The Continuing Tragedy of Continued VFR

Courtesy: Donna Arnott

All aviation accidents are, of course, tragedies for those involved and their families and friends. But the deaths caused by pilots who fly into weather conditions that they and their airplane are not equipped to handle strike me as the most sad because they are totally avoidable.

The VFR pilot who presses on into IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) is invariably trying to reach some destination, and that sets the stage for carrying passengers to that destination, and so often the death toll for a continued flight into IMC accident is high. Holidays add to the urgency to be someplace with an airplane full of passengers. As we saw over the Thanksgiving period poor weather and VFR flying can lead to disaster. 

Unlike when flying IFR in the clouds the VFR pilot has the only tool needed to avoid weather he can’t handle – the windshield. IMC doesn’t sneak up on a pilot. If a pilot departs in true VFR he flies into low visibility and low clouds; the bad weather doesn’t chase him down. Even low fog that may form under you is never so widespread that you can’t divert so long as you carry the prudent amount of fuel.

When I came into the general aviation business in the 1970s we were writing about how instrument ratings were the answer to the continued VFR accident. If pilots simply all had IFR tickets they would sail along in the clouds to their destination and the problem would be solved.

The aviation industry, the FAA and the media all pitched the safety advantages of earning an IFR rating. The FAA reduced the total time required to earn the IFR rating, and many instructional courses were developed to teach pilots how to fly IFR. Avionics advances made the task at least a little less daunting. And it worked. More than half of all private pilots are IFR rated, the big majority of commercial pilots are, and all ATPs have the rating.

But more general aviation IFR flying didn’t work out exactly as planned. Now pilots with instrument ratings flying on a clearance in the clouds lose control and crash about as often as VFR pilots fly into obstructions or terrain while scud running. When you punch into the clouds maintaining control and staying on the proper flight path is the hard part. When you grope your way along below a low ceiling, or low visibility, control of the airplane is not the big issue, but flying into what you can’t see is.

Improving IFR flying safety for general aviation pilots is a complicated task involving training, equipment, and currency. New technology such as satellite weather radar in the cockpit, flight directors, very capable autopilots, advanced glass cockpits, and more prevalent ice protection system availability have all made  improved IFR safety possible, and I expect a gradual improvement to continue.

But we don’t need any new equipment, advanced technology, new rules, or even improved training to prevent the continued VFR into IMC accident.

For the VFR pilot it’s great to see a Nexrad radar picture delivered to your cockpit, and that picture can suggest a big deviation to avoid the weather detected by the radar. But a radar image won’t change the fact that if the weather looks bad through the windshield the VFR pilot must deviate, turn around, or land. With or without radar, only the view ahead matters.

The same can be said for improved weather forecasts and more timely weather reporting. A forecast may encourage a VFR pilot to start a trip, but again, if the view out the windshield is not VFR, the pilot has to divert, no matter what the forecast says. The same is true for routine weather reports from airports. It doesn’t matter what the METAR says if the weather ahead of you is not VFR.

Rule changes can’t help because it has always been illegal to fly in weather conditions that don’t allow you to see obstructions and terrain, and provide enough glimpse of a horizon to stay right side up. And training won’t help because every pilot from lesson one is taught not to fly VFR when you can’t see.

The real solution to the continued VFR into IMC accident problem is the most elusive of all. The way to prevent these accidents is more complicated than making new rules, and more expensive than new technology. The solution is also exceedingly rare and ranks right up there with fuel exhaustion accident prevention. The answer is pilot discipline and responsibility, and that is a precious commodity in short supply when we must have it 100 percent of the time.

Scud running is just a form of gambling, and we are all gamblers, at least a little. The best I can hope for – and the way I try to make my flying decisions – is to gamble with my own safety, but not with the lives of others. We will never see the last continued VFR into IMC accident, but my fervent hope is that we be around long enough to see the last one that takes more than a single life in the crash.

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40 Responses to The Continuing Tragedy of Continued VFR

  1. Richard says:

    “Get-Home-itis” has been the cause of many a tragedy. Travel by general aviation aircraft is not the same as travel by modern jet airliner and never will be. If one is not prepared to accept weather or other delays, it would be better not to fly or to travel by scheduled airliner.

    Some aircraft should not be flown into questionable conditions by non-IFR rated pilots for a variety of reasons. A historic example is the V tail Bonanza. Compare it’s safety record to that of the conventional tail one and you will see that inexperienced and/or non-IFR rated pilots of the V tail have a history of tragic results when V never exceed is exceeded in instrument conditions.

    The odds are not with those who “press on regardless”.

    • Benjamin A. Rolfe says:

      Actually, the V-tail doesn’t crash out of clouds any more frequently than any other high performance single, including the non-forked tailed Bonanzas. There used to be a difference in what broke first after a loss of control in IMC. Metal wing Mooneys seem the “best” – they hit the ground in one piece making a bigger smoking hole. In all such cases, if the flight made it to an NTSB report, the result was fatal. So instead of worrying about what part will break, worry about how to maintain control.

      Personally I think instrument malfunction is a factor in more cases than we detect. I’ve seen failures lead to very misleading indications way before the instruments are obviously dead – but misleading enough to lead to loss of control.

      • Richard says:

        The “forked tail doctor killer”, as the V tail Bonanza was once known, had a nasty habit of parting company with the tail when V never exceed was passed. It was, and is, a “clean” aircraft and could pick up airspeed quickly. The conventional tail Bonanza does not have a record of such failures, or certainly not to the extent of the originals.

