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The invisible obscuration

Disoriented by inadvertent VFR into IMC

Even the most proficient VFR pilot can become disoriented by inadvertent VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).
Photography by Chris Rose
Photography by Chris Rose

Zara Rutherford, who set a mark recognized by the Guinness World Records, was no exception when, on day 30 of her around-the-world endeavor, she stumbled into dense smoke from a lingering wildfire in northern California. Rutherford relays the details of her harrowing flight:

“I was flying north from Palo Alto to Seattle. I was aware there were some thunderstorms in northern California, north of Redding, but I was hoping that I could fly along and stay above the smoke. The smoke started building up and up and up, and I was trying to stay above the layer.

“Then it got to the point where, because the angle of the sun was hitting the smoke, I couldn’t see the ground from my left side anymore, but I could see it from the right side. Then soon, I just couldn’t see the ground at all, and it got just; everything was a brownish, orangish color.

“Then the turbulence got really bad, really quickly. I’m still not sure if that was a result of the wildfires or just a gust of wind. I don’t know what it was. Suddenly, it just got really, really bumpy, and that’s when I decided to turn around and land in Redding.”

Instrument meteorological conditions are recognizable by the quality of the atmosphere encountered. Whatever phase of flight, whatever the cause, if the pilot’s visual cues (visibility, ceiling, and cloud clearance) drop below VFR minimums, the pilot is operating in IMC. It is clear from Rutherford’s brush with smoke how a clear day can turn deadly.

The Belgian’s instincts were right. As smoke enveloped her Shark Aero and the ability to maintain visual contact with her surroundings diminished, the 19-year-old took the appropriate actions.

It was a simple plan, one her flight instructor had drilled into her as they prepared for her solo circumnavigation. Rutherford’s focus shifted from outside the cockpit to scanning her flight instruments. She noted her heading and altitude, checked her ADS-B display for air traffic, then banked the aircraft left in a standard-rate turn to reverse course. Soon the Shark was back in smoother air and clearer skies, tracking to the Redding airport.

A 2022 study linked VFR into IMC accidents to poor decision-making and distraction. Its researchers suggest progress is possible with recurrent training in IMC awareness, specifically using simulators to reproduce loss of visual reference. Over time, continual emphasis may reduce the lethality of its occurrence.

Continued VFR flight into IMC is the fifth leading cause of noncommercial general aviation accidents and the top weather-related pilot fatality. As the year ends, AOPA’s Air Safety Institute (ASI) brings its VFR into IMC campaign to a close. However, the effort to eliminate this deadly lure will go on within ASI’s online pages. Please look for them in the form of Safety Spotlights, webinars, and accident analyses.

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Terrie Mead

Terrie Mead

Aviation Technical Writer
Terrie Mead is an aviation technical writer for the Air Safety Institute. She currently holds a commercial pilot certificate, a CFI with a sport pilot endorsement, a CFII, and she is multiengine rated.

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