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Training Tip: Caught on topTraining Tip: Caught on top

A VFR pilot who had been fighting turbulence during a long day of cross-country flying found relief 70 miles from the destination when the air became smooth and a broken cloud layer appeared below.
Continued flight into deteriorating weather by non-instrument-rated pilots is a famous cause of accidents.

Anxiety soon replaced relief, however, when the ground was no longer visible.

By then the pilot had been flying for 4.5 hours on the two-leg trip, and had become “mentally and physically exhausted.” Not wanting to be aloft much longer, the pilot was torn between concern about making the upcoming landing and the need to re-establish contact with the ground—meaning a 180-degree turn. Complicating the decision making was the fact that the pilot could not recall whether the recent weather briefing had forecast broken or overcast ceilings.

Instructing a passenger to check the sectional chart for the area’s highest obstruction, the decision was made “to descend through the layer in hopes it would be thin,” the pilot wrote in a filing with the Aviation Safety Reporting System.

Getting nervous?

With good cause. The report shares a nerve-racking tale of a desperate, unauthorized, autopilot-assisted descent through clouds to a dangerously low altitude—and the problems didn’t end there.

Once back in visual conditions, the flight would not conclude before a shaky attempt to land that required clearances to first one runway, then another, and a radar-vectored assist from air traffic control.

About as good an outcome as can be expected, as these things go. Continued flight into deteriorating weather by noninstrument-rated pilots is a famous cause of accidents, many of them loss-of-control fatalities—one reason a student pilot flies with limitations that prohibit acting as pilot in command of an aircraft “when the flight cannot be made with visual reference to the surface.” (Can you locate that provision in the regulations?)

The AOPA Air Safety Institute offers many free resources to help pilots avoid such troubles. Learning from the judgment errors and flawed decisions of others also can help you recognize a dangerous scenario long before the clouds have closed up.

What else can you do?

Reject going “on top.” Get as much training flying your aircraft “solely by reference to instruments” beyond the required three hours (for a private pilot applicant) as your budget allows—but only to have a last line of defense while you cultivate your piloting knowledge and judgment to keep you, always, clear of the clouds.

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: Navigation, Flight Training
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