  2. I’m afraid I have to take issue with this one. Although much of it is true, IMC does not only sneak up on the unwary pilot, but can attack with a vengeance in just a few minutes rather than slowly changing. I’ve seen calm, clear days (CAVU) end up with large areas going to strong thunderstorms that were not forecast. This was not a front moving through it was a line of weather that “developed” from Muskegon to a bit south of Alpena and it was a good, 50 to possibly 70 miles wide.

    I was getting ready to head out on a beautiful warm afternoon. It was a bit humid, but not humid enough to normally cause concern. A final look at Weather Tap before heading out displayed only a small storm over Grand Rapids more likely due to the “heat island” effect. I finished loading the car, and then came back in to get the area forecast off DUAT. Nothing out of the ordinary, but the lifting coefficient as a bit high and the storm over Grand Rapids was now much larger although still isolated.

    I was a bit uncomfortable with what I was seeing. No one thing was particularly bad enough to cause concern, but I just didn’t like the combination of all those factors take together so I decided to wait a bit even if it was still Clear and Visibility Unlimited (CAVU). The next RADAR update showed a few new, but small storms near the Grand Rapids area but the rest of the state was clear.

    I decided I’d give it 5 more minutes for a new RADAR update and then head out if nothing was amiss. When I went back in I was greeted by a band of scattered thunderstorms from Muskegon to just South of Alpena.

    We were on the South edge (Midland) while you had to go past Higgins Lake to get out of it going North. With anything slower than the Deb it would have been dicey to get out of it and questionable with the Deb. It definitely would have been time to call flight service although I’ve had them call me for updates with developing storms.

    The only thing that kept me out of that was not what I could see. It was a knowledge of meteorology and a gut feeling based on that knowledge.

    Different areas have different weather behavior. Coastal areas and particularly Florida are not like Michigan or the NE. When I was in Florida over the Christmas holiday season, it would turn hazy around mid afternoon. Something that wouldn’t normally concern us in Michigan, but there I saw it turn into really thick fog that wouldn’t clear until around 10 AM. One of the locals took off a bit early and managed to hit a power line trying to get back to the airport. The only thing left was the engine and it looked like a piece of modeling clay that had been rolled up.

    I agree with the “always have a way out and carry enough fuel to get there. I’ve always been paranoid about fuel and I’ve had some of the locals kid me about topping off just to go out and practice. OTOH my next landing might be 500 or 600 miles away…or farther.

    However I’ve always had the philosophy that if you fly enough the weather will eventually catch you. So having the Instrument rating and being proficient, not just current has been handy a number of times.

    By the Way: My first flight in real IMC was forecast to be calm and clear.

  3. stan sanders says:

    Hi Mac, I have a patent pending on a VTOL aircraft that can be flown by autopilot in all phases of flight. A VFR pilot could simply land in the clear and wait out the weather or if they accidentally encountered IFR weather they could engage the autopilot and let it fly out of the weather and land in the clear. The first prototype will be a UAV for the military.

    • Tony says:

      Stan, you keep popping up on the forums dropping the same “I have a patent pending” thing… talking about some amazing new invention you’ve come up with. You don’t even have a website dude… what are your intentions? >_<

      • stan sanders says:

        Tony, just a preview of coming attractions. The military takes a dim view of websites that show details of potential military aircraft. The reason I keep “popping up” is that I will be looking for private investors to fund the PAV version of my UAV, even if the military funds the UAV. In the mean time it would be helpful if VFR pilots flew aircraft with autopilots and knew how to use them to get out of inadvertent weather penetration.

      • carl says:

        i agree with you tony

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  5. Paul C. says:

    Thanks Mac. Well written as always. This is one of those subjects thats good to talk about often because it can be so easily forgotten. I love flying and I love to learn about flying (everything from Level flight to aviaonics). Its easy to learn stuff Like stall recovery, but this is somthing you have to really work at. The infamous “go no-go” decision. Thanks for the refresh. We al need to hear it again and again.

  6. James Carlson says:

    Well written, as always, but I think this article does miss the point that there is at least one case where a VFR pilot in the US can take off legally without being able to see obstructions and where weather can in fact sneak up unawares: VFR at night. Terrain at night is often invisible, as are clouds and other weather.

    I’m not advocating rule changes here in the US, but it’s certainly true that in most other countries, there’s no “night VFR.” All night operations are required to be IFR in those places. We’re special here in allowing it.

    For myself, I think the reasons behind those rules are not entirely frivolous. I’m working on an IFR rating and, as a current VFR-only pilot, I’m very wary of flying VFR at all at night, let alone with passengers.

    I’m sure others see value in the freedom of night VFR in the US, and (as I said) I’m not arguing against it, but I do think the cost of it should not be ignored.

