Use the Tools of IFR
The key to far safer VFR flight is to fly predictably and to avoid the big areas of risk. That means borrowing everything you can from the IFR playbook to keep from hitting the ground unexpectedly, which never ends well.
A flight that I make on a regular basis, from Austin, Texas, to Albuquerque, New Mexico, is a good case in point. This flight is fraught with peril: very high terrain, sky-high density altitude eight or nine months a year, regular severe weather along the route of flight and numerous military operating and restricted areas along the route that might limit diversions in bad weather and that might be regulatory hazards as well (if you happen to bust one while flying VFR).
On nice days, this is a fine trip to fly VFR, though you need to fly high as you reach west Texas to stay above the terrain. For an IFR pilot, this can be a challenging enough mission when the weather is bad, but when you’re VFR, the risks greatly ratchet up.
On this flight, you could and should ask for flight following. When you call to ask, remember to tell the controllers who you are (what aircraft type), where you are (they know their area, so you can reference any nearby VOR or decent-size airport), the altitude (which they use to confirm your Mode-C) and what your intentions are (where you’re going and what basic route). After you make first contact with your desired facility, fill them in on what you want: “Albuquerque Center, Cessna N12345, over Junction, 8,500 feet, destination ABQ, request flight following.” The controller will get back to you, confirm radar contact and give you a squawk code. Remember at this point that you are not, as is the case when you are flying on an IFR flight plan, under the controller’s control. He or she is merely issuing you advisories. You’re under no obligation in most cases to maintain your present altitude or track. Controllers are merely watching you on the radar screen. One thing they will do, however, is issue traffic advisories, workload permitting, which is a nice bonus.
One thing the controller won’t do, however, is help you pick a good altitude to fly or keep track of that altitude. Under IFR, the controller generally issues you an altitude, so there’s no guesswork involved. With VFR you’re the boss. So stick to the airways, learn how to read the charts to identify the minimum safe altitudes in your sector, and choose an altitude that gives you plenty of clearance. En route, I usually like to fly 5,000 feet or higher above the terrain. Sometimes in areas of very high terrain, that’s not possible without supplemental oxygen, but it’s a good rule of thumb. Having 5,000 feet to work with in case of an engine failure is a lot better than being barely above pattern altitude.
Fly the Airways
A great approach on this flight if you’re VFR-only is to ditch the “direct to” button on the navigator and fly airways. I can’t stress enough how much just this tactic can help. For one, most airways will follow the lowest terrain along your route of flight (that’s why they were invented, remember), so you don’t have to figure out your terrain clearance. The airways have done it for you. In good weather this helps you figure out your desired altitudes ahead of time, so you know if there’s a healthy climb required ahead. When the weather’s bad, it gives you an out.
Stock Your Tool Bag
Being too low en route seldom (not never) causes accidents in clear weather. It’s when the weather gets dicey that things get hairy.
The two biggest tools to have at your disposal are, one, being able to keep your airplane under control if you somehow lose visual reference and, two, having a way of knowing where the terrain is to avoid hitting it if you were to go IMC. If you’re flying the airways when this happens, unless there’s severe ice or convection, there’s no emergency involved. You just keep flying the airplane by reference to the instruments. Remember, the single biggest risk with inadvertent VFR into IMC is losing control of the airplane.
There’s no excuse for not knowing where terrain is in this day and age. If you don’t have panel-mounted terrain advisory capability, get a portable or handheld with terrain built in. Even the iPad is a great resource here. Bottom line: Know where you are and where the terrain is in relationship to you.