My VFR into IMC story

real, non-terrifying, conditions that together can induce a trap

Pilots make mistakes, and some mistakes are fatal. The Nall report, the most comprehensive study of general aviation accident trends, highlights areas of concern, one of the most dangerous for VFR pilots is VFR into IMC;

quite simply, a pilot flying by reference to outside visual cues flew into low visibility conditions and lost control of the aircraft or hit terrain

I've heard and read lots of articles, web postings, and emails about VFR into IMC most responses can be summed up in two general thoughts.

  • Pilots fly into clouds when they're not certified to do so and crash. That's dumb, what a hotdog, if you're a VFR pilot you know not to go into a cloud, those folks were foolhardy and took a risk when they knew better!
  • Poor pilot, the weather must have changed in nearly an instant and s/he was caught unaware!

Both assumptions are overly simplistic and misleading, of course. They say that either the pilots made huge errors of judgment, or they were helpless and caught unaware. Certainly those can be true, and many of the tales reported by those who survived a VFR into IMC incident seem harrowing and tension filled, a dark night and a hidden cloud, a sudden thunderstorm, and much drama.

The drama distracts and detracts from the message each VMC into IMC incident can teach; Emergencies don't happen only in dramatic circumstances. Sure, when the cumulous start building, or when the Sun touched the horizon we get keyed up and prepared for the worst. But don't be complacent about the day to day business of flying. Never Agains are exciting, but they don't teach.

The pilots caught in VFR into IMC are probably not either overconfident or trapped in a helpless situation. They are probably just like you, competent, careful, pilots. They didn't plan on doing what they did. And many of us have been there without becoming a statistic.

Here's my story.

I had 200 hours in my log book, and a new-to-me 1980 Mooney 231 (read about my baby here) that I had accumulated 30 some hours flying.

Planned a VFR flight from San Jose's Reid-Hillview airport to North Las Vegas. Wanted to cross the Sierras early in the flight, so the flight plan was to exit the San Francisco Bay Area, head east to Friant VOR, and cross the Sierras , then Beatty VOR, down the valley to North Las Vegas.

Pretty simple. I'd be flying at 17,500 to stay well above the mountains.


Things went just fine out of the Silicon Valley and across the California inland empire. As we got closer to the mountains, I could see some stratus cloud formations. Looked very benign, and I could clearly see that there was a huge gap between the broken clouds beneath me and the stratus layer above me.

We motored on. And I kept watching the cloud decks in front of me. I could see between them, easily. I imagined I could see all the way to Utah, so there was no question of not making it.

But it just kept looking not right. I was still VFR, but the broken clouds below me had closed up, and I was sandwiched between layers. But look the gap between the layers must be 3-5,000 ft.

It wasn't A few miles into the mountains and the bottom deck was up to my wings and the gap, which had looked clear for 500 miles, was down to perhaps 500 ft above me.

I was not IMC, but I was as-good-as. Yes, I was still clear of clouds but I was surrounded by them, and I had lost any horizon other than the cloud surfaces themselves. Straight-and-level could not be determined, and I felt very uncomfortable, knowing I had no context for flying the airplane. At this point I turned 180 and backed out the way I came, clipping clouds on the way. ATC (I was getting flight following) asked what I was doing, told 'em I was turning and heading south to avoid some weather.

As I got away from the clouds I realized that I had been on the very edge of VFR into IMC. Me! With confidence, until the very last turn, that I clearly, obviously, would be able to maintain VFR and the action I was taking was as safe as could be.

And that's it. No harrowing tale of rain pelting the windshield or a cold front that came up in seconds. No, nothing more mundane than flying along and the clouds doing something you didn't expect them to.

If I had not turned back would I have crashed? I don't know, I like to think that I would have maintained control, but the disorientation I felt when I lost the horizon, not even entered clouds, belies that.

I started my flight training for my IFR certification less than 30 days after that flight.

Words and pictures copyright 2004-2006 C.K. Haun and Ravenware Industries LLC, all rights reserved worldwide.

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