  7. Idaho Pilot says:

    Idaho Mountain Flying……

    I awoke in Stanley and as usual on the day I fly home over the Sawtooth mountains I was anxious to look out the window at the skies. It had been a beautiful weekend of fishing, hot springs and hiking and we were not really looking foward to flying back to Boise. When I looked west at the sawtooths I felt concern on the cloud formations. Mostly cloudy to the north, partly cloudy to the west, clear east and south. I called flight service for my preflight briefing and was advised. VFR flight, broken clouds, occasional icing IN THE clouds, tops at 11,000 feet along my route. My friend could see my concern from my stare at the rugged granite peaks of the sawtooths and she ask if we were going to be able to make the flight. We both really needed to get back for work…….. Ok, its a go. Clouds are patchy and we can always climb to 12500 feet and be above them and the possibility of ice. Normal departure out of the rough dirt crooked strip of Stanley and turn west toward the sawtooth mountains. Dial the Garmin into Caldwell, 43 minutes enroute. The trusty Husky is climbing like a goat, she bites the air as her prop ends turn at just below the speed of sound. Lean her up a bit and she responds with the normal hum of 180 horses clawing at the bright cold air. Beauty to take your breath away through the 11,000 foot jagged peaks of the sawtooths. I’m not liking what I’m seeing ahead, looks like it could be some newly formed mist above and in the clouds.The air is smooth as silk… I look at my passenger and force a smile, she senses my hesitation and gives me a wink. Done this many times before but lets climb higher and avoid the mist. Check the map, all systems good, trim a little more. Oh shit, look up and moisture forming on the windshield. Damn, what is the air temperature, 31 degrees. I don’t like this. Clouds are rising and becoming thicker. Look at the map….. , look back at jagged Sawtooths and not good… Just past Grandjean Idaho. Look down for reference and now just scattered breaks in the clouds. Punch the GPS, the trusted Garmin 295 responds with a closer view of location. Look out at my wing, damnit, thats ice and its forming fast. Climb climb, screw the throttle to the wall. Now what the hell, engine is choking, about to die, what the hell, mixture good, ok ice in the carb, pull full carb heat on, more choking. More tweaking of the engine controls. Friend asks me if were turning. Hear my first flight instructor saying “First, fly the damn plane”, look at the artificial horizon and i’m diving and banking left. Straighten out the plane and back on heading. Carb has cleared and now have power again, climb climb. Now mist is more solid, that sick gray look is all to see out the window. More ice on the wing, windshield is iced up now and no way to look foward, all in seconds. Plane is heavy with ice now can’t climb, can’t turn around, over no wheres ville. I’m either going to decend in a controlled way or fall out of the sky to heavy to fly. I swallow hard and look at my trusting friend. The fear is apparent in her face but she is being calm and collected. I don’t know what to say, have I just killed us both……..I say I’m sorry and to prepare for a possible crash landing. The thoughts that go through ones mind when it appears its time to meet The Maker….A calm and warmth spreads through my body as I put to use everything I have ever learned about flying……Dear God this would be easier if I was by myself. As I lower the nose and regain airspeed I magnify my GPS screen. Our only hope is if I can fly down into the south fork of the payette canyon and pop out of the clouds or warm enough to melt the ice. I am flying as slow as I can to maintain control and twisting my willing plane with every turn of the river by following my GPS. The canyon is narrow but at least if we crash we are close to Hi 21. I swallow hard as I see my altitude slowly decrease, more ice, heavy now, but she responds to every move of my hand, every touch of my foot. I’m a test pilot, heavy laden with ice, wing no longer as effective……….Can’t see out the windshield, open the door and look out. The cold June mountain air takes your breath away with the now open side doors. No sign of the ground. I tell my friend to look for anything, trees rocks……. anything. I look at my altitude, either I’m going to see something soon or have impact. Having trouble holding airspeed with each twist of the river on the GPS I’m scared one wing will stall and we’ll spin into the ground. Wait, my friend saw a tree. I stammer “ABOVE OR BELOW US!”, and she replies our level on the left. I glue my eyes to my gps and decend enough to continue flying. Follow the little blue line on the screen, feel every turn, don’t loose the blue line of the river! Big turn just ahead, almost 180 degrees, can she do it… As I throw the stick right , pull hard and step on the right rudder I catch sight of a passing rock to my right. I’m in the canyon and its tight, flying blind in a airplane barely controlable, heavy with ice. My friend sees the water below us and yells out over the noise of the open door were about 200 foot above it. I descend 50 more feet and now I’m out of the mist and clouds. AND WERE MELTING OFF. I continue to fly through the canyon and notice a semi on the road, I can read his company name on his door. The Husky is flying well again, ice is coming off in sheets, can see out the window. Time to close the door. I think I can make Garden Valley, good strip there. Now it starts raining hard as I close in on the Garden Valley airport. I radio the field and the Garden Valley fire base ask me if they can be any help, they must know I have been through hell……. and back. I’m sure they are wondering where the hell I came from… I twist the Husky around for the last turn of the flight as I line up on the welcome grass runway. We roll to a stop and I get out and kiss the wet ground in the rain. I don’t think I could have pulled it off with any other plane and thank goodness for the GPS…….. Two of the best mountain pilots Idaho has ever know, God rest their souls: Bob Plummer Challis and Bob Danner Stanley were not so lucky… Bob Plummer taught me soooo much about mountain flight…… skills learned from him helped save our lives. Mountain flying can take you to some of the most amazing views in the lower 48, and, can also be very dangerous. We choose our risks in life and live by our preparation…….. I finally told the story, its still hard to talk about. June 2006, and by the way, she flew with me the rest of that summer……

    • Dave B says:

      WOW! Thanks for sharing your story – and please continue to do so as it may save lives by making others think twice about pushing their weather limits. I’m going to pass your story along to my pilot friends!

      I did my first mountain flying this past summer across the Colorado Rockies. I had excellent weather but was still a bit on edge (i.e. not a lot of good options if there’s engine trouble).

      Take Care!

    • Richard says:

      Climbing to minimum en route altitude before heading into the mountains gives you a lot more options.

    • Backcountry Poseur says:

      Idaho Pilot,

      Your story brings back bad memories and cold sweat.

