VFR to IFR transitioning

February 1, 1999

We have all been skunked by an inaccurate forecast of bad weather. The weather turned out better than expected — good enough to fly VFR. Much less frequently, the forecast says little about low ceilings or visibilities and so we launch with optimism only to have a beautiful VFR fantasy slain by an ugly IMC fact. Having an instrument rating and the ability to use it is one of the best investments a pilot can make. My weather education continued on two trips last year where a good forecast turned into sour reality.

The first outing involved a trip to Lakeland, Florida, last spring during the Sun 'n Fun EAA Fly-In. Getting an IFR flight plan wasn't really in the cards unless you made a reservation two months in advance and predicted the arrival time within one minute of your actual arrival. (That is a slight exaggeration but IFR was heartily discouraged around Lakeland during the show.)

The 7 a.m. weather briefing showed a front off the west coast of Florida with some thunderstorms and general cloudiness. However, the forecast and reported weather from Jacksonville, Florida, down to Lakeland showed visibilities of five to eight miles and ceilings around 2,000 feet. For the flat country of Central Florida this seemed reasonable — look out for the TV towers, dodge the restricted and Class B airspace, and it should all work.

The first 15 minutes after an 8:40 a.m. takeoff were fine. Jacksonville Approach did a fine job of flight following accompanied by a handoff to Tampa Approach. But the 8:55 ATIS at Ocala, some 10 miles to the southwest, broadcast the ceiling at 900 overcast with three miles in fog. There were many more clouds and they were much lower than previously indicated.

Several other locations were reporting decreased ceilings and visibilities as well. This forced a descent to 1,000 agl and it was time for an alternate plan. Those of you who fly into airports where airshows are scheduled later in the day know that there is some pressure to make your entrance before the show starts. The field will close for hours while the performers are having their way with the airspace. We did not want to be late. That is not an operational consideration — just a major inconvenience to late arrivals.

The approach frequency got busy as pilots sorted out their alternatives. Only the air carriers had IFR clearances. Everyone else was seeing and avoiding. A few intrepid souls asked for IFR into Lakeland which was greeted with "You want to do what?" followed by "No!" Several VFRs bailed out for a return to Jacksonville and points east. I asked for a pop-up IFR clearance to an airport about 30 miles east. It was a good move and not a minute too soon for in another five miles we were in solid IMC. The flight was uneventful and the jog to the east led to good VFR conditions. We canceled IFR and flew VFR into Lakeland with no further delays. Only 15 minutes of solid IMC stood between the Mecca and several dozen aircraft making the pilgrimage. But wishful thinking doesn't make the clouds vanish.

But what about the forecast and the good reports? Very simply, the leading edge of the front had worked farther east than the models had predicted and the forecast did not reflect reality. There were a few pilots who proclaimed VFR, but they were probably cheating. No one will ever know — this time.

Later in the year, I again received a good forecast and METARs for a trip down the East Coast. There was nothing showing on the radar or The Weather Channel. The local TV weather gurus called for some mid-level clouds and above-average temperatures, and life was good. The only hint of any problem for VFR flight was an airmet suggesting the possibility of mountain obscuration and IFR conditions until noon. There was one pirep by a Jetstream commuter reporting light icing in the clouds with tops at 8,500.

In the northeast, a VFR flight can often save 15 to 20 minutes or more of procedure and redirection before the IFR system is able to accommodate the direction in which you want to fly. We launched, confident that in half an hour we would be out of the congested airspace and headed for the land of cotton and mint juleps.

Our initial altitude was 4,500 feet but the terrain was rising and it appeared that those mid-level clouds might actually be getting lower. The TV guy never did define "mid-level" and the pirep didn't give the bases. Déjà vu all over again. The approach controller who was handling VFR flight following was not having a great day. She was very busy and IFR pop-ups were clearly not high on her priority list. I asked for an IFR clearance to climb through the clouds to reach VFR conditions on top at 6,500. With sunlight beckoning through occasional breaks in the stratocumulus, this would be a piece of cake. Another VFR flight in the same area experiencing the squeeze play reversed course to return to the origin airport.

The tops were not at 6,000 feet, and light icing prompted me to make an immediate request for 8,000. After a short delay, 8,000 was approved. Still not on top at eight, and the ice continued to build. The controller's next inquiry was about the pilot's intentions. When The Question is asked, things are not going well and it's time to sell short. I stated that all we wanted was to go higher and IFR to Charleston, South Carolina, where the ice was in the drinks and the folks were gentle.

I should have taken the cue from the quickness of the controller's reply but I offered several GPS waypoints from the onboard IFR GPS that approximated a straight line and seemed like the quickest way out of a deteriorating meteorological and social situation. The controller snapped that she would provide the routing and, for now, the flight was cleared to hold at a nearby VOR for penance. She mentioned something about further clearance sometime before the weekend. Several minutes later, a routing with no resemblance to what had been laboriously loaded into the GPS came back. To add insult to injury, the waypoint prior to Charleston was Savannah. My knowledge of geography is limited, but my sense of timing was worse when I dared to mention that Savannah is about 80 miles south of Charleston — and I was approaching from the north.

Fortunately for all concerned, Washington Center providentially accepted the flight at that moment. Clearance into the sunshine above was granted and direct to CHS made life worth living again. It took more than an hour for the collected ice to sublimate.

What started as a simple VFR flight had turned into a high-workload situation because some subtle cues in the forecast were missed. The airmet and the pirep provided insight that there were enough clouds along the route to develop ice. I was lulled by a fabulous forecast, a wonderful TV report card, and metars of reporting stations that were widely dispersed in moutainous terrain. On the ground the forecast was right on the mark — but at 6,000 feet, the aeronautical environment wasn't so benign.

For an IFR pilot, this "Let's make a deal" scenario may be all in a day's work, but the demands of the ATC system made it cumbersome, under these circumstances, for both controller and pilot. Icing added the spice of imperative to get the altitude request resolved quickly. In addition to the weather, ATC creates circumstances that pilots can't always know but should anticipate to make transition into the IFR system as seamless as possible. VFR pilots have fewer choices but the decisions are simpler. Most of those will involve not completing the trip as originally planned.

See also the index of "Safety Pilot" articles, organized by subject. Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.