By Sherwood Kaip
Pilots like to be able to use their aircraft. If you do not have instrument capability, both aircraft and pilot, you have to accept less utility to maintain safety. Flying in only ceiling-and-visibility-unlimited conditions makes for weather safety but renders an aircraft almost worthless for travel. So how can you maximize utility VFR from an aircraft while still maintaining safety?
How you look at your weather situation while flying VFR can make the difference between getting the maximum possible utilization of your airplane and winding up in a disaster. The usual way of looking at the situation when flying in murky weather is something like this:
Advantage versus disadvantage
If I can get home, this is an advantage. If I have to land and stay overnight in Podunk, this is a disadvantage. The question I will probably be asking myself while flying in these conditions is, “Am I still VFR?” The answer will be “yes”—until it is “no,” and now I am in serious trouble.
At this point, let’s look at the big picture of the situation. Few pilots will take off VFR (or IFR) when freezing rain, fog, or thunderstorms are present. The takeoff is likely to be in not-too-bad conditions. Now comes the important part: If you took off in it, but you are now concerned about the weather, that means the weather is getting worse.
The question you should be asking yourself as you fly is, “Am I likely to still be VFR five minutes from now and 15 minutes from now?”Sometimes weather is stable over a wide area. But this is not the usual case. Normally, weather is getting worse when flying in one direction and better when flying in the opposite direction. The likelihood of the weather getting down just to the edge of VFR minimums and suddenly getting better is low. “Zilch” might be the better answer.
Therefore, the question you should be asking yourself as you fly is, “Am I likely to still be VFR five minutes from now and 15 minutes from now?” This is where the lifesaving change in viewpoint comes in.
Your actual situation probably is not advantage (I get home) versus disadvantage (I’m stuck overnight in Podunk). Your real situation is almost assuredly this:
Disadvantage versus worse disadvantage
If I’m stuck overnight in Podunk, this is a disadvantage. Worse disadvantage: I fly farther, use up more time and more gas, and return to Podunk for the night, providing I haven’t gotten myself in trouble in the meantime.
This viewpoint makes the go/no-go decision much easier to make and is a more accurate assessment of the situation. I have obtained the maximum use possible from the aircraft under these circumstances without pushing my luck.
Most weather accidents involving VFR pilots do not occur in severe weather; VFR pilots usually don’t go there. They occur in weather that’s just a little more than VFR pilots can handle—often weather that would be easy for an IFR pilot.
“Am I likely to still be VFR five minutes from now and 15 minutes from now?” If yes, you may be able to keep going. If not, go back and land.
Keep this in mind while earning your instrument rating.
Dr. Sherwood Kaip is an anesthesiologist and commercial pilot with more than 3,000 hours.