      I had made a precautionary landing at a strip at the head of a 50 mile long river canyon to check the weather. While on the ground, I saw a plane flying up the river under the low clouds, grabbed my handheld and asked him how the conditions were. He said it was ok, but to stay with the river when it left the highway near the end of the canyon. I thought, well, if he can do it, I should be able to. I took off and flew down the river canyon below the clouds. As the river descended, the cloud bases did too. The highest I could go was about 200′ agl. When the river went into Lake Shasta, the highway disappeared up into the clouds. I followed the lake towards the dam. Just few miles beyond was town and an airport. Then I remembered the powerhouse on the afterbay, and the power lines that criss-cross the river below the dam. There was just enough clearance below the clouds to clear the lines by, maybe, 100 feet. There was a black wall approaching the strip in town, so I made a short approach and got on the ground. The sky opened up the moment I cut the engine. That was in 1989, and writing this brings back the memories of how it looked out the windscreen and how it felt. I was too busy flying to be afraid, which was probably a good thing. Once safely on the ground, I feel apart. The memory of how it looked in the canyon still terrifies me.

      To Mac’s point, it was bad enough that I did this myself, but my (ex) wife was with me as well. She had no idea how dangerous it was or what a terrible decision I had made. It made me question whether my judgment is really sound enough to be a pilot and to take family or friends along with me. I didn’t give up flying, but I still carry those doubts with me. I would like to think that they make me more careful and conservative.

      Although I have more than 2000 hours and fly an average of 80-90 hours/year, I am not instrument rated. Why not? The answer is a combination of workload, limited time and expense.

      None of the airplanes I have owned or can afford is certified for flight into known icing. In the west where I live, the MEAs are all above the freezing level throughout the winter. With the exception of early morning stratus, the weather the rest of the year is VMC. So the value of the rating to me is busting through early morning stratus or emergency escape in case I ever blunder VFR into IMC. It’s not all that difficult to plan my trips around times when the stratus isn’t an issue, which is most of the time.

      Those with the rating all seem to agree that the legal minimums for being current fall far short of the amount of flying that is needed to remain proficient. The vast majority of instrument rated pilots I know are not current or, if they are current, they do not fly enough under IFR to feel proficient.

      From an expense standpoint, it’s a minimum of 10k to upgrade my panel from steam gauges to an IFR GPS. 10 days minimum to get the rating, and who knows how much gas @$6/gallon to do the training and then maintain proficiency.

      Finally, there’s the workload and the time commitment. I’m comfortable with my VFR piloting skills when I fly 100 hours/year. That a fair amount of time and money. How much more would I need to fly in order to feel comfortable flying in IMC with my family? For what marginal benefit? I learned to fly in order to save time on weekend trips and to go places that were too far to drive comfortable on a limited time schedule. I’ve learned to park the airplane and rent a car or fly home on the airlines (done both a few times), so the time utility of private flying isn’t what I had thought it would be when I started out. On the times I’ve parked the plane, an instrument rating wouldn’t have made continuing possible. It was either wait it out, or find another way home.

      I spend enough time at the hangar, dealing with maintenance issues and practicing air work and touch and goes as it is. If I get the rating, I’ll need to find a safety pilot and dedicate more precious weekend hours away from family to shooting approaches. And I’ll have to file on every flight, even if it’s CAVU, get vectored to heck and back on what could have been a simple VFR hop. Eventually, I’d do what most of my pilot friends have done, which is forget about keeping current, let alone proficient, and go back to my VFR flight routines. For 20 years+ now, I’ve decided to save the time and money. my perspective, for what it’s worth.

      • Bob Berman says:

        Exactly right!

      • Jake Brodsky says:

        There are two issues here:

        First there is the issue of getting the Instrument Rating. If you don’t have it, I recommend it. It teaches a great deal about how the system works and how to fly safely when you are in the goo. However, you can also choose to study it but not take the test if you don’t want the actual rating.

        Second, there is the issue of keeping it current and using those skills. Nobody is forcing you do to that. Use of those skills and that rating is entirely at your discretion, just as the decision of whether you are medically fit to fly is ultimately your decision.

        I am mostly a VFR pilot with IFR recurrency training. I keep my skills for doing instrument approaches current only for emergency use. The airports I use are all done in VMC or better and the routes all have acceptable ceilings for VMC use. I have been a weekend pilot for years and I plan my flights accordingly. I mostly use IFR flight plans and practices to help me stay safe around the Washington DC ADIZ.

        This notion that having the the IFR rating will encourage people to continue VFR in to IMC is no different than assuming that people who receive mountain flying training will be encouraged to get in trouble in mountainous areas. Yes, it happens, but there is also an issue of cause-and-effect.

        In general, I find that pilot ratings are often treated like merit badges by people who are really good at passing tests, but who may lack any sort of common sense. “I have an IFR rating, so it is OK for me to continue in to this goo” is the sort of thing that needs to be stamped out by everyone from CFIIs, DEs, and magazine editorial articles.

  8. Steve Macon says:

    I have been an aircraft accident investigator for over 20 years and have seen many instances where the urge to get there over comes the common sense to stay on the ground. I have seen reference to use of auto pilots and an autopilot can be a great thing in single pilot operations however relying on an autopilot has also contributed to accidents when it fails and the pilot has lost or never had the ability to cope with the situation he/she has allowed themselves to get into. Truth is the lack of good judgement at times is rather wide spread from private to ATP rated pilots.

  9. LibGeo says:

    Thank you Idaho Pilot for relating your experience so well. That was a gripping story. I re-experienced my own fear over much lower hilly terrain in a low-powered aircraft with my wife. What amazed me afterward is I had a functioning gps and I still kept going on course until I reached an area that I knew to be out of the hills. I had been turning to avoid banks of cumulus (looking for a way through them) and I thought I had lost the 180 degree bearing! My lesson learned (other than not to try to find a path through cumulus) is to look at the gps for the path back (the recommended 180 degree turn) at the first sign of trouble.

