VFR Into IMC Accident Prevention

While VFR flight into IMC isn’t responsible for as many accidents as loss of control, VFR-into-IMC ­accidents are almost always fatal. Clare Nicholas

Three men chartered a Beechcraft Bonanza for a late-night flight between Mason City (KMCW), Iowa, and Fargo (KFAR), North Dakota, about 200 nautical miles. The 21-year-old charter pilot’s initial review of the forecast that chilly February evening called for VFR weather with bases along the route at 5,000 feet and visibility of 10 miles. The only possible snafu was near Fargo, where a chance of snow showers existed around their original arrival time of 1 a.m., with a cold-front passage due a few hours later.

Just before their original departure time from KMCW, according to the Civil Aeronautics Board report, the pilot checked the weather and learned the ceilings had dropped to 4,200 feet en route, but visibilities were still good. Light snow was reported in Minneapolis, however, some 100 nm southeast of Fargo. The weather briefer also told the pilot that the cold front was moving faster than expected and would pass through Fargo about 2 a.m. local time.

As often happens, the passengers arrived at the Mason City airport late. To save time, the pilot decided to file his VFR flight plan once he was airborne. As the Bonanza departed, just before 1 a.m., the Mason City weather had deteriorated to an obscured ceiling at 3,000 feet and a visibility of 6 miles in light snow. Winds from the south had picked up to 20 knots, with gusts to 30 knots. The VFR-rated pilot pressed on despite the route taking them over sparsely populated terrain at night, which, combined with snow showers, would offer the pilot little or no visible horizon. (Note: At the time of this accident many years ago, charter pilots were allowed to fly single-engine aircraft at night without holding an instrument rating, a rule that has since changed.)

Shortly after departure, the pilot turned northwest and climbed to about 800 feet. The owner of the charter company said that he could clearly see the aircraft’s white recognition light as the aircraft flew away. He later estimated that the Bonanza was about 5 miles from the airport when he observed the taillight descending until it disappeared. The pilot made no radio calls after takeoff.

Following an intensive ground search, the wreckage was located the next morning covered in 4 inches of snow. The pilot, Roger Petersen, was killed, along with his three passengers, Charles Hardin, J.P. Richardson and Richard Valenzuela—all of whom had been thrown clear of the aircraft. The investigation indicated some of the passengers might not have been wearing a seat belt. The passengers, all veteran entertainers, were better known by their professional names: young recording artist Buddy Holly, a musician known as the Big Bopper, and singer and guitarist Ritchie Valens. Their deaths that night later became the subject of Don McLean’s 1971 hit single, “American Pie.” Their tragic flight also became one of best-known examples of a pilot pressing on into weather when he should have turned around—or never departed in the first place.

The CAB said that Roger Petersen held a commercial pilot certificate and had logged 711 hours prior to the accident. Though he was training for the rating, Petersen had failed his instrument check ride nine months prior to the accident and had not tried to retake the test. The CAB learned that the majority of Petersen’s instrument training was taken in aircraft using what was then known as a conventional attitude indicator with a “T-type” symbol representing the airplane. The accident aircraft used a Sperry attitude gyro that offered the pilot a significantly different attitude presentation. Investigators found the Bonanza’s vertical speed indicator stuck at a 3,000 fpm descent while the attitude indicator was jammed in a 90-degree descending right turn. The airplane’s autopilot was inoperative. A tear-down of the Bonanza’s engine uncovered no powerplant issues.

The CAB report (2-0001) identified the cause of the accident as the pilot’s “unwise decision to embark on a flight which would necessitate flying solely by instruments when he was not properly certified or qualified. Contributing factors included serious deficiencies in the weather briefings he received and the pilot’s unfamiliarity with the instrument that determines the attitude of the aircraft.” Today, the National Transportation Safety Board would call this accident “continued VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions.”

While VFR flight into IMC isn’t responsible for as many accidents as loss of control, more than 60 years after “the day the music died”—as the famous words from the song go—VFR-into-IMC accidents are almost always fatal. Flight into bad weather is simply the precursor to a complete loss of aircraft control, usually followed by a collision with terrain. Inexperienced pilots don’t realize until they’ve entered a cloud—or a rain or snow shower—that looking out the windows for help is useless. Their senses are instantly confused, and their brain can no longer tell up from down or left from right. Factors known to convince pilots to press on include their lack of solid decision-making based on a lack of instrument flying experience, as well as human-factor concerns such as the self-induced pressure to continue a flight as they near home, despite watching the weather close in around them.

