Have an Out, Always
Brief your situation too by saying something to the effect of “If we lose visual reference with the ground, we’ll maintain control of the airplane (use the autopilot), call approach control and when safe do a 180-degree turn back to where we were just in the clear.” This is merely an example of the kind of briefing you might conduct. What your options are will depend entirely on your flight situation. In some cases, a 180 might be ill-advised. Sometimes staying the course, confessing and asking for help will be the best bet. For those pilots worried about enforcement, remember that it’s a lot better to be alive and in trouble than dead.
Perhaps the most important skill a VFR pilot can have is the ability to go land somewhere other than the desired destination. This sounds easy, but it’s not. Flying to an unfamiliar airport at which you hadn’t planned a stop can make many pilots extremely anxious. If you’re one of them, do yourself a favor. Treat this skill like you did learning to fly on instruments. It might not be the most natural thing in the world, but learn to do it anyway. Be able to use your navigator’s “nearest” function with your eyes closed to help you find a good diversion, including noting how long the runways are, whom to talk to, how to get the weather information and whether there’s fuel. Get to the point that finding that information becomes second nature. Then go land there. When you’re all out of good ideas, being safely on the ground pretty much eliminates the risk.
Know Your Stuff
To be really prepared to fly VFR in marginal conditions — and the weather can turn marginal faster than you think it can — it’s important to hone your skills. First, you need to be comfortable flying solely by reference to the flight instruments. When you find yourself in the clouds, it’s sometimes with little or no warning. You need to be able to transition to the attitude indicator and supporting instruments without a second thought. You also need to be on top of where you are and where the terrain is at all times. Today that’s easier than ever, thanks to the widespread availability of moving map displays and terrain awareness utilities. Also, know how to ask ATC for help and how to avail yourself of that help. I know a lot of controllers. They are great people who would do anything to help a pilot avoid a bad outcome. Finally, know the weather. (VFR-only pilots arguably need to be better students of weather patterns than IFR pilots.) What are the systems in play for your flight? What are the hazards? What are the possible changes in pattern? What are the capabilities of your airplane? What are your capabilities? What’s your comfort level?
Have a Plan, Always
One of the biggest danger zones in VFR cross-country flying is not having a plan. There are two big reasons for heading out unprepared, and frankly they both stink. First is that you’re in too much of a hurry to make a plan. On a benign weather day on a familiar route, that’s probably not a big deal. But if there’s marginal weather or the risk of marginal weather, launching without a clear idea of what you’re going to do is like leaving a loaded gun lying around, safety off. This leads me to the second reason pilots go off on a marginal day without a plan: No good plan has sprung to mind, so they launch anyway, hoping they’ll figure something out along the way. Instead, figure it out before you launch. And if you really can’t come up with a solid plan, then don’t go. It’s really that easy.
Many pilots believe that flying VFR is the purest form of flying, and there’s a lot to be said for that point of view. Then again, it’s clear that when there are risk factors associated with the flight, the risks to VFR flying can be great. By applying some of the principles of IFR flying to our VFR trips and by carefully examining the risk factors, having a plan and being smart and proactive when confronted with in-flight hazards, we can greatly cut our risks and, in so doing, greatly increase our enjoyment of flying VFR.