  10. Bob Berman says:

    The “get your IFR ticket” is a kind of mantra. But I’m a 1,900 hour VFR-only pilot who believes it’s SAFER not to get that ticket. Rather, instead, to have periodic “hood work” to be proficient in IMC “just in case” and to stay out of the soup period. Why? Look at the Null report. Single-pilot flying in actual IMC is the most dangerous kind of flying there is. It’s NOT safe. The workload is too high. Especially for those who just barely keep up their currency. I know myself. If I had the IFR ticket, I’d want to justify its cost. I’d sometimes take my family up in the soup, if coming back from a vacation necessitated it. My point is: For some of us, that ticket is not the key. Instead, the best policy is the discipline to stay out of IMC, period.

  11. terry friedman says:

    WOW!!!!!! Great story, and written as if you have been doing it professionally all your life. I hope the significance of the tale is not lost on the reader in the beauty of the prose. Thanks for sharing it.

  12. Jake Brodsky says:

    It’s all about discipline. Some people refuse to accept that they didn’t get the weather that was forecast. So they take chances that in retrospect look extremely foolish.

    Example: I was flying out of Tampa Florida, IFR. I had hoped to pick up some tail-winds, but encountered slight headwinds instead. My destination without wind would have been a four hour flight on five hours of fuel. However, due to delay of several hours getting to the airport, I got a later start than I really wanted. Strike 1. Nevertheless, there I was, at 8 PM in winter. It’s dark outside. I’ve been flying in to headwinds practically the whole way. I am nearing my last hour of fuel and I still have 60 nm to get to my destination. Strike 2.

    What do I do? My destination was an airport that had the only runway lights I knew of least 30 nm in every direction. If I can’t land there for whatever reason, I may not have enough fuel to get to another airport with runway lights and fuel or an hotel. It took only a minute to decide. There was an airport 15 nm off to my right. It wasn’t where I wanted to go. But it was available, and I might even be able to get fuel.

    I landed. It was too late to get fuel. I spent the night in an expensive fleabag hotel. My fuel purchase the next morning was just shy of 40 gallons out of my 50 gallon capacity. I continued homeward the next day and arrived late, but safely. Could I have made it to my original destination? Probably. But if anything had gone wrong, I might not have had sufficient reserves to get to another airport.

    I have no doubt that I made the right decision. And sometimes you find yourself in an expensive fleabag of an hotel, far away from home. It happens. I didn’t make a complete home run. In fact, I only got as far as first base. But it’s better than striking out.

    You take the weather you have and you make the best of it.

  13. DanO says:

    I have always stressed with my students: First get a thorough weather briefing, then, once you lift off, the only weather report that matters is the one you see through the windshield.
    I don’t believe that you can get caught in weather without having had some warning in time to get out safely. Every pilot that got in a jam because of weather has thought sometime earlier, “This is not looking good. I better get out of here.” And then he didn’t act on that thought at that time.

  14. Pete Kuhns says:

    Every new pilot has to experience one ‘really stupid decision’ to understand how serious VFR into IMC really is.

    I am a newly minted pilot and on my first big x-country I made that ‘really stupid decision’ to keep on truckin’. The gods/universe/randomness/luck let me live to tell about it.

    I bet 90% of all pilots have made that ‘really stupid decision’ that led to VFR-into-IMC. (I wonder if gender has anything to do with it.)

    Some pilots live, some don’t. When the latter take others to their death, it is horribly tragic.

  15. Mike in Florida says:

    I used to be critical of others doing this but two years ago, I was trying to get home and was within 7 miles when the celing dropped. In hindsight, it was the dumbest thing I have ever done in a plane…didn’t even tell my wife when I got home. The allure of being this close to home base makes you think you can make it. I got out of it due to about 2 hours of actual training in IMC for my instrument rating (which I did not complete) and with a 180 turn but it still brings back memories I don’t like. It was tempting at the time since I wanted to be in my own hanger but I will NEVER do this again. Yes it was wrong but unless you have had this temptation, you can’t appreciate why many do this who are experienced pilots.

  16. Bill Hall says:

    This is an excellent article and brings back memories of flying in less than ideal weather. One thing I am very thankful for is the flight training I received in Collingwood Ontario Canada. Flying under the hood and doing turns etc. One of the most challenging I think is maintaining level flight and direction and not deviate from the intended direction to an airport unless terrain or extreme weather does not allow a normal heading to destination. The training I received also for a failed engine saved my life one day years ago when I had a total engine failure. I can remember my instructor saying Fly The Plane and maintain control Then land when able.

  17. I can list many times where the weather was other than forecast and I didn’t make my destination due to the 180 turn getting in the way. But as I’ve said many times, contrary to popular belief weather does “sometimes” sneak up on the unwary pilot. Also the few hours of hood work for the private is woefully inadequate for flying in IMC. It *might* be enough to make a 180 (which is the reason for that training) if the situation is recognized early enough and there’s some luck riding on your shoulder…AND the pilot is willing, or capable of admitting they need to turn around.

    Every pilot should not only take advantage of all weather information available, they should learn a bit of meteorology. Being able to put my own interpretation on the charts and then comparing it to the pros has caused more than one deviation, delay, or cancellation for a day or two. Even with today’s advanced technology you can count on the weather being a bit different than forecast and it’s safest to expect it.

    I’ve mentioned getting caught in weather where it didn’t sneak up on you. Some years back my wife and I were headed to Florida. We stopped to top off the tanks in Tennessee. The last 20 or 30 miles had been high overcast with sprinkles which is exactly what the forecast had been. The forecast and RADAR were still showing the serious rain from about Athens Ga and South. When we landed it was still high overcast and sprinkles.

