Blinded by the Snow

Our pilot was a fairly new pilot who was going for a winter flight with a friend to a nearby airport for lunch. It was just a short VFR pleasure flight, the kind so many pilots take quite often. The weather was calm and clear, undoubtedly VFR, and the flight to their lunch spot was great.

Just as they were finishing their lunch, our pilot noticed some light snow starting to fall. The two quickly finished the meal and headed out to the airplane with plans to beat whatever might be coming in. Our pilot checked the ATIS, and it was reporting the airport as VFR with good visibility. They readied the airplane, got in, and fired up.
Upon contacting the tower for taxi clearance, our pilot was advised by the controller that the airport was no longer VFR, and that if they wished to depart, they would need to request special VFR – a special clearance out of the control zone under visual flight rules that allows for somewhat reduced weather minimums. Our pilot advised the tower that they wanted to depart VFR to a local airport to the east and asked what their weather radar was showing east of the control zone. He was told that the weather east of the airport was still VFR, as the snow was moving in from the west, and that if they wanted to go, they would need to leave right then.

Our pilot decided to request a special VFR departure, and, within a few minutes, the two were wheels up and heading east. Shortly after clearing the control zone to the east, our pilot realized that the weather was worse than expected. A lot worse!

Our pilot was unable to see ahead, due to the blinding snow, but he was able to see the ground directly below. Knowing that the weather was worse behind them, our pilot decided that returning to their recently departed airport was not an option. He set the GPS direct to their destination airport and continued to fly blind through the snow.

Nearing their destination airport, our pilot spotted railway tracks below them that he knew passed right by the airport. He started to follow the tracks. Considering the winds and the direction that they were approaching the airport, our pilot planned on flying over the field and entering the pattern mid-downwind. Our pilot finally spotted the airport when they were overhead and flew a tight pattern, hoping to keep the airport in sight, given the very poor visibility.

On final approach, our pilot realized he was too high and fast to make a safe landing on the small, snow-covered runway, so he decided to abort the landing and try again. Our pilot climbed and made his turns into what he was expecting to feel like a more familiar pattern, relatively speaking, only to discover that when turning downwind, he could no longer see the airport.

Using familiar landmarks around the airport, our pilot followed a road until reaching an intersection, an area commonly used for aircraft to turn from downwind to base. Turning final, our pilot still did not have the airport in sight, but he could make out some houses that he knew were off the end of the runway. As the houses neared, the runway finally became visible.

Our pilot landed, taxied in, and shut down, never happier to be back safe on the ground. Our pilot was contacted by aviation authorities about his non-VFR flight, but no action was taken, as the inspector determined from the weather reports that the snow came in “very fast.”

Our pilot believes that the familiarity of the local area around his home airport helped when he didn’t have the visibility to actually see the airport.

Fly safe(r).
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