This is the way scud running often happens. It’s not a plan but a reaction to lower weather than forecast, and the flight becomes a tactical one, just trying to stay clear of clouds and terrain for a few more minutes until they start closing in again. You’re too low, too fast and so consumed in what you’re doing you don’t have time to formulate a plan. You start to rely on your instincts, and when you’re a new pilot, the problem is, you haven’t developed many instincts yet. Or, if you have, they might be bad instincts.
Another problem is keeping track of terrain height. While it’s easy to do when you’re on an airway or along the path you drew with a pencil on the sectional while doing your preflight, it’s not easy when you start deviating to avoid the clouds, as often that deviating takes every ounce of attention you have.
The IFR Version
Let’s back up to that departure again and imagine an IFR flight plan — filed for 5,000 feet. You take off and realize the cloud deck is a little lower than forecast. You climb to 5,000 feet, join the airway as cleared and proceed en route, moving in and out of wispy clouds as you go. On that day, that’s as hard as it gets, and you know the altitude you’re flying at will keep you well clear of the rocks below.
While it’s true that thunderstorms and icing can play havoc with what seems a solid IFR plan, the same can be said, and then some, about VFR flight plans. In general, IFR makes the whole process easier and safer.
Experience the Hard Way
If it sounds as though I know what that scary VFR flight is like, you’re right, because I lived it. The scariest event was a flight home to the high desert in Southern California from Scottsdale, Arizona, the second leg in my commercial cross-country, which I’d decided to fly with my older nonpilot brother as a passenger. Though it’s been 30 years, I remember the details quite clearly. If you’ve flown much in the Southwest United States, you know that clear weather is the norm. On that day, however, there were clouds forecast. I was just a teenager working on my commercial certificate and realized the weather looked nice for the flight out but that at some time after I’d be returning, clouds were going to move in and there would be a ceiling.
The trip out took longer than I’d anticipated, the service at the diner was slow, and when we got back to the airplane, it hadn’t been fueled, so that added to the time delay. It was winter, so we had less daylight to work with than usual, and I was getting understandably anxious. One thing was in our favor: It was unseasonably warm, so ice wasn’t a factor.
We took off from Scottsdale, and I managed to get us about three-quarters of the way home before we flew into the high desert and made the turn toward our destination along the high side of the San Bernardino range, over Twentynine Palms, Yucca Valley and westward. As we flew, the ceiling continued to drop. I was just below the bottom of the ceiling, navigating by pilotage, having made a few slight diversions, when I noticed things looked very different from 800 feet agl than they did at 3,000 feet agl. At that point, I made a turn through a shallow sloping pass that followed a road I thought would take us safely home. Very soon, the terrain started to rise precipitously, and I started wondering where I was, though I kept right on going. My brother was the first to speak up, saying he thought we were headed up a mountain road and not along the desert highway we’d both thought we were following.