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Training and Safety Tip: Escaping the VFR-into-IMC trap

Flying under visual flight rules (VFR) into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) should be an obvious trap to avoid, yet every year noninstrument- and instrument-rated pilots fall into it—usually with fatal results.

Photo by Mike Fizer.

For years, student pilots have received three hours of training on flight by reference to instruments with the intent that this training will help them get out of the VFR into IMC trap. The 180-degree turn is normally taught as the escape maneuver, and is often the best option. But there are alternatives to consider.

Reviewing two recent VFR into IMC reports, both pilots opted to climb instead of turning around. In one case, the pilot got a low-altitude warning from an aviation app on a mobile device after losing all outside visual references. The pilot climbed to 3,500 feet and continued along the route of flight until finally exiting IMC some 34 miles later. In the other case, the pilot was in a precarious low-altitude VFR into IMC situation where the aircraft was dodging communication towers and entered a cloud. After momentarily experiencing spatial disorientation the pilot was able to level the aircraft and then began a climb to altitude into the clouds. After a few minutes the airplane broke into clear skies and the pilot continued to the destination VFR.

In both situations the pilots made the decision to climb to avoid a low-altitude encounter with an object. Both pilots maintained straight-ahead, wings-level climbs and did not deviate from their headings. The attitude indicator was the primary instrument for establishing and maintaining the climb, and the other instruments provided supporting information to confirm that climb. Both pilots deliberately focused on the instruments and did not attempt to look outside, to avoid distraction that can cause spatial disorientation.

Practice straight-ahead climbs under the hood with your instructor. Remember to use light fingertip control on the yoke. Raise the nose no more than one bar width and apply power. Accept whatever speed happens. If the airplane is in proper trim the nose will come up with the addition of power. Don’t try to turn in the climb; keep it straight and then level off after at least 1,000 feet of climb. Practice that skill in case you need it someday. Better yet, work to make good go/no-go decisions in your preflight planning to avoid VFR into IMC.

John Collins

Aviation Safety Programs
John Collins is the AOPA Air Safety Institute's chief flight instructor and manager of aviation safety programs. Before joining ASI, John was AOPA's manager of airport policy. He earned his flight instructor certificate in 1996 and enjoys seeing students light up when they put it all together and nail a maneuver.
Topics: Training and Safety, Weather, Student
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