by Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman
© Copyright 2022. All rights reserved!
Published in Midwest Flyer Magazine June/July 2022 Digital Issue
I recently received a text message from a friend, who found a Piper PA-32 Cherokee Six he wanted me to look at. While looking at the aircraft’s description, I noticed that the N-number was similar to the N-number of an aircraft that another close friend and his passenger were killed flying in 1984, when they flew into instrument flight conditions unexpectedly.
A study done in 1954 by the University of Illinois entitled “178 Seconds To Live,” referred to a flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) by a VFR pilot. I now have an interesting topic for this article and, hopefully, some advice for pilots who could find themselves in this situation.
I wish I could say that this is a cut-and-dried situation, and if you followed my instructions, you’ll be okay, but unfortunately, there are lots of variables that can come into play.
It is sometimes suggested that when a VFR pilot encounters instrument flight conditions that he should make a 180-degree turn and climb or descend depending on the circumstances. This can sometimes be a difficult flight operation as “vertigo” can set in.
I can say I have yet to find a pilot who can look me in the eye and say they have never experienced vertigo. A well-respected former FAA safety inspector and good friend of mine, Jimmy Szajkovics, used to travel around Wisconsin doing safety seminars with a vertigo chair, and he made believers out of many pilots.
First, let’s look at the type of aircraft you are flying and the equipment you have onboard, as well as your knowledge of using this equipment.
For instance, my J-3 Cub has an altimeter, airspeed indicator, compass, and engine gauges. There is not even a turn coordinator, but it does have a coordination ball. My guess, in days long gone, a pilot used a paper chart and would follow roads or railroad tracks. There was very little controlled airspace at that time, and one mile/clear of clouds was the rule, now classified as Class G airspace. Cruising at 60 mph gave you plenty of time to avoid towers and obstacles, which were few to be found. My first trip to the EAA Fly-In in Rockford, Illinois, was a trip like that in an Aeronca L-3. Today, such a trip would be a lot scarier with cell phone towers everywhere.
A few weeks ago, I finished my online flight instructor refresher course, which I usually do in person, but because of covid concerns, I opted for an online course this time. (I would recommend “Aviation Seminars” for anyone needing a refresher or looking to acquire a new rating.)
The topic of “VFR into IMC” was emphasized in the seminar in a scenario using a “technically advanced aircraft.” Would John F. Kennedy, Jr. have survived if he had known how to use his autopilot? The consensus is yes!
The best procedure to survive a situation of being VFR and flying into IMC is to avoid the situation entirely, but that’s not always possible. We have all penetrated into weather a bit longer than we should have, or the weather just dropped in on us without any warning, so we need to be prepared, just in case.
I was training with an instructor for my commercial pilot certificate out of Kenosha, Wisconsin some 50-plus years ago, above a scattered cloud deck, when lake effect fog moved in from Lake Michigan and there was no place to go. Everything was down within reason, and we ended up declaring an emergency and doing an ILS approach into General Mitchell International Airport in Milwaukee. Below minimums, I would have called it a “zero-zero” landing. I was not yet instrument rated, but my instructor was. Some paperwork was required after landing, but we survived!
The term “scud running” has been around since the word airplane was added to our vocabulary, and it will be around forever. Many pilots have died trying it, and I must say, I have done it a time or two, but would not recommend it, unless it is the last resort with no place to land. If you are flying a high-performance or technically advanced aircraft and have an autopilot, I would turn on the autopilot and climb, even if that meant entering clouds. Put distance between you and the ground as soon as you can. There is far less chance of colliding with another aircraft than an obstacle on the ground (big sky, little airplane theory).
Now, it is time to confess your problem. ATC will help you… Just don’t hesitate to use the “E-word.” The frequency to start with is 121.5 Mhz. If you are instrument rated, do the same thing, but don’t wait too long… the ground or obstacles can smack you if you hesitate. Statistics show that of the accidents related to VFR into IMC, 43% of these pilots held an instrument rating.
As mentioned earlier, there is not a solution that will work for every situation of VFR into IMC, but I will give you a few points to consider.
If you are trapped, you must make a decision (i.e., aeronautical decision making). Don’t think about the Federal Aviation Regulations (FARs)… This is an emergency and survival is the goal. A bad decision may have gotten you into this weather, or it could have just dropped in on you, but you must make a decision based on your best judgment at the time.
What type of aircraft are you flying? If it is a helicopter, a Piper Cub or some other STOL aircraft, you might find a nearby airport or a field to land in.
Are you instrument rated or flying a technically advanced aircraft? If you are familiar with the autopilot, you should initiate a climb. Pitch up somewhere between 5 and 10 degrees on the attitude indicator (single-engine) and fly straight ahead, depending on your aircraft. Do not make a climbing turn as this can induce vertigo. If you are in mountainous terrain, that may be different. Fly the airplane first – Aviate, Navigate, Communicate. If you continue to climb, you have a good chance of getting between cloud layers or on top of an overcast. Once on top or between layers, you then need to decide again on where you want to go, so “Navigate.” This is where you may want to make a 180-degree turn if you know there is good weather behind you, but this is not always the case – you might be trapped. Let’s Communicate… ATC is there to help you. If you are a VFR pilot, don’t hesitate to declare an emergency, and use the “E word.” If you are an instrument-rated pilot, stay VFR if possible, and ask for some advice on where to go and then get an instrument clearance.
Analyze your situation. How is your fuel supply? Is there icing or thunderstorms in the area? Your survival is based on your experience, your ability to make good decisions, and to remain calm.
To sum it up, if you encounter IMC while flying VFR or lose situational awareness, always consider a climb as an option. American Airlines flight #965 is a good example. Study that accident here: https://code7700.com/case_study_american_airlines_965.htm.
“Altitude is almost always your friend.”
EDITOR’S NOTE: Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman is a Certified Instrument Flight Instructor (CFII) and the program manager of flight operations with the “Bonanza/Baron Pilot Training” organization. He conducts pilot clinics and specialized instruction throughout the U.S. in many makes and models of aircraft, which are equipped with a variety of avionics. Mick is based in Richland Center (93C) and Eagle River, Wisconsin (KEGV). He was named “FAA’s Safety Team Representative of the Year” for Wisconsin in 2008. Readers are encouraged to email questions to email@example.com, or call
DISCLAIMER: The information contained in this column is the expressed opinion of the author only, and readers are advised to seek the advice of their personal flight instructor and others, and refer to the Federal Aviation Regulations, FAA Aeronautical Information Manual, and instructional materials before attempting any procedures discussed herein.