178 seconds

VFR into IMC is an insidious trap

Visual flight rules (VFR) flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) is the worst weather-related cause of general aviation accidents each year—with an 86-percent fatality rate—involving VFR and instrument-rated pilots.
Photography by Mike Fizer

A classic study supported by the AOPA Air Safety Institute determined that a pilot will lose aircraft control in 178 seconds when flying VFR into IMC. That doesn’t provide much time to escape, so be prepared with a plan—better yet, avoid the problem in the first place.

Training versus the real thing

It’s important to learn recovery from unusual attitudes wearing a view-limiting device, but it’s far from what you’d actually experience during a real VFR into IMC encounter. In training, you’re instantly put into an IMC scenario. But it’s slightly deteriorating weather, slowly evolving and enveloping you and your airplane, that lures you into the trap. You can quickly experience spatial disorientation—a main reason for losing aircraft control—causing incapacitation that often ends in an unrecoverable graveyard spiral or spin. Why? Because without visual reference, we rely on our vestibular system to keep us oriented. But this system is unreliable when in motion, like banking the airplane.

Plan A: Avoid VFR into IMC

The best antidote to a scary VFR into IMC encounter is to set personal minimums reflecting your proficiency level and adjusting them as needed. In addition, use flight-risk assessment tools to make well-informed go/no-go decisions. If it’s a go, stick to the plan to divert or abort. Just remember the 3 Ps (Perceive, Process, and Perform) and PAVE (Pilot, Aircraft, enVironment, and External Pressure). Also, keep in mind that deciding to “just take a look” is the beginning of being lured into the trap. Once you’ve decided to go up, you may convince yourself that things will get better farther into the flight, only to be tempted deeper into worsening weather (see “Disciplinary Action: Bail Out When You Said You Would,” March 2022 AOPA Pilot).

Plan B: Escape VFR into IMC

Do you have a plan? Execute it immediately. Generally, we are taught to conduct a 180-degree turn to better weather conditions left behind. That could work if making the turn before entering the clouds. Another option could be to climb straight ahead—no turns and a light touch on the flight controls—until you’ve cleared the clouds. This requires little head movement to avoid experiencing spatial disorientation. In addition, you could declare an emergency with ATC. Controllers trained on VFR into IMC flight emergencies can help find better weather to escape to.

ASI’s campaign

Because every year, pilots continue to inadvertently fly VFR into IMC, the AOPA Air Safety Institute decided to address this persistent problem and created a campaign for 2022 called VFR into IMC: Avoidance and Escape. At the center of this campaign is a new VFR into IMC Safety Spotlight that includes the AOPA Air Safety Institute’s research and analysis on this deadly phenomenon, and based on those finding, the spotlight provides extensive recommendations for alternative ways to teach VFR into IMC escape. Explore the spotlight that will put those recommendations in perspective.

The campaign provides widespread education and outreach about the deadly VFR into IMC trap. Protect yourself from inadvertent VFR flight into IMC—one of the top five fatal general aviation accidents. Visit AOPA’s Air Safety Institute VFR Into IMC: Avoidance and Escape resources to help you learn how.

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The AOPA Air Safety Institute is the world’s largest provider of free general aviation safety content. Safety programs are funded by generous donations to the AOPA Foundation.

Machteld Smith

Machteld Smith

Aviation Technical Writer
Machteld Smith is an aviation technical writer for the Air Safety Institute. She holds a commercial pilot certificate with multiengine, instrument, and seaplane ratings.

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