to Live

October 20, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

We periodically get onto a doom and gloom kick when something nasty happens that really shouldn’t have. VFR into IMC is one of those. In 2009 there were 14 accidents of which twelve were fatal.  That doesn’t sound like a lot and relative to prior years it isn’t. Earlier in this decade the average has been closer to 30 mishaps.

Not many pilots or their passengers come back from this misjudgment.  Compared to GA accidents as a whole, where about one in 5 is fatal, weather is not something to trifle with. The Air Safety Institute has a new Pilot Safety Announcement (PSA) that was published a few weeks ago.

Some of the really old timers out there may remember this “Scare’em straight” video which comes from a study AOPA funded through the University of Illinois in 1954. It took the average VFR pilot less than three minutes to lose control  in IMC and crash. Many don’t even make it to the two minute mark.

It’s a different approach from our other PSAs which are more tongue in cheek. This one’s brutal and probably should not be shown to prospective passengers if you’re a VFR pilot about to take a trip on anything other than a clear day.

Should this be distributed to new VFR pilots as they get ready to spread their wings or is it too much? . We’ve shown this occasionally at safety seminars to gauge audience reaction, which has been mixed. Some thought it was tough love and appropriate. Others thought it was over the top. Were we too tough? Lock in your votes please.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • Dave

    It’s good to warn new pilots, but I think it’s too dramatic.

  • Thomas Boyle

    Remember that robotic planes debate?

  • Roy Uchman
  • John Weston

    I first saw this at an AOPA seminar a couple of years ago. I had just received my private pilot rating, and a couple of months later embarked on a trip to Maine with my two sons. A bit over halfway there we ran into ugly weather. Because this video had made such an impression me we promptly turned around and landed at the nearest airport. The weather between us and our destination did not promise to improve, so after three hours we flew back home. All were disappointed. All survived the flight.

    I think this video is an absolute must-see; I’d go so far as to say it should be required viewing in order to get your license.

    – jkw

  • Bruce Landsberg


    I’m so glad this made an impression!!! We hope that all this effort makes difference and in your case it did. If we may, would like to use your comments as a testimonial that may persuade others that turning around while disappointing, may easily become a death-defying act.

  • Lloyd Bunbury

    It is what it is and anyone flying should have this image in their mind at all times when flying in marginal weather. Better still, just stay home!

  • http://www.teamzipper.com George Andre

    Not only is this a “must see” video, it should also be viewed yearly by all pilots. I have 56 years at the control wheel or stick and this is very meaningful and a good lesson for all, especially low time aviators.

  • William A. Lafferty

    This can never be stressed too much. I don’t believe you can really go overboard or over the top on this!

  • Stacy Sherman

    I think that seeing this might cause VFR pilot who does end up in IMC to panic.

    I also question the validity and relevance of the 1954 study. This study (from what I remember) used a 1954 vintage simulator.

    I’d love to see this study re-done using a modern full motion simulator after the VFR pilots have had time to adjust to flying the sim in VMC.

    It’s also important to note that we don’t hear about the VFR into IMC cases where there is no accident.

    With that said, VFR into IMC is very dangerous and no one should do it on purpose. However, I doubt that it’s the automatic death sentence people make it out to be.

    I have a Gene Hudson seminar where he describes a VFR student pilot who was in IMC for 20 minutes on a cross country solo and made it out alive by not panicing and correctly scanning the intstruments. Of course, he’s lucky he didn’t hit a mountain!

    I think the important points are: Stay out of IMC. Get some hood and simulator training (you can do sim training at home, set the wx so you’re in IMC) to learn how to scan and trust in the instruments. If you DO end up in IMC, call ATC for help and scan the instruments like you were taught in your VFR hood training.

    BTW, I’m an instrument rated pilot and I avoid IMC if I don’t have much recent IMC experience.

  • Don Dinwiddie

    Should be shown. Needle, ball and gyro. He was looking everywhere else. Believe your instruments.

  • Tommy Brazie

    I was trained as a private pilot and my instructor (a naval aviator) insisted upon drammatic and often under the hood unusual attitudes and flying by instruments only. As a VFR only pilot 25 years ago on a night cross country from Nebraska to Ohio, I lost my vacuum pump. After checks with Flight Watch which showed no weather in my path, I continued. I encountered unforceast clouds and was in the soup, partial panel, at night. I have thought about making this a Never Again, but never got around to it. My training saved me that day ( needle, ball, airspeed, compass, clock. 60 Seconds in standard rate turn). Again years later when New York center sent my East off the coast (think Kennedy accident here) a summer evening and the sea and overcast and haze were all the same shade of gray. It was liIke flying in a bowl of cotton. I was legal VFR, but has zero ground (sea) reference for the longest 12 minutes of my life.