Interestingly, the 30th Nall Report data shows that the total number of weather accidents reported for 2018 declined significantly from the previous year—from 42 to 23—though, such a snapshot in time rarely leads to any meaningful conclusions. That same data says 13 of the 14 accidents caused by VFR into IMC were fatal, moving the needle from 76 percent of the total to more than 90 percent. Half of the pilots involved in weather accidents held a private pilot certificate. It is unclear how many of those pilots also held an instrument rating, though some NTSB reports clearly showed that even instrument-rated pilots succumbed to a loss of control in the weather while wrestling to maintain control of their aircraft.

Flight into bad weather is simply the precursor to a complete loss of aircraft control, usually followed by a collision with terrain. Pilguj/Shutterstock

The Question Is: “Why?”

Flying columnist Martha King offered a pragmatic look at GA flying. “VFR flying for transportation is not dependable, and it has the additional downside of luring you into taking the risks that cause [VFR-into-IMC] accidents.” Certainly none of us wake up and decide that we’ll end the day by flying into weather we can’t handle. Yet, these accidents continue.

Some of our primary research for this story included combing through more than 200 of the NTSB’s final accident reports posted over the past 20 years that listed their cause as “continued VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions.” The accidents broke down into a couple of categories: In the first were pilots who flew straight into the clouds or restrictions to visibility with no attempt—or an unsuccessful attempt—to avoid them. In the second were pilots who attempted VFR flight on moonless nights or beneath solid cloud bases, over unlit terrain or water, unaware that they’d have no useful horizon for guidance.

Dr. Tony Kern says, “No VFR pilot should get anywhere near a cloud.” Kern—a retired US Air Force officer, B-1 check pilot and the former chairman of the US Air Force Human Factors Division—is the CEO of Convergent Performance, a Colorado Springs, Colorado-based human-factors and performance-training company with ties to the aviation industry. “If you’re not instrument-qualified and -proficient, you have no business being there. But if you do anyway, know that you’re gambling with your life.” He detailed a scenario that adds significant pressure to pilots. “They’ve burned half their gas, thinking, ‘If I do get into weather, I’ve planned for a place to go,’” at least at first. “But when they’re only 20 minutes from home…'get there-itis,’ a fancy name for continuation bias,” takes hold. They often decide their plan “has worked so far. If they can just get through these last 10 minutes, they’re going to be fine.” But they often don’t.

Bob Wright, the former manager of the FAA’s general aviation and commercial division, says: “Of all the accident categories we deal with, these are the most avoidable because of the tools available to anybody today—and the ability to detect conditions under which the VFR-into-IMC accidents are favorable is relatively easy. First of all, in-flight observation and the ability to get a weather briefing have been available to all of us for a long time, but now we have things like a weather data link and autopilots on most airplanes. An autopilot is one way to avoid a [VFR-into-IMC] accident, even if the pilot has only minimal training. Somehow, though, we’re not training pilots the right way.”

Kern agrees, saying, “I don’t think we properly train pilots about the things they just shouldn’t do…that there are risk thresholds they just shouldn’t cross.” Kern calls these “decision gates,” where there’s one way in—and usually no way out. Also, he says, there are people who enjoy and love risk-taking. “The first part of pilot training should make people self-analyze how they feel about risks. Most pilots are courageous people who aren’t afraid to fly. Almost by definition then, that makes them sort of [natural] risk-takers. So how do we [influence] a mindset like that so they can learn the mental discipline to recognize when situations are getting bad?”

Instructors Have a Role To Play

Kern believes CFIs should make certain pilots not only remember basic VFR minimums (a 1,000-foot ceiling and 3-statute-mile visibility) but also be sure they can identify those conditions when they’re airborne. If they should wander into bad weather, he wants them to understand the initial startle effect they’ll likely experience. “Once they do,” Kern says, “most of their brain shuts down, like the prefrontal cortex. Because the brain is a blood hog, it quickly delivers powerful stimulants to the muscles. That’s what makes people grip the controls and push hard on the rudder [pedals]—everything they shouldn’t be doing at that moment. Pilots need to learn ways to calm themselves, like taking a few deep breaths,” before they do anything.

