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IFR Fix: Tower, CFI help VFR pilot who takes off into clouds

There's a 600-foot overcast ceiling when a VFR pilot shows up to fly southeast from San Carlos in the San Francisco Bay area.

Wait for better conditions? Return tomorrow?

The pilot noticed "a number of holes which I had deemed sufficient to fly through and get on top for VFR conditions." With eight miles visibility and clear conditions beyond, why hesitate? There was always a 180-degree retreat available.

And there was this seductive rationale for proceeding: "I had made the trip the day before under the same conditions with no issue."

Cleared for a special VFR departure toward a promising hole, the taxiing pilot encountered something that wasn’t part of yesterday’s winning formula: a large goose standing on the numbers.

A metaphor?

By the time the delayed flight was airborne, clouds were lower. Maneuvering to maintain VFR, the pilot lost the hole. ATC questioned the track.

Time for that 180-degree turn—but it put the aircraft in a cloud. Trapped in low-altitude IMC with obstructions nearby, only the pilot’s imperfect grasp of emergency instrument flying averted defeat. The Aviation Safety Reporting System narrative catalogs the riskiness of gambling on visual flight in such conditions. 

"I tried to fly the plane and when I looked at the instruments I was descending at a rapid rate completely uncoordinated and given my height above the water did not have much time before I would crash. I stopped the descent at about 200 feet and remembered my flight instructor telling me to stare at the instruments, as you will have no idea what you are doing otherwise. I can honestly say that until I stared at the gauges I did not realize I was turning at a 45-degree bank while slipping."

Emphasize to your noninstrument-rated pilot friends that regaining control was only a first step. The pilot had lost positional awareness, and distracted efforts to activate a GPS failed.

When the tower realized it had a noninstrument-rated pilot out there, an instructor came on the radio, offering advice and headings. The tale ends happily when the flight stumbles into VFR conditions and finds—yes—a hole in clouds atop the airport.

Reflecting on decision making, the pilot resolved to place more focus on "the consequences of failure."

A shred of ancient aviation folk wisdom addresses this idea, observing that when the geese are walking, it’s probably time to rethink the plan.

Dan Namowitz
Dan Namowitz
Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 35-year AOPA member.
Topics: IFR, IFR, Technique

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