  • Allan Roberts

    I am an instrument rated private pilot with quite a bit of “cloud time”, and I still avoid going into weather whenever possible. Why take unnecessary chances? I have lost vacuum twice, and partial panel is not that easy.

    Early in my private instruction, my instructor got me into real IMC (with a legal clearance) to show me what could happen. I failed the test, but became a lot less arrogant in the process. It CAN happen to me. The video is easier, cheaper, and safer than a real-life exercise like mine, and I think the shock value is necessary to try to keep the new pilot out of IMC.

    That said, the key problem is usually that the pilot fixates on the altimeter. I think new pilots should be taught that whenever they get in a mess, they should focus on the horizon (they are almost guaranteed to fixate on something). Get the plane straight and level, so then you will have time to figure out what to do next (like call for help).

  • Bob Martin

    The narration was a bit melodramatic but the stats at the end really made an impression on me.

    I’m a fairly-new, vfr pilot and the stats at the end (the same my instructor had told me) made a real impression. Videos like this cause me to decide again (while on the ground) to take a standard rate 180, head home, and go out to dinner with a story to tell.

  • John Hey

    Very good and very necessary. I just wish there was another video which pauses and explanations as to what the pilot did wrong and why things went bad were explained, like why the airspeed was increasing and altitude spooling down. This would make them easier to remember. As Richard Collins shows in his latest book, the graveyard spiral is still poorly understood, a la Kenedy crash. We need to teach more on recognizing it and practicing proper recovery withourt pullling off the wings. This is a good start to get our students attention. Keep up the great work.

  • Allan Roberts

    I can’t agree that the graveyard spiral is poorly understood. We know the mechanics of it very well. Pulling hard tightens the turn and increases the descent rate. What we are not very good at is teaching students to (1) recognize it and (2) repair it.

    About 30 seconds into the sequence, the pilot usually realizes he has a problem. If, at that point, he levels the airplane, the problem goes away. We need to recognize that a non-IFR pilot WILL fixate on something and try to fix it before going on to the other indicators. That’s what scan training is all about. So give him something to fixate on that will save his life.

  • Patrick D Walker

    do ‘scare you straight’ videos actually prevent accidents? think high school driver’s ed crash site videos that have been shown to impact HS guys about 2 days…
    I think that there are many, many people who are really impacted by this kind of video and i am one of them. What an excellent message and IMHO a well done video.

  • Kevin Sandler

    Too tough on newbie VFR pilots? I think we’d all agree that telling someone’s loved-ones that their father/brother/mother/sister died senselessly in a VFR/IMC encounter would be way tougher. I’m amazed at anyone that would consider this “over the top”. Why would we not show someone the danger from the comfort of a terra firma-based chair instead of letting them personally live the “I’d rather be down here wishing I was up there, rather than up here wishing I was down there!” moment.

    I am an Arizona-based commercial, IFR, singe engine pilot. When we get IMC here, it too often brings ice, so I have not had much time in actual. Last week I got my ticket “wet” with some approaches at MYF. WIth 100 hours hood time, I was amazed at the additional focus it took for me to keep the needles happy in actual vs. simulated. I can only imagine what the VFR pilot with a few minutes of unusual attitude recovery would do in an IMC encounter.

    SHOW IT TO THEM AND SCARE THE CRAP OUT THEM! Give them a healthy dose of respect for clouds and perhaps we’ve saved a life!

  • Bob Wall

    I read with interest Bruce Landsberg’s article, “178 Seconds To Live” about VFR into IMC. I am a survivor of just such an incident back in 1994. While working on my private certificate, my primary instructors had trained me to tune, ID, and track to VORs. On a night flight, I entered IMC without an instrument rating in mountainous terrain. I lost all visual clues due to icing, and also lost airspeed and altimeter readings as the pitots iced over.

