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VFR into IMC with an IR

A few days ago I watched one of the many excellent videos from AOPA Air Safety Foundation analysing a VFR into IMC accident, and they noted that a decent percentage (can’t remember the number) of such accidents are by pilots who actually possess an IR. I’d heard this before and always wondered what’s going on with these cases, but this time I had a different reaction—because I had what could have been a serious inadvertent IMC incident last spring. I realised I had been in a bit of denial over the seriousness, so I reflected on the incident and thought I’d share what happened and what I think might be at least one cause.

First, at the time of the incident I was flying my own IFR-equipped TB10 on a short, familiar route under VFR. I was current and proficient with my IR and even had recent training related to converting my FAA IR. Furthermore, I have always been comfortable on instruments and regularly fly in hard IMC, so I’m not one of those IR holders who just occasionally busts a cloud deck. In other words, I thought I was immune to VFR into IMC accidents.

The plan was to fly a short hop from EHRD to EHTE for maintenance. Weather reports on either end were MVFR with 1500-2000ft ceilings—seemed fine for a short hop. Problem is there’s a dead zone for observations between the two, and Dutch weather can be unpredictable. About 10 minutes after departure I found myself descending below 1000ft to avoid cloud, hoping to just quickly get to the other side. But less than a minute later I was in full IMC. I decided to try to climb over it, which was unsuccessful because I didn’t break out quickly enough and would have busted AMS class A. I found myself making erratic movements to find “a way out”, and before long I got a terrain warning on the 530 and iPad, only to realise I was at <500ft AGL! It was at this point that I “snapped out of it”, transitioned into IFR mode, and focused on stabilising the airplane, climbing, and navigating back to EHRD. Once I did this I was in the clear after a couple minutes and safely headed back home.

I told myself later that I wasn’t really in danger, because I was instrument rated and could handle it. In reality it was well within my capability to safely fly the airplane, but my mentality was not suited for the task in that moment. I was trying to just get there, and in my mind this was a normal VFR flight. Had I immediately gone on the gauges and turned around, there would have been no danger. But I was so focused on finding a path through that I took precious minutes to get my head into IFR flying space, and it took those big red terrain warnings to wake me up.

I’m glad I saw that video, because it forced me to face the reality of what happened and make a commitment that if I ever inadvertently fly into IMC, I will immediately use my IFR skills to do a 180. I will not presume I can fly some hybrid combination of VFR and IFR. It’s one or the other, and the transition must be clear and immediate. I have a feeling this failure to get into the right mental space may be one of the primary reasons IR pilots have inadvertent IMC accidents. Of course lack of actual proficiency is probably a big one, but my experience is proof that proficiency isn’t enough.

EHRD, Netherlands

dutch_flyer wrote:

I told myself later that I wasn’t really in danger, because I was instrument rated and could handle it. In reality it was well within my capability to safely fly the airplane, but my mentality was not suited for the task in that moment. I was trying to just get there, and in my mind this was a normal VFR flight. Had I immediately gone on the gauges and turned around, there would have been no danger. But I was so focused on finding a path through that I took precious minutes to get my head into IFR flying space, and it took those big red terrain warnings to wake me up.

So very true. IFR is first and foremost a state of mind.

ESKC (Uppsala/Sundbro), Sweden

Thank you for sharing your experience with us, @dutch_flyer.

I have yet to have such a proficiency, which is why I still keep well away from any clouds. This is why I think that it’s somewhat clear that it’s precisely people feeling proficient who get trapped in an VFR in IMC case.

