Safety Publications/Articles


Why IFR into IMC

Some CFI thoughts

In a recent lament to the AOPA membership in the January issue of AOPA Pilot I briefly dissected two VFR-into-IMC accidents. One fell into the category of controlled flight into terrain, and the other was UFIT (uncontrolled flight into terrain). The methodology differed slightly, but the outcome was the same-all on board were killed. Another similarity was that both noninstrument-rated pilots were flying high-performance complex aircraft. In the article I asked for some observations and suggestions to share here.

Robert Ovanin, a CFI in California, wrote, "I thought it was interesting that the CFI who administered the [flight review to the accident pilot] didn't recall much about 'simulated instrument' during the two flights. Should he not have logged that?...I enjoy doing [flight reviews]...and always get the same answer to the following question: 'How much hood time have you had in the past two years?' The answer is always zero!

"I always use [part of] the oral portion of the [flight review] discussing VFR into IMC. I'm not convinced the candidates perceive the risks and danger. We live in an interesting part of the country here in central California, with a very pervasive marine layer. One candidate told me that he usually climbed through the marine layer because he knew the fog ended around 2,000 feet! As you worded it so well, that's a hanging offense in my book too!

"Finally, I now conduct 80 percent of my [flight reviews] with the hood on the candidate. We do a little VOR tracking, intercept a radial, and then I simulate vacuum failure and instruct them about timed turns. Most of them are amazed that they can simply enter a standard rate turn, count 60 seconds, and they will have completed a 180-degree turn. Were they never taught this very basic 'escape maneuver'? They don't even need a watch! We finish up with recoveries from unusual attitudes.

"Over the years, I've been frustrated by my inability to simulate spatial disorientation. The only time I've ever been impressed by spatial disorientation devices was at Oshkosh about 10 years ago. The FAA had a chair that rotated freely...."

Ovanin has several good points-during a flight review, flying under the hood or Foggles is well worth the time, along with a serious discussion about the dangers of getting into the clouds. He also asked about the Barany chair-a wonderfully diabolical device used by some FAA FSDOs. Ask your local safety program manager about it. I also happen to be a big fan of the GATT II, a new motion-visual simulator on the market that does a great job of creating sensory illusions while flying instruments-it is highly recommended for all students and experienced pilots periodically. If there's one near you, rent a few hours in it! You'll have a ball and more important, get a real good picture on the whole spatial disorientation business-far better than you could ever simulate in the aircraft.

Tom Howell, an instrument-rated pilot, wrote, "Your article hit the nail on the head-it was so good I wasn't sure whether I should just enjoy the article or throw the magazine across the room. When I started flying, my instructor told me flying into clouds would cause me to die. No ifs, ands, or buts-die."

Howell continues, "Now I can file through clouds and have done so...and know what [my CFI] was talking about. It really gets under my skin when I'm talking to someone...who hasn't called FSS since their checkride, complains about the bureaucracy, high costs of flying, and in the same breath tells me about their cloud-punching adventures. It really gets under my skin because these are the people who make it tough on the rest of us."

We're averaging 36 VFR into IMC accidents per year. In 2002 it was 25. It has a big impact on our insurance rates and the public's perception of general aviation.

Steve Zeller, another IFR pilot who uses his Bonanza to fly on business, wrote, "I am still completely convinced that basic private pilot training needs to be tweaked somehow to include better weather avoidance strategy. When flying light piston aircraft, there are two big issues to deal with. One, with all the technology available now, pilot weather briefings are still quite prone to error. The radar maps on all the major WX Web sites often fail to update for as much as 12 to 18 hours, leading everyone (including FSS staff) to brief pilots based on old data. Speaking of data, here in the southeast, weather reporting stations are often few and far between. Without pireps, there is no data! Forecast computer models can be confused by El Nino, La Nina, and other major disruptions in regional weather patterns. The prog charts might then only be accurate out to about 24 hours, or maybe not at all. You have to listen to the briefer, look at all the charts, combine this information with an objective assessment of your own skills and the aircraft capabilities, add some experience, and then make your go/no-go and routing decisions.

"Two, the more instrument training I get, the better I get at avoiding instrument weather. You begin to realize that even with a very well-equipped, high-performance piston single or twin, it doesn't take much of an equipment failure to turn a previously safe IFR flight into a life-or-death situation. Reading the NTSB accident reports seems to indicate that almost all of the crashes involving low IFR conditions result in fatalities. Five hundred feet is probably 'low' for single-engine ops.

"In my many years of flying my Bonanza on business trips throughout the southeastern United States, I have had to cancel or reschedule plenty of trips due to crummy weather. Although disappointed, none of my customers has ever really complained. On the few occasions I really pushed myself into marginal weather conditions, the trip never generated enough new business to justify the risks. Call it hindsight or experience, it just wasn't worth it."

I can't address all of Zeller's points other than to echo special emphasis on pilot reports, or pireps. The AOPA Air Safety Foundation has a wonderful online program, SkySpotter, that discusses the value of a good pirep-see for yourself. His last paragraph should be required reading for every pilot who feels compelled to get "there"-wherever "there" is. The accidents are almost always cleaned up in good weather a day later.

So, CFIs, we'd like to hear from you-what strategies do you have and how should this be communicated to new and veteran pilots alike? What would you like to see from ASF? Please respond by e-mail.

Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.

By Bruce Landsberg

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