“It’s the tower calling for you.” Mabel, our receptionist, bookkeeper, and general manager of all things administrative around the flight school, held the phone in an outstretched hand toward me. “Your student is stuck on top of the clouds. They want to talk to you.”
I was nervously aware already that one of my most enthusiastic student pilots had departed on his solo cross country flight a little less than an hour ago. As a relatively new flight instructor, I was still on edge each time one of “my” fledglings was out on an exercise. J.J. (Note 1) and I had successfully completed his dual cross-country flight the weekend before. I figured he was ready to go again, solo.
J.J. was a bit of a conundrum. He was a prof at the local university, and as such, he had little trouble mastering the theoretical material for the Private Pilot license. But, when it came to handling the conglomeration of nuts, bolts, aluminum, and accessories called The Aircraft, he was far from a natural. But, J.J.’s enthusiasm for flying and his determination to succeed and his constant, diligent effort were all his strong suits. With constant practice, he was slowly mastering the level of skill needed for the license. He was one of my most diligent students and while I sometimes felt discouraged at his slow progress I was always uplifted by his constant good humour, refusal to become discouraged, and that smile. Always, that smile. He just seemed to enjoy everything about life and especially, life at an airport.
With trepidation, I gingerly held the phone to my ear and identified myself.
“Just to let you know,” the clipped tone of the air traffic controller from the local tower informed me. “Your student who is out on his solo cross country climbed on top of the layer of clouds while he was departing the airport eastward on his first leg. He called us right away to let us know his situation. Thankfully, he’s in the clear on top of a flat layer of clouds. The cloud layer is broken to the west of the field so we are giving him vectors to an area where he should be able to descend visually and get below the clouds again. He actually wanted us to give him vectors to continue doing his cross-country trip, but we figured you’d probably want to have a chat with him first.”
I certainly did!
“Wow. Okay, thanks. Yeah, I obviously need to go over a few things with him, such as the meaning of VFR!” VFR stands for Visual Flight References. It is the set of procedures under which all pilots begin learning to fly. It means that we are expected to control and navigate our aircraft with reference to visual cues obtained from seeing the earth and the surrounding horizon and landmarks. At a much later time in our careers, we may choose to gain more training that lets us fly into and above clouds by using information from our specialized flight instruments. But that’s an advanced course. It’s certainly not something a new student pilot is qualified to do. J.J. was indeed lucky that he was on top of a layer of level clouds with good visibility, which meant he was able to keep the aircraft right side up. As for navigating, now that he could no longer see the landmarks on the ground, (this was pre GPS days), J.J. had been wise enough to immediately report his predicament to the tower controller who was giving him compass headings to fly to a region where the clouds were less dense. Once J.J. could see the earth below, through breaks in the clouds, he would be able to descend back to proper “VFR” conditions and return to the airport.
So far, despite whatever he’d done to get ‘on top’ J.J. was doing a couple of other things right. He was remaining calm and flying the aircraft, and he was calling for assistance from ATC.
A few tense moments later I got another call from the tower to let me know that J.J. was safely back under the cloud deck and was returning to land at the home base. “He’d actually requested vectors to continue on his cross-country flight,” the controller informed me again, sounding incredulous.“
After a few more minutes I watched out the flight school’s front window, towards the active runway. Our training C-150 with J.J. at the controls executed a perfectly acceptable landing, and not long afterward I greeted J.J. as he strolled back into the flight school lobby, smiling broadly from ear to ear. “Wow! It is soooo beautiful up there!” were the first words out of his mouth.
I immediately took him aside for a de-briefing. He explained what happened: “I was climbing to the east and it was such a beautiful day and the sun was shining so strongly and I was just looking at the ground, and I just kept climbing. Then suddenly, I was on top of all the clouds! Wow! It is soooo beautiful up there!” he said again. His eyes glazed over in memory as his smile grew even bigger.
I struggled to manage my reaction. I wanted to acknowledge his expression of joy at what he’d just experienced, but I also wanted to impress upon him that this was not the way to be flying VFR at his particular skill level. We talked seriously for a few minutes about the perils for an inexperienced pilot wandering into instrument flight conditions without proper training (Notes 2, 3, &4). J.J. nodded but didn’t stop grinning.
The following week, J.J. successfully completed his solo cross country exercise without any further forays into VFR-Over-The-Top flight, and I received no more calls from the tower. He never stopped smiling all the way to his Private Pilot license and beyond.
1. The student’s name is changed to protect privacy. Not his real initials.
2. Average time before untrained pilot loses control in IMC: 178 seconds. (Wilson, D. R., & Sloan, T. A. (2003). VFR Flight Into IMC: Reducing the Hazard. Journal of Aviation/Aerospace Education & Research, 13(1). https://doi.org/10.15394/ jaaer.2003.1567)