Wednesday, July 18, 2018
Transport Canada - Aviation Safety Letter Bella Bella Nightmare - ISSUE 4/2009

Bella Bella Nightmare - ISSUE 4/2009

The day started off earlier than most; I was in to work with the sunrise as I had a long trip to fly a tech to Bella Bella, B.C., in order to fix a broken Cat. When I got there, the owner and his son were busy getting the C206 ready. They were less friendly than usual, but I put that down to the early hour. The owner’s son took off as I waited for my passenger to arrive.

My passenger arrives, we load up his tools, and take off. The trip is west across central B.C., and over the plains to the coast. We will fly through the mountains, over Bella Coola, B.C., and on to Bella Bella. The weather looks okay for the trip, but there is no station at Bella Bella, so we will have to rely on any pilot weather reports (PIREP) en route.

I am a newly hired chief flight instructor (CFI) of a small school that also does single-engine VFR charters. My wife and I moved up here from Vancouver, B.C., and I had only 650 hr—mostly instructing time—before coming here. It has been a learning experience to say the least. I always taught my students by the book where navigation was concerned: fly the line, assess the deviation, and correct. VFR charters in the Cariboo call for a different technique: fly the line as much as you can, when you hit the weather, the choice is turn left or right to get around it and then get back on track. GPS with an ancient long range air navigation (LORAN) system is the preferred method.

The trip over the plains is uneventful; I have been out to Bella Coola a dozen times now and I know the way pretty well. My headphones crackle with the owner’s son’s typical greeting:

“Got your ears on?”
“Hey there. You were out of there so fast I hardly got the chance to say good morning!”
“They needed a fast flight,” he replies.
“Sort of; I’ve got a pickup.”
“A body.”

It turns out a young man had drowned in the river.

Bella Coola is a beautiful spot nestled in the Coast Mountains. After flying over what amounts to basically one massive clear cut in various stages of re-growth from Williams Lake to the mountains, we fly over a plateau and start to descend into the river valley. The town itself sits where three valleys meet, and the river flows on to the ocean and out to Bella Bella.

Three valleys on the coast make for some interesting winds and currents, as the owner’s son’s unlucky pickup discovered. Later we loaded the “hummer,” as the Air BC Dash 8 captain called him (for human remains). It was odd stacking other people’s bags around and on the wooden casket. Especially weird were all the locked gun cases of the many hunters who pass through the area. Death has many faces.

The son tells me the weather looks okay to Bella Coola, so I decide to keep going once I get over the town.

I am flying today with some extra pressure put upon me by none other than yours truly.

One of the perks of my job is that I get to fly a local businessman around in his own airplane—a fast, retractable single.

The week before, we had flown his plane over Bella Bella on a gorgeous day; it was the most fantastic scenery highlighted by the summer sun. After dropping him and his family off for a fishing vacation, I took his plane back home. Several days later, when I got the call to pick him up, I had to turn around because of bad weather over the plains—I tried left, then right, then overhead and got to 13 500 ft before deciding there was no way to get through. Such is the VFR world.

When my boss, a legend in the area with 40 000 hr (all VFR), picked him up the next day, he told me the weather out at Bella Bella was something he wouldn’t wish on his worst enemy.

I am leery of his words as we make our way past Bella Coola and over the ocean proper. The terrain in the area is very unforgiving with all the peninsulas and islands rising sharply straight out of the ocean. The only place to put the plane down in an emergency would be on one of the small beaches, and that would be a disaster due to the fact that any marginally flat area is surfaced with jagged rocks.

I am using the “greasy thumb” method of navigation. My GPS is no help now as it only plots a straight line to my destination, and with the ceiling just under 1 000 ft, a direct route is out of the question. My thumb very carefully keeps track of our position on the map as we have several sharp turns around terrain in order to stay over the water. This technique will save our lives.

We are flying in a tunnel. The terrain rises on either side of us into the cloud. Over water is the only way, and what I originally thought was an acceptable ceiling has diminished by several hundred feet. Visibility was good, but with the cloud coming down, it has reduced dramatically. We are in and out of thin areas of mist.

“This is stupid,” I say to myself. My companion reads my thoughts and confirms my feelings as he crosses his arms firmly and lets go a loud sigh. This will be his primary commentary for the rest of our flight. My mind is awash in conflict: “continued flight into adverse weather” versus “it’s not far now.” “Get out of this” versus “we’re almost there.” We have been dodging the mist for a half-hour now and, while for a time it stabilizes at 700 to 800 ft, it certainly does not improve. We have to descend as low as 400 ft at times to get under it. On we fly as the voices in my head continue to argue.

“Just two more bends and we are there,” I tell myself. Home free, almost. It will look really good that I made it and got this guy to his Cat—a brand new machine that is holding up a big project, and costing lots of money in downtime. The other pilot always makes it; my boss gets in no matter what.

We reach the final turn in our tunnel and hit solid cloud. Panic grips my chest like a bear hug. Get it turned around! I am on instruments as I bank steeply, 500 ft above the water.

The unthinkable happens: my attitude indicator topples. I instantly get the familiar taste in my mouth that I always got after wiping out on my dirt bikes years ago—it’s like exhaust fumes, but in reality it is pure adrenaline. “Fight or flee” is the primordial command; I force myself to fight.

“Fly, fly by the VSI,” [vertical speed indicator] is a term familiar to me from my instructing days at Boundary Bay, B.C.; it is put to good use here. We show a descent.

“Get that nose up! Not too much!” my inner voice yells at me. My old instructor Doug is beside me, ready to rap my knuckles if I break my concentration for an instant. He recently passed away in a car accident.

We are on our reciprocal heading and come out of the cloud. [expletive…]

“I’m heading back to Bella Coola,” I tell my passenger, trying my best to sound calm.
“That’s fine with me!” is his terse reply.

The nightmare is far from over though. We are 45 min away from Bella Coola. Coupled with the hour and a half it took to get to that town, this is turning into a very long flight. We have four hours of fuel total, so we will land with an hour in the tanks, provided the weather is still okay there. My major problem at this point is the several cups of coffee I had while waiting for my companion to arrive. I use the pain in my bladder to keep focused.

I always prided myself on the fact that whenever I had a bad dream I could just tell myself to wake up, and everything would be fine. There was no waking up from this flight though; I had to battle this to its conclusion.

Again and again we are in the mist, so we are up and down between 800 ft and 400 ft. Just when I can relax a bit, I hit more mist and must go down again. I carefully plot our position on the map and take us around the various peninsulas. Finally, we reach the coast again and land at Bella Coola. Land has never before—or since—tasted so sweet to me.

“I hope I didn’t scare you too badly,” I say to the Cat tech through clenched teeth.
“No, no problem,” he counters. He spends the next hour chain smoking outside the terminal as I wait to see if the weather improves. When it does not, we take the refuelled Cessna back to home base.

Lessons learned:

  • To compare my abilities with another vastly more experienced pilot was extremely foolish.
  • Turning back hurts the pride, but is never a wrong decision.
  • Know thine own abilities, and know thy aircraft.

This account is a true event provided anonymously to the ASL for the benefit of all. Thank you. —Ed.


This article was published by Transport Canada in TP 185E -. Reprinted with permission

Add comment

Security code