    I knew that seconds counted, so I contacted ATC and declared an emergency. The controllers were awesome, and worked with me to tune, identify and track to a VOR that would bring me across the lowest mountain crossing in the area and allow me to descend into warmer air. I followed their instructions and broke out at about 3000 AGL, where the ice all melted away within 30 seconds. I was able to continue VFR to my home airport without further assistance.

    I’m happy to say that I went on to earn my instrument and commercial ratings, and I am now employed full time in aviation. I’m even happier to say that I lived to see my son grow up as a result of my decision to seek assistance immediately.

    My advice to all new pilots is to learn the basics of instrument flight while earning their private certificates, and NEVER hesitate to ask for help. ATC is there to help you, and they are literally your lifeline when you need it most.

  • John Hey

    Alan Roberts, I didn’t mean to imply that the grave yard spiral is a mystery. We do know all about it as you said, but so many pilots, even high time IFR rated, as Collins shows are not aware when they get in one and fumble around until it is too late. Understanding a good scan should reveal what is happening and wing leveling and power back must be instinctive. To to many the unusual attitude is still just an exercise to get the ticket. To them iit is just not understood. This video will go a long way to up the awarness of what can happen. Too bad Kenedy’s instructer didn’t emphasize this. I read that he had had two hundred hours of instrument instruction but no ticket yet! So sad.

  • Gerard

    I can’t believe there is any debate…. show em the video!

  • Valetta Mowry

    I frequently read the website http://www.landings.com which collects news articles of aircraft accidents from this country as well as all over the world. I just read about a Georgia couple killed when their Bonanza crashed in northeast Mississippi. The plane disintegrated in the air. The plane had disappeared from radar before a tornado warning was issued for the area.
    Though the news reports are preliminary, and I will refrain from judgment before the facts come out, one wonders why a pilot would embark on a flight where obvious adverse flight conditions were in play.
    When I saw this video “178 seconds To Live”. I was impressed at the realism this video presents. It creates an impact. In my 30 years of flying experience, I have come across a few pilots who would go out thinking that “that couldn’t happen to me”. They’d probably say “that video is just to scare pilots”.
    My condolences to the family.

  • Cris Methvin

    Excellent!!!! I remember my first time in actual and it was pretty disconcerting, even though I was with a Instrument instructor the clouds were messing with my preceptions, I focused on the six pack and did not look outside until we had passed through the cover ….it was only about half an hour but it felt like days. I think that this is very appropriate and from reading the above comments that this video has already gotten to turn around, it is working!!!

    You want cute and cuddly, go watch the wiggles …and dont go flying.

  • http://airwaystoairways.blogspot.com Ben

    I had a very short VFR into IMC experience during my flight training and it scared the hell out of me. Considering the danger inherent in flying through the soup, I don’t think it’s possible to be too heavy-handed when discouraging people from entering IMC. It’s better to divert or make a 180 and go home than to end up as a smoking hole in the ground.

  • Frank Hellwig

    A follow-on video detailing what the aircraft was actually doing would be good (e.g., a flight simulator capture). But this video is also quite appropriate for instrument pilots as well. I was fortunate in having an instructor for my instrument rating who routinely took me into IMC as part of my training. I was surprised to learn how many CFIIs do not expose their students to actual IMC. Flying under the hood is simply not the same as the sensations are quite different – visual, aural, and psychological.

    This video is a good reminder to both VFR and IFR pilots alike.

    For VFR pilots, a reminder that weather usually gets worse and if it seems problematic before the flight, hoping for better is playing a dangerous game. Always have an out – even if that out is the choice not to fly so you can live to fly another day.

    For IFR pilots, a reminder that IFR and IMC are indeed different. Recurrent training in actual conditions is critical so that IMC can be handled with confidence and precision instead of fear and surprise.

  • Robert Fetterman

    I think that this video is a good motivator for student and VFR pilots to learn how to use their instruments to get out of trouble. Also it should help in the decision process to determine when you are in too deep, hopefully before you are over your head. I have found myself unexpectedly in IMC and had no trouble using my instruments to make a standard 180 and exit the situation in seconds. The situation itself was not part of my training but might make a good addition. I had very good instruction with the foggles on. Perhaps it is not emphasized enough in all training. No matter what you present, however, there will be a small percentage of the population with a “that won’t happen to me” mentality. Still, with weather and fuel exhaustion being the 2 top causes of accidents, I don’t think this video is over the top. In fact I would hope that every student would press his CFI to give him enough hood time for him to feel safe in exiting VFR into IMC.

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