A Better Way to Escape IMC?
A pilot challenges conventional wisdom
Your former student--who passed his private pilot checkride less than a week ago--decides to try that "Special VFR" clearance procedure you taught him about, only to find himself unexpectedly in the clouds. Or perhaps he's exercising his newfound privileges at night, and suddenly all the lights on the ground go out because of a cloud he couldn't see. Chilling thoughts for any instructor.
As a CFI, you know very well that any situation involving unplanned instrument flying isn't good. For newly minted private pilots (or any pilot, for that matter) it's an up-close-and-personal look at the face of a killer called inadvertent entry into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). If it should happen to one of your students, will the survival training you provided be enough?
Let me make a modest proposal that will no doubt be called heresy. Let's abolish the sacred "lifesaving 180-degree turn" to get out of IMC.
According to the latest AOPA Air Safety Foundation Nall Report on general aviation safety, pilots who crash after inadvertently entering IMC have about a 71 percent chance of killing at least one person on board. About a quarter of those accidents involve an in-flight breakup. For the unfortunate souls who had been aboard those aircraft, the fatality rate is 100 percent, a sobering figure All CFIs know the best ways to minimize the chance of an inadvertent IMC encounter: Exercise good judgment. Check the weather carefully before flight. Stay away from weather that is likely to challenge your skills. Get an instrument rating.
It's all good advice to give to our students, but not as bulletproof as you might think, particularly the advice to earn an instrument rating. Surprisingly, 43 percent of the pilots who inadvertently ran into IMC and had accidents were instrument rated. That means that it is not the instrument rating, but good instrument flying skills that will save the day in such a case.
It was exactly that horrible accident record that led the FAA to add the current requirement for private pilot candidates to have at least three hours of flying by reference to instruments. Most CFIs use at least part of that time to teach the standard lifesaving 180-degree turn, to be used if instrument conditions are unintentionally encountered. In truth, once you're in IMC, turning might be the worst thing you can do. Just as in any other in-flight emergency, you must first establish control of the airplane, and in IMC that requires an effective instrument scan.
So let's abolish that "lifesaving 180-degree turn" concept to escape inadvertent entry to IMC. Are you thinking I should be strung up for my heresy? Well, while you're looking for a yardarm from which to hang me, go to the U.S. Navy. In flight school, the Navy teaches student naval aviators who accidentally encounter IMC to commit themselves to flying on instruments to keep the greasy side down.
The Navy procedure goes like this:
Level the wings. This is the first step to insure control of your airplane, because it is the first step in starting an instrument scan. It forces the pilot's attention to the primary attitude instrument, whether that instrument is a turn needle, turn coordinator, or something else.
Center the ball. An airplane flying in trim may stall, but it will not spin. Recovering from a spin on the gauges may present more of a challenge than even the best and most current of instrument pilots can handle, so center the ball. Doing so also helps lessen the disorientation from forces felt when the airplane is flying out of trim.
Stop the rate of climb or descent. Put the nose on the horizon or wherever it goes when your airplane is straight and holding altitude. Set the throttle to cruise power. If it was already there when visual reference was lost, leave it alone. With the wings level and nose on the horizon, the airplane will stabilize on an altitude. Glance at the vertical speed indicator and altimeter. As both stabilize, make small corrections to stop any trend you see to climb or descend. By the time the airplane is under control, you probably have a good instrument scan working for you. Then....
Climb. If already higher than the terrain, with a safety margin to boot, the pilot can skip this step. But if at an altitude less than rising terrain or obstructions, push the throttle full forward, trim to maximum rate of climb, and climb like a homesick angel. Plan a level-off altitude that gives a margin of safety. VFR charts include obstruction elevations, and IFR charts have minimum safe altitudes, both by sector. If in doubt about this altitude, keep climbing!
Turn. I know I said before not to turn, but this isn't the 180-degree turn we've always taught our students. Instead, the pilot should turn just enough to avoid terrain or obstructions ahead. If there is nothing in front, don't turn. For pilots who are adamant about using the "lifesaving 180-degree turn," perhaps because their CFI told them to do it way back when they were learning to fly, keep in mind that the airplane's heading probably drifted just after entering IMC. Also consider that the weather behind may be just as bad as the stuff surrounding the airplane now. If a turn is truly necessary, perhaps to head for VFR weather or help, figure out the proper heading before starting the turn.
Confess. If the airplane is under control, the instrument scan established, and a safe altitude attained, the only obstacle will be IFR traffic in the clouds. So squawk 7700. Any conflicting IFR traffic under ATC radar control will be turned by the controller as soon as the emergency squawk appears on the radar screen. Squawking is also easier at this point than looking up a center or approach control frequency. It's also more effective in the short run than sorting out who will be answering "Guard" (121.5 MHz).
IAP. This stands for instrument approach procedure. It's the way to get out of clouds if an approach control or center can't help the pilot. Normally, instrument approach charts aren't part of the private pilot curriculum, but since your student will likely be doing his best impression of an instrument pilot at some future time, it might be a good idea to teach him how to use an IAP in an emergency. Once a pilot is familiar with them, keeping instrument approach charts nearby is a good habit even for VFR fliers.
As we've always told our students, there is no better way to avoid inadvertent IMC than to exercise good judgment in marginal weather while operating under visual flight rules. Barring that, an instrument rating and frequent IFR practice is a good recommendation. In any event, staying proficient at flying an airplane solely by the flight instruments is an excellent idea.
So let's abolish the cherished "180-degree lifesaving turn," at least as the sole recommended way to escape inadvertent IMC, and instead encourage our students to keep their instrument skills sharp. Having a proven emergency procedure for handling such emergencies is one of the best lessons you could pass on to your flight students.
The writer's advice in this article is meant to encourage discussion among CFIs on training techniques, and is not necessarily an ASF recommendation or policy. Your input on this technique is solicited, and may be used in a future article. Please send your observations to email@example.com.
Patrick Shaub is an active airplane and helicopter flight instructor, senior lecturer for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation, and co-owner of Eagle Training Solutions in Burnet, Texas.
By Patrick Shaub