    We refueled, got something to eat, checked the updated weather including discussing it with a briefer and came up with more of the same. So we decided to head South and East to the coast where the forecast was a bit better.

    We were cleared for departure and with just a few rain drops on the windshield headed down the runway. Just as we lifted off the sky opened up with torrential rain. I could just make out the runway lights to the side and about 20 feet below us. Absolutely zero visibility ahead. I was far more comfortable continuing on than trying to land when I couldn’t see where I was going…

    The conversation with the tower went something like: Me: Ahhh, where’d this come from? It’s supposed to be a 100 miles South” Tower: “We didn’t expect it either. Me: “We’ll continue. If it doesn’t get better we’ll head back North. Turning crosswind.” Me as we turned down wind: “On top at 3000 (I forget the actual altitude) We”ll head East to the VOR and decide whether to head back North or continue to the coast.”. I don’t remember the controller’s response, but I do remember the relief in his voice. At 10 miles I reported light rain between layers with a high ceiling. At that point the tower came on and reported they were now closed to VFR traffic and accepting IFR arrivals only. BTW that was one of the smoothest rides I can recall.

    That controller knew we were in solid IMC, I knew he knew, and he knew I knew he knew. They were being nice to us. The point is that I had to make the transition from VFR to IFR at a very low altitude unexpectedly. There was no visual warning and none in the forecast. Switching to the gauges was just automatic. Also the few hours of hood time for the private would have never prepared me for those conditions. I did not get excited, I remained calm on the radio., and used the proper terminology. (BTW my wife still remembers that departure) <:-))

    I have to give credit to the instructors I had as they put me through about half of my Instrument training in actual and right down to minimums. The only excuse for canceling was icing, thunderstorms, or cross winds beyond the airframes capabilities on landing(25 mph @ 90 deg). They even had me shooting practice approaches (VORs and NDBs) and holds with just one nav radio with very strong cross winds. The descending hold using the NDB and a watch, on a windy day was quite educational.<:-)) We did have a nice hand held GPS with recording capability so he'd show me how well (or how sloppy) I did *AFTER* we were done for the day. They'd often work me into "mental overload" which is something every pilot should be aware of. Spend enough time working at the edge of you abilities, or in over your head and your mind just quits working rationally. you just keep getting farther and farther behind until you are disconnected from what you thought you were doing. The only thing that'd make it worse would be a case of vertigo on top. <:-)) Flying approaches with your head "in the bag" is…. difficult.

  18. Rae Willis says:

    Continued VFR–Mac, your picture of the mountain implies you are referring to the crash at Shiprock in the Superstition Mountains the day before Thanksgiving. The visibility was 20 and the sky clear. More appropriately the Cirrus crash in IL fits your narrative. What was your reference?

  19. Thomas Boyle says:

    Indefinite ceiling/haze over water. It can definitely creep up on you.

  20. Try 5000, 8000, or 10000 and 10 miles. Great VFR, but you still have no definite horizon over water. Visibility has to be close to unlimited before you have a horizon.

  21. Cary Alburn says:

    In some 39 years of flying, 37 with an IR, I’ve certainly seen the weather sneak up on me from time to time, although I’m pretty picky about checking it, and meterology is a bit of a hobby, too. I typically check the night before a long trip and then just before leaving for the airport. But often what creates IMC isn’t necessarily forecasted. So I have to disagree with Mac that it doesn’t sneak up on a pilot—sometimes it does. When it does, the pilot needs the tools to combat it.

    I believe that a pilot does himself/herself a disservice not to seek an instrument rating. The skills that are learned in the process improve overall piloting skills. To say “I don’t need it because…(for whatever reason)” is a form of excuse. I’ve never flown a “known ice” airplane, but I’ve used my instrument skills over and over throughout my flying career. At the least, it makes cross country flying easier and safer. At the most, it means increasing the likelihood of safely arriving at one’s destination. It’s not a substitute for having to make go-no go decisions; in fact, sometimes it makes those decisions harder. And yes, it’s not easy to keep current or proficient—but then, nothing worth doing is easy, is it?

    I also believe that relying on automation in lieu of piloting skills is a terrific mistake. As a practical matter, many pilots fly autopilot equipped airplanes without ever bothering to learn how to operate the autopilot. Most of the airplanes I’ve flown in my flying career have not had autopilots, but those that did were not infallible. I’ve had a very sophisticated major brand autopilot in a very well maintained airplane suddenly command a hard right turn that nearly inverted the airplane because I was slow to react and shut it off. I’ve had a different brand but equally sophisticated autopilot suddenly drop off line with no warning other than it stopped holding altitude and course. So while they’re useful and can materially reduce a single pilot’s workload, they aren’t the solution to reducing VFR into IMC accidents.

    I have accidentally climbed VFR into a ragged indistinct ceiling. I have flown VFR into what appeared to be marginal VMC but which suddenly turned to IMC. I have arrived at destinations that were supposed to be good VFR but had to shoot an approach because they weren’t. I have shot approaches that could not be completed because the current ceiling or visibility (usually both) dropped while I was on the approach, necessitating going to an alternate. I have unexpectedly caught ice due to an inversion which materially changed the handling of the airplane. I have had carburetor ice which caused the engine to run rough until it cleared, and I’ve had impact ice which clogged the intake of a fuel injected engine enough to make it quit running until I opened the alternate air door, although there was no ice on the wings. I’ve lost airspeed indication due to a frozen pitot, although the snow showers were light enough that good VFR could be maintained. I’m sure there were others that I could recall with more effort.