I still can hear the words of a friend who had a VFR in IMC experience, but without any reasonable instrumentation whatsoever. He was lucky and got out, basically without even knowing how. And despite being a real proficient, holding IRI license with north of 4000 hours IFR logged, he totally quit flying soon thereafter. He just lost confidence in everything related to what needs to properly function and be properly planned related to flying.

dutch_flyer wrote:

I decided to try to climb over it, which was unsuccessful because I didn’t break out quickly enough and would have busted AMS class A

This is what always makes me listen up, because our brain is not helping us in such a situation. Entering IMC when flying VFR is prohibited, so if it happens you maybe just don’t want to raise attention. And entering any airspace without clearance clearly raises attention. However, as the further course of action clearly shows is, that it might have been a lot safer to get out of it no matter how. 500 ft is nothing…(not even in your country)

Last Edited by UdoR at 11 Jan 19:53
Germany

Thanks for sharing your experience, I have a golden rule: never fly a route VFR in marginal weather if the climb in IMC from VFR MSA (500ft to +/-500ft obstacles) to IFR MSA (1000ft or 2000ft to +/-5nm obstacles) does put me into airspace without having a pop-up IFR clearance !

I busted this rule twice: once in UK and once in Switzerland, these are two places where there is no point calling ATC to climb if you ever get caught, in both occasions, I turned after climb & descent but I will never make those descents again

dutch_flyer wrote:

I decided to try to climb over it, which was unsuccessful because I didn’t break out quickly enough and would have busted AMS class A. I found myself making erratic movements to find “a way out”, and before long I got a terrain warning on the 530 and iPad, only to realise I was at <500ft AGL!

Were you in some Echo controlled airspace bellow Class A when you got caught? if you were in Golf, why not stay in IMC above MSA until you are out VMC on the other side? maybe in 0.1nm, 1nm or 10nm or 100nm or in +100ft, +1kft, +10kft but never -0.1ft

Maybe I am trivializing this but in Golf as long as aircraft is IFR certified & pilot is IR rated, there is no legality or safety issue getting in/out of clouds while staying above MSA away from airspace (there is a tiny mid-air collision risk way more acceptable than MVFR toward the ground), I tend to call ATC/FIS for help when I feel I need an IFR flight plan, IFR approach or like to get the precious IFR/IFR separation by joining airspace but usually in the first 15min, I am just flying IFR above MSA, for flying & navigation: it’s pure state of mind

The radio is the last priority and will not help that much if you are in clouds already, you should have use RT while ago (anyway it will take 20min for ATC/FIS to file you an FPL and give you an IFR clearance to airspace if you call out of the blue as VFR to climb IFR into some well guarded and busy Charlie/Alpha and if it’s a real emergency you would climb anyway )

Last Edited by Ibra at 11 Jan 20:36
Paris/Essex, United Kingdom

@dutch_flyer you have lined up 3 or 4 of the holes in the Swiss cheese there. And it is so easy to do even for the most experienced,
I’m glad you sorted it out safely and have learned from it.
Many very experienced IR rated and even ATPs say that one of the most dangerous parts of any flight is the transition from looking out of the window to looking inside. In France they talk of VMC flying, (and I will give the English translation even though the sense is a little different from that in French) as “flying by the seat of your pants” whereas in IFR you must trust your instruments.
When looking outside in VMC your senses (seat of your pants) tell you if you are banking, climbing or descending. In IMC these same senses can and will betray you.

France

UdoR wrote:

However, as the further course of action clearly shows is, that it might have been a lot safer to get out of it no matter how. 500 ft is nothing…(not even in your country)

I think you’re right. But the even better action is just to turn around immediately and not try to continue VFR. An immediate transition to IFR mode with the intent of making a 180 is guaranteed success without compounding the rule breaking. No one would fault anyone for that action.

Ibra wrote:

Maybe I am trivializing this but in Golf as long as aircraft is IFR certified & pilot is IR rated, there is no legality or safety issue getting in/out of clouds while staying above MSA away from airspace (there is a tiny mid-air collision risk way more acceptable than MVFR toward the ground), I tend to call ATC/FIS for help when I feel I need an IFR flight plan, IFR approach or like to get the precious IFR/IFR separation by joining airspace but usually in the first 15min, I am just flying IFR above MSA, for flying & navigation: it’s pure state of mind

I think this is just a UK thing, but I can’t find anything explicit about it in NL. In any case I was in a very narrow band of class G. In practice I’m not sure anyone cares, but the legality of doing what you say is unclear to me.

gallois wrote:

Many very experienced IR rated and even ATPs say that one of the most dangerous parts of any flight is the transition from looking out of the window to looking inside

Indeed!

