Operating VFR above the cloud tops is legal, but is it always safe? On July 28th, 2001 a non-instrument rated private pilot and his three passengers were killed when he became disoriented while descending VFR through holes in the cloud layer near De Queen, Arkansas.
Prior to his departure, the pilot contacted flight service for a VFR weather briefing to Jackson, Mississippi. Weather for the area included an AIRMET for IFR conditions, scattered clouds between three and five thousand feet, scattered to broken clouds between eight and ten thousand feet, as well as a 30% chance of thunderstorms and rain showers. The briefer also indicated "lingering pockets of IFR".
The pilot departed Oklahoma City, Oklahoma, and contacted Fort Worth ARTCC for VFR flight following. The pilot verified his altitude as "7,500 feet, above the cloud tops." Shortly thereafter, the pilot told the controller that he saw "holes in the cloud layer" and requested a descent to 5,500 feet. The controller cleared the pilot for the descent, advising him to maintain VFR. Seven minutes later, the controller saw that the pilot was descending through 3,000 feet, and advised him that the minimum en route altitude for the area was 2,500 feet. The pilot acknowledged this advisory, and then there were no further communications.
Radar data showed the airplane making multiple "S" patterns, and the airplane's altitude varied between 3,400 and 2,600 feet. Ground witnesses reported seeing the airplane exit the clouds, stall, and spiral into the ground.
The pilot had approximately 250 flight hours of flight experience.
The NTSB determined the cause of the accident to be VFR flight into IMC, which resulted in spatial disorientation and a loss of aircraft control.
According to the 2002 Nall Report, attempted VFR flight into IMC was fatal 84% of the time. VFR pilots that find themselves in IMC must exit immediately.
For more information regarding spatial disorientation, you can download ASF's safety advisor, Spatial Disorientation , free via the Internet.
Spatial Disorientation is also available as part of ASF's popular Seminar-in-a-Box ® program. This program is designed to help local pilots conduct their own quality safety seminars. These all-in-one kits contain everything needed to conduct safety seminars. They can be used in a number of helpful ways, such as monthly safety and membership meetings, as well as opportunities for organizations to expand their contacts with area pilots.
This accident report as well as others can be found in ASF's Online Database.
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