    But with all those adverse events, I (and my passengers) survived because I had been taught well by my instructors, and I kept calm and methodically solved the problems presented. To me, that is the key to reducing the continuing VFR into IMC accident rate, good training, which leads to being calm enough to solve the problems with the skills that have been learned. It won’t eliminate accidents, but the better a pilot is trained, the less likely he/she is to encounter unexpected situations, the better he/she will respond to situations presented, and there is a much greater likelihood that his/her flight will conclude safely.

  22. Fred Anderka says:

    As a newly minted pilot I embarked mid-winter on a VFR flight from the Ottawa area to Florida in my trusty C-182. The weather forecast looked good with no precipitation or snow forecast for the next 5 hours between Ottawa and Danville, my overnight stop.
    After clearing customs in Syracuse I got another weather briefing and was assured that my route to Danville was VMC with a slight haze until about 9 PM EST when light snow was forecast.
    With all this reassuring information and high cirrus I launched before noon for a 3 1/2 hour flight to Danville. For added security I requested flight following and was on my oblivious way. About one hour into the flight I noticed the odd snow flake and thought this was strange that the snow appeared so fast. On asking center if their radar showed any precipitation, they replied that I was in the clear with nothing showing on the radar. Unfortunately the weather was NOT clear and the snow got heavier very quickly. Fortunately it was cold enough that it did not stick to the airframe. At that point I decided to do a 180 and get out of there, to my horror, the weather behind me was even worse with black clouds going right to the ground, back to original course. Center opined that there were “light” returns from my location and that the weather ahead of me was better, Danville was CAVU but still 2 hours away.
    To stay in contact with the ground I descended to the clearance altitude which was scary in central Pennsylvania with lots of hills and lots of towers. The C-182 was not equipped with terrain display, just an old Trimble GPS, my handheld also did not have terrain. The prospect of tangling with some tower was just too scary and I decided to climb higher into the soup and trust my hood training to keep me right side up and on course (no autopilot) with center advising me of any traffic, as if there was some other idiot flying in this mess.
    I was constantly checking the ATIS/ASOS of close airports for better conditions approaching VFR. After another ½ hour of flying in IMC, the Hagerstown ASOS claimed a clear sky that was confirmed by the tower. I thought this was strange as I was only 10 miles away but I had enough of this mess and wanted to be on the ground in the worst way. Tower cleared me for left base to 09 and assured me that they had clear skies. I was starting to doubt both my 2 GPS’s and the VOR as to my location, 5 miles from the airport I was still in heavy snow. At about 2 miles I popped out of the clouds 2000’ above the runway. The tower quizzed me “What are your intension?” A steep 270 spiraling descent with 40° flaps and I was safely on the ground. I didn’t exactly kiss the ground but I said a silent prayer and thanked my instructor for the training that saw me through a situation that has proven fatal to so many VFR pilots.
    About 10 minutes after landing, the snow hit the airport and closed it for two days.

  23. MAXWELL MacKENZIE says:

    These gripping, first-person accounts of near-misses are some of the most fascinating and instructive words I have ever read. Thank all of you very much for sharing these experiences. I have no doubt, that by taking the time to write here, you have saved lives.

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  25. Graeme Smith says:

    So today – I kid you not.

    It is MVFR around the RI airport. Swinging back and forth as the 3000ft broken and 2600ft broken scurries across the horizon. It is 10 mile plus under the broken layer in all directions – even to the west. But it is grayer to the west. The cold front is lying across the PA / NY border and it is definitely solid IFR to the west of the border. The RI TAF’s are indicating it will become VFR but it never really does, the satellite pictures show it is going to be a crap shoot all day. I start to put the plane away. I have two Yound eagles who are a bit disappointed and a little windering of my explanation everytime a blue patch appears over the field for a few minutes.

    A taxi and a rental car arrive at the airport. Two groups jump out. One asks how the taxiway is laid out to get to what he assumes is the active (it is not the active but no one is flying so it is whatever he wants to make of it). Off they go to the transient tie downs and start a cursory preflight.

    The second party asks where the airport manager is. They need to leave their rental keys with him. The FBO is shorthanded because staff are out sick and the manager has gone for a quick lunch. After all – no one is flying – right?

    I ask the car renter where he is headed. He tells me an airport in PA. I ask him if he has filed. He tells me he is a VFR only pilot. I suggest he might want to hang onto the rental keys till he has looked at the forecast and the satellite shot I just looked at. This brings him up short. He looks at the shot I just finished pulling down, pulls up a few TAF’s to the west and mildly curses under his breath.

    As I go out to secure my plane I see him on the phone to the rental company asking about keeping the car and taking it on a long drive west. The first group have just performed a cursory pre-flight, taxied out, barely run up and are off into the wide blue/gray yonder. If they stay below 2000ft they might make it to the Long Island airport I think I heard them say they were headed for. Of course they will never get high enough for a glide across the water if they do. If they go over the top through one of the many holes – they will get over the top – but who knows if there will be a hole for them to get down through?

    The second driver is getting back into the rental and briefly calls across his thanks for my help. I can’t help but wonder if he would have just dropped his keys and gone if the airport manager had been around.

    This is a true story. It happened this afternoon.

  26. Cary Alburn says:

    PT Barnum said it best: “There’s a sucker born every minute.” Change “sucker” to “foolish pilot”.

    Just a few years ago, I had just put my airplane in its hangar at Downtown Fort Collins at about 9 p.m. Since then it has been closed; it was a single runway, about 4000′ x 40′, lit all night. An Archer made a low pass over the runway–he’d intended to land, but misjudged and wisely went around when he would have touched down in the last half of the runway. I drove out to where I could see if he made it in, and again he made a low pass. On the third try, he landed and taxied in. When he shut down, I walked up to the wing to see if I could help him. As he and his wife exited the airplane, he asked, “Is this Cheyenne?”

