Stay Out of the Clouds

If you find yourself stuck in IMC, know how to get out.

Recently, a former private pilot student of mine revealed some information during his biennial flight review that made my heart skip a few beats and nearly get stuck in my throat. He said he enjoys flying through clouds. Had this been one of my instrument students, I would have been happy. But this man never continued his training to receive an instrument ticket.

After I reamed him out, he said he only does it through thin clouds, where he can essentially see the other side before even entering. But regardless of how small a cloud is you should never go beyond the legal limits. The rules are there for a reason – to keep you and others in the sky safe. Even a small cloud could be hiding another airplane, a tower or a hill. And there is a chance that flying through small clouds will encourage you to push the limits further and fly through bigger and bigger clouds increasing the potential for severe consequences.

My student, now tail between his legs, then queried me what he should do if inadvertent clouds appear enroute. Well, this is a tough question and it really depends on each situation and the resources available to you. The first rule of thumb is, if you’re VFR, stay VFR. If you have a GPS, push the nearest button and fly to the nearest airport that you can reach without having to enter the clouds. And stay on the ground until the weather clears up enough that you can get to your destination in VFR conditions.

If you inadvertently find yourself in a cloud, note your heading and immediately start a level 180-degree turn to get yourself out. Try to maintain a standard rate turn or no more than 20-degrees of bank if you’re not used to referencing rate-of-turn indications. Keep your altitude level and level your wings once your reach the opposite heading. This maneuver should get you back into VFR conditions. Then find a place to land.

If clouds are quickly building and you can’t safely stay VFR, confess your situation immediately to the controller (hopefully you’re in communication with one). Hopefully he or she can give you directions on how to get to the nearest airport or to VFR conditions without hitting anything on the way.

You should also try your best to avoid flying VFR on top, unless you’re overflying very small area of low clouds. If you have any kind of system failure, particularly an engine failure, VFR on top is a bad place to be. Flying below the clouds is fine as long as you have good ground clearance. But avoid scud running at all cost. Flying under a low level of clouds can be almost as disorienting as flying inside them, and as soon as you get near rising terrain your ground clearance decreases. If the clouds are lower than 2,000 feet agl, stay on the ground.

Flying through clouds is tons of fun. But it should only be done if you’re IFR current and on an instrument flight plan.