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IFR Fix: 'Maintain VFR'IFR Fix: 'Maintain VFR'

With clouds close above and a populated marina below, a pilot departing VFR in expectation of receiving an IFR clearance in short order found out the hard way that it’s not a good idea to guesstimate when air traffic control can pick you up on radar after takeoff.

Until then, the clearance required the pilot to maintain VFR for the hop between two airports on Florida’s east coast.

That didn’t seem unduly burdensome. At the pilot’s home airport, radar contact usually kicked in at 400 feet even though the airport with the radar service was a distance away. So despite marginal VFR conditions at the departure airport, the PA-28 Piper single’s pilot confidently took off, turned east (seaward) as instructed, and awaited further clearance.

Climbing through 900 feet—still no radar contact. A transponder reset is tried. Not even a primary target appears.

“Remain VFR.”

Unable to raise another nearby facility on a different frequency, the pilot accepts ATC’s only remaining solution—a return to the departure airport and an IFR departure—when it can be arranged.

Thus the pilot retreated, working hard to respect cloud clearances (and not buzz the marina). Back on the ground, the pilot received an IFR departure clearance, and as so many Aviation Safety Reporting System narratives conclude, “the rest of the flight proceeded without any problems.”

In the part of the report that prompts the filer for words of wisdom about the scenario shared, the pilot rated the marina an external influence that should have been disregarded. Another poor decision was accepting a “depart-VFR clearance” in marginal VFR weather.

Can good judgment be taught? It’s argued both ways, but there’s no argument that it can be evaluated and graded by authorities. Look no further for how to do that on your next proficiency check, or before your next flight, than the practical test standards for the instrument rating. There, in the appendices, is a tabular item titled Judgment Assessment Matrix that gives examiners a means for determining whether a pilot possesses in sufficient measure the single-pilot resource management skills which, when lacking, are associated with fatal accidents.

Evaluation of a pilot’s actions in eight skill areas is graded acceptable or unacceptable “given the dynamics of the flight environment.” Sometimes, as this pilot’s narrative suggests, the flight environment would better have remained on the ground until a takeoff-to-touchdown IFR clearance became available.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web 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 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: IFR, Instrument Rating, Technique

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