    Cheyenne is a huge airport, with one runway 9300 x 150 and the other 6700 x 150. It would be hard to mistake old Downtown Fort Collins for Cheyenne. First clue.

    We had a short discussion. They had left Jackson, WY, just before dark enroute to Longmont, CO, and had flown over the ridge between Jackson and Dubois in the dark (scary in itself), second clue. Just about the time they flew over Dubois, his hand-held GPS batteries ran out, and he couldn’t remember how to use the VORs, third clue. So they followed the state highway to Riverton, then to Jeffrey City (which is nearly abandoned and has almost no lights at night) to Rawlins and then I-80 to Laramie. I-80 comes into Laramie from the north, so they thought that they were still following I-80 out of Laramie by going straight (without reference to the DG or compass, apparently) but instead followed US 287 south to Fort Collins, which is why he had asked me if they were in Cheyenne. Fourth clue.

    He said that the gas gauges must be bad, because they were both reading empty, but he’d only been in the air for a little over 4 hours but knew that it held 6 hours of fuel, but “for safety”, he wanted to gas up. Fifth clue. I had flown SE charters in an Archer, and I knew that to be wrong–an Archer’s tanks hold 50 gallons total, 48 gallons usable, which equates to about 4 hours plus 45 minutes reserve if leaned properly. When I told him that the FBO was closed, he asked how far away Fort Collins/Loveland was, and I told him about 7 miles. He said to his wife that they would fly over to there, and I called to see if the Jet Center was still open. It was, but then I pulled the gas cap in the right wing, and I could not see any fuel. I then went to the left wing–same thing. I suggested that I would rather lend them my truck to drive to Longmont and they could arrange to return it the next day, than for them to risk flying over Fort Collins to FNL to get gas.

    About that time, one of the employees of the FBO flew in from a cross country flight, and he was willing to gas up the Archer. I stood there to see how much fuel he put in–48 1/2 gallons! No doubt that they would have crashed shortly after take off, if they hadn’t refueled.

    How many clues does it take to make a foolish pilot rethink what he should do? How could anyone obtain a private certificate, without the ability to judge whether to leave a mountainous terrain airport in the dark, to fly to nearly empty tanks in the dark, to be able to navigate only by following roads in the dark through mountainous terrain, to mistake a tiny one lung airport for a large airport, etc., etc.? How could any man put himself and someone he professes to love through such a series of high risk decisions?

    When I was instructing, I learned that it is hard to teach judgment–some people just go through life clueless. For some, there is no answer to the question, what can we do to improve safety. VFR into IFR is obviously not the only problem that needs to be solved.

    • Jake Brodsky says:

      Some people dance through life, going through the motions, without knowing why. They pass tests; they answer questions; everything is just another merit badge. However, they are largely incapable of applying the knowledge they supposedly learned.

      Such people can be found in many endeavors, and unfortunately this includes aviation. We know they exist. We do our best to establish reasonable exams and performance tests that will avoid passing such people. But alas, these dancers are often exquisitely capable of passing tests.

      Were I in your shoes, I would show him the fuel ticket; tell him the capacity of his aircraft; and hand an ASRS form to him with a warning that I was going to report him to the FSDO near his home base. One way or another, this guy will either ‘fess up and learn, or he’ll get cited and perhaps leave aviation. If the former, perhaps he’ll do alright. If the latter, well, although we really need more aviators, we don’t need them that badly.

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    • Roger Halstead says:

      I come back to read this every few months as I find the various answer fascinating and as I said back in December I disagree that weather always sneaks up on a pilot. Sometimes, far too many times, it turns to crap with very little warning and hopefully “the way out” we have left ourselves is sufficient. I always left myself a way out even if it was CAVU and over several thousand hours of both IFR and VFR I really needed that “way out” and am probably still here today because of that one addition to my flight plan.

      If I chronicled my encounters with weather and engine failures, I could at least fill a good size magazine, or maybe book while the training I had kept me alive. If I chronicled all the things I’ve seen pilots do that could have easily gotten them killed, it’d be a big book.

      BTW I used to flight plan 5 1/2 hour of fuel and never came close except once. Coming home from Ga, one winter day in sixty Juliet I found it was a rough ride at any altitude, so I went up to around 9500, backed off on the throttle leaned aggressively and tightened my seatbelt for a long ride knowing my wife had problems with that kind of ride.

      Coming over Northern Ky we were approaching 5 1/2 hours when ATC called and questioned if I planned on stopping to refuel. I assured then that the calculated fuel burn at those settings and altitude was verified by the gauges. When we landed at Cincinnati Lunken after nearly 6 1/2 hours we had nearly 20 gallons left which at normal cruise would have run dry an hour earlier.

      Backing off to economy cruise made a huge difference because at normal cruise with those winds we would have used nearly twice as much, or run dry well short of our destination.

      There were 5 as partners in the old Cherokee. The pilot who flew the most flew the least. Think about that. He didn’t make all that many flights but when he did they were fairly long as in Midland to St Louis. So he had a lot of hours, but very little experience.

      He made this trip many times a year, as in 5 to 7 at least. One time coming home he had a bodacious head wind. Like far too many pilots he was thinking distance and not time aloft.

      I was at the airport when he and his family landed and taxied up to the pumps. If the size of the tanks was correct he had 1/2 gallon total in both tanks. Not enough to even do a go-around on landing.

      Even after explaining about head winds and time aloft he still didn’t appear to understand why he used so much gas. Fortunately he gave up flying due to business pressure.

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