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.