He says those moments when the brain begins shooting adrenaline through the body last only a few seconds. Once that passes, a properly trained pilot needs to focus on controlling the airplane, if they understand what the instruments are telling them. That’s why training pilots under the hood to only the FAA minimums is not likely to be enough to save their lives should they fly into bad weather. This is when a pilot’s body and brain begin offering conflicting cues, usually different from their flight instruments. “We need to train pilots to realize that the most likely thing going on is that their brain is wrong and that the aircraft instruments are right. We need them to be able to fly using those instruments,” Kern says. That translates into instrument training beyond the scant three hours the regulations demand of a private pilot applicant today. That won’t be a regulated change. The demand for better training needs to come from pilots themselves.

Wright says instructors also need to be certain new pilots understand how to use all their aircraft’s available technology. “Even though we train private pilots to make a 180-degree turn out of the weather, a lot of them lose control during that event. The best thing to do if a pilot in an airplane with an autopilot gets stuck in the clouds inadvertently is to turn the darned thing on and sort the rest out later. If you try to turn the airplane around without using the autopilot and the pilot has minimal instrument training, they’re entering uncharted territory.” Wright adds: “The [pilot’s] training must also include interpreting what they see ahead, like how to recognize upcoming VFR and IMC. That makes for effective training.”

Weren’t the airman certification standards introduced a few years ago supposed to offer more practical guidance on the standards to which pilots will be held for problem areas such as VFR into IMC? Wright says: “Not yet, but it may in the future, because the ACS really hasn’t even taken hold yet. There’s also no FAA guidance on how to handle risk management by the average pilot. Many instructors don’t even know how to teach it. Over time, pilots will be trained in how to perform practical risk management, but until that happens, there’s really nothing in the ACS that’s going to swing the needle.”

Wright says there are practical methods to teach flight near areas of deteriorating weather, such as on a cross-country. After the student has been taught how to mine the most important jewels of a good weather briefing, he suggests a training exercise: telling the student the destination weather has dropped to 1,000 and 3 to see how—or if—they decide a change to their flight might be needed. Once airborne, he suggests a weather diversion telling them the cloud bases along the way are now at 2,000 feet. “Then tell them the ceiling will continue dropping 100 feet each minute to see how they handle it. Train them to start early to get on the ground safely, or they’ll keep getting closer and closer to the IMC weather.”

Kern offered an important assessment of the critical decision gates mentioned earlier. “There are no returns when pilots make these decisions,” like continuing toward deteriorating weather. “The problem is, they don’t realize these are life-or-death decisions, but we need to stop talking about this topic like we’re all nerds. Never take off on any flight when you don’t have an acceptable alternate in mind. Never penetrate a cloud. Don’t be that guy who thinks, ‘I need to get to my daughter’s soccer game’ or ‘I promised the owner I’d have his airplane back tonight.’ This will kill you.” Pinning down one pilot segment, Kern says professionals such as dentists, doctors and business icons too often think “because they’re the best in the world at one thing that it will automatically make them good at flying. Aviation is different. I think the ego piece of this is huge for these natural risk-takers. As that poster says, ‘Aviation is very unforgiving of any carelessness or neglect.’” Kern spoke to one last important tactic all pilots should consider when bad unforecast weather appears ahead: “Since an airplane will almost always outrun the weather, you just need to run from it. But you’ve got to have a place to run, and you’ve got to have a place to land.”

After a brush with flying in IMC weather when he and Martha should have remained VFR, John King said: “We learned just how stupid a pair of allegedly bright people can be when they want to reach their destination. We also learned that the two of us were the biggest risk factor in the airplane.”

Don’t Become a Statistic

Tips to inoculate yourself against VFR-into-IMC flight

  • If you do enter IMC weather, don’t panic—breathe.
  • Demand more than just three hours of instrument instruction from your CFI during private pilot training.
  • Trust the airplane’s instruments, not your senses.
  • Always have an alternate airport in mind, even on a local flight.
  • Ask your instructor to demonstrate flight in ­low-VFR conditions, such as 1,000-foot ceilings and 3-mile ­visibility.
  • When that voice in your head says the route ahead doesn’t look good, turn around while you still can.
  • Learn to use the airplane’s autopilot.
  • Set personal weather minimums and refuse to violate them—no matter what.
  • Understand why better-than-forecast weather is a blessing and less-than-forecast weather is a warning.
  • Continually assess your flight conditions and your alternates while airborne.
  • Train your passengers and yourself not to push to reach any destination.
  • Call for help on 121.5 (only if you’re able to maintain control of the airplane—fly the airplane first).

This story appeared in the January-February 2021 issue of Flying Magazine

Rob MarkAuthor
Rob Mark is an award-winning journalist, business jet pilot, flight instructor, and blogger.

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