EHRD, Netherlands

dutch_flyer wrote:

I can’t find anything explicit about it in NL

Then it’s allowed of course as long as you are IFR rated/equipped in clouds above IFR MSA (there are explicit laws that prohibits clouds flying for non-IR pilots and/or non-IFR aeroplanes and there are explicit laws about minimal flying altitudes in cruise)

dutch_flyer wrote:

In practice I’m not sure anyone cares, but the legality of doing what you say is unclear to me.

Did you find something explicit in NL law that says the alternative: “scud running in/under clouds bellow 500ft AGL” is legal and ok? I think it’s illegal for VFR (visual cruise 500ft close to obstacles) and it’s illegal for IFR (cloud cruise bellow MSA altitude) both are explicitly prohibited in the law, also third parties and people on the ground tend to care a lot about min height, distance to terrain and distance from airspace while as you said pretty much no one cares about cloud distances in Golf, except the two IR pilots flying IFR aeroplanes in the same cloud while not talking on the same frequency, in this case both deserve that mid-air collision

AFAIK, those are the only differences between VFR & IFR in Golf: obstacles MSA, cloud VMC and semi-circular cruise levels (no ATS separation happens in Golf)

I am pretty sure it’s legal in NL to IFR in Golf on flip-flop state of mind above MSA, although I recall ATC cancels IFR FPL at 2kft agl but legally you don’t need clearance if you stay in Golf forever also, you will have to climb to 2500ft before ATC can start IFR on FPL to join AMS airspace or give separation in clouds: I am pretty sure they don’t give any sort of service (clearance, join, separation or information) for aircraft on low scud run bellow 500ft agl, as they are simply not worth saving: they won’t touch any low flying aircraft under safe altitudes with a barge pole, especially in clouds, not even God can save the PIC down there…while above min safe altitudes ATC are keen to help with clearance to join airspace and assign vectors to avoid other traffic

Last Edited by Ibra at 13 Jan 16:19
Paris/Essex, United Kingdom

As a VFR only pilot, it’s been my experience that if you enter IMC unexpectedly, the safest thing to do is do a 180 on instruments, maintaining altitude and follow the original track back out. You’ll be back out if IMC a minute after making your turn (even though mentally you don’t think that!)

Once outside the IMC, your brain is massively freed up to find a new way or come up with a new plan. But once inside IMC without a plan, you’ve little mental capacity to come up with a good plan.

My experience of IFR pilots, is that they plan their flight and fly the plan. Just like us VFR pilots, IFR pilots have to mentally stay ahead of the aircraft adjusting their plan as necessary so that the aircraft never catches up with the plan (until you land). While this is important for VFR pilots, it’s even more important for IFR pilots hand flying.

If on a VFR mental plan, you suddenly enter IMC, then you are there without a plan and immediately way behind the aircraft. Far better to take the 2 minutes necessary to turn around and leave IMC, so that you have the brain capacity to come up with a new plan rather than trying to do that while in IMC.

Learnt the (semi) hard way.

EIKH Kilrush

dutch_flyer wrote:

not presume I can fly some hybrid combination of VFR and IFR. It’s one or the other, and the transition must be clear and immediate.

Thanks for sharing @dutch_flyer, +1 on the above quote of your story.
Those terrain warnings must have been pretty scary…

I must confess having had my share of similar stories over the years, but scud running (who cares about the legalities here?) did not happen by deliberate decision. It just developed during the flight, by worsening conditions such as lower cloud base, increase in the strength of rain, etc.
Weather’s a live system, marginal and not so marginal conditions can and do change rapidly… unfortunately weather doesn’t obey the nice directives as set in the METARs & TAFs… yet

Last Edited by Dan at 13 Jan 16:04
Dan
Life's short... enjoy!
LSZF, Switzerland

dutch_flyer wrote:

would have busted AMS class A.

As the OP describes so well, inadvertent IMC (with IR rated or not pilot) is an emergency. The only rule which remains is staying alive.

Nympsfield, United Kingdom
43 Posts
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