Departure Surprises

Even qualified IFR pilots can get in over their heads when the weather tanks


Most pilots know that one of the major causes of fatal accidents in light aircraft is continued VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). But many are surprised that more than one quarter of those accidents involve instrument-rated pilots, according to the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. You might think that the idea of an instrument-rated pilot dying in a VFR into IMC accident is oxymoronic. Unfortunately, youd only be half right.

So why is it that pilots who are qualified and current to fly in the goo turn themselves into smoking holes trying to scud-run through less-than-marginal weather? There are several factors at work here, including attitude, lack of foresight, and lack of understanding of the IFR ATC system.

The initial decision by an instrument-rated pilot to launch or continue VFR into marginal and deteriorating VMC is one that is probably driven by overconfidence. The pilot knows that he is rated for instrument flight, and may even be proficient to operate IFR that day. However, the pilot sees some factor that makes a VFR operation preferable.

Possibly, the pilot is starting from an airport at which there is no ATC radio facility to get a clearance. Or the pilot knows that the IFR routing will be much more circuitous (and therefor longer and more expensive) than a direct VFR flight. Maybe hes in a hurry, and doesnt want to wait for his turn out of a non-radar environment departure field. Even so, one has to wonder why a properly trained and qualified pilot would let one of these factors push him into a bad decision.

One problem is that many pilots get their instrument training at in-the-system airports. These are either tower-controlled or have a radio communications outlet (RCO) that lets the pilot get a clearance and release directly from ATC – no fuss, no bother. Pilots who rarely fly IFR from outlying fields may be uncomfortable with the void time system of getting a clearance.

Those pampered pilots are not happy with the idea of preparing the plane for flight, then going back inside to the phone to get a clearance with a void if not airborne in ten minutes restriction. Its not easy getting the airplane started, taxied, properly checked for instrument flight and airborne in such a short time. There are a number of ways to make this run smoother.

First, call the ATC facility or FSS before you walk out to the plane, and find out how things are running. Sometimes there wont be any significant delays and youll be able to negotiate a void time that meets your needs as well as theirs.

Another frustrating fact of life for IFR fliers involves clearance deliveries that have little in common with the route youve planned for and filed. One way to minimize this problem is by filing a Preferred IFR Tower Enroute Control or TEC route. The Airport/Facility Directory includes these, although theyre located separately at the very back of the book. Often, the TEC routes will provide lower altitudes and will be compatible with arrival/departure corridors for major airports in the area.

If you are in unfamiliar territory, ask someone who is. The FBO where you parked your plane and bought your gas probably has an instructor or other local instrument pilot hanging around who is familiar with how the local controllers like to route you. Even if you dont file one of the preferred routes, make sure you are familiar with them in case you dont get what you asked for.

Second, before you call for the release, get the airplane as ready as possible. This includes warming up and checking the engines and systems so when you get back in to go, you have minimized the time you must spend before takeoff. Also, set up the radios and nav systems for the expected route – the one you really know youre going to get based on your earlier discussion with ATC. Have all your passengers and baggage loaded and ready, including the passenger briefings on seat belts, smoking and emergency exits. Now, when you get your release, youre ready to execute it without feeling serious time pressure.

Where pilots have gotten into deep trouble in this situation is allowing their impatience to get the better of them. They then often skip the pre-takeoff telephone clearance and take off VFR with the intention of getting a clearance once airborne. Many pilots do this routinely, but its not without risk.

For example, the crew of a Beechjet 400 filed an IFR flight plan for a 15-minute flight from Rome, Ga., to Huntsville, Ala. The jet took off VFR at 9:37 am with the copilot flying. Conditions were marginal, with a ceiling of 1,500 to 2,000 feet and 4 miles visibility in scattered light rain showers.

The captain contacted Atlanta Center to obtain an IFR clearance and was advised that other traffic was in the area. The controller instructed the crew to remain VFR while an IFR clearance was being arranged. At that time, the flight reported at 1,300 feet in VFR conditions.

The CVR tape showed that the crew became concerned about higher terrain and low ceilings while waiting for their clearance. At about 9:40, the captain directed the copilot to fly back to the right. Approximately one minute later, radio contact was lost. Later, the aircraft was found where it had collided with the top of Mount Lavendar at approximately 1,580 feet.

There are two significant factors in this accident. First, the crew had no plan for anything other than immediate radar contact, vectors, and receipt of their clearance as filed. Second, the flight conditions made safe VFR flying difficult. This aircraft was a jet with two experienced pilots aboard, subject to Part 125 currency and training requirements; one would think theyd know better.

Have a Plan
Its wise to be a little pessimistic and act with foresight. Think about not only what is supposed to happen, but also what might get in the way of what is supposed to happen. For example, before taking off VFR to pick up an IFR clearance airborne, you should already know what youre going to do if the reply to our initial call to ATC is not radar contact, cleared as filed but is any of following:

1. N12345, Boondock Approach, you are below my radar coverage and below the MEA; youll have to climb VFR to [1000 above the base of the solid overcast] before I can issue a clearance.

2. N12345, Boondock Approach, unable to accept additional traffic, expect one-zero minute delay, remain clear of Class B airspace and maintain VFR.

3. N12345, Boondock Approach, radar contact, cleared to [an intersection you never heard of] via [a route you neither filed nor planned], turn left heading [directly into a maturing thunderstorm], climb and maintain [an altitude at which moderate rime/mixed ice is forecast], when receiving [a VOR station you cant find on the L-chart] proceed direct.

What are you going to do in each of these cases?

In the first case, your choices are simple: return to the field you just departed VFR or proceed enroute VFR. Although the controller is allowed to give you an IFR clearance below MEA if you agree to assume responsibility for obstacle avoidance, many controllers dont know this. Arguing about it over the frequency isnt likely to get you very far.

If you cant climb in visual conditions to the minimum altitude for IFR operations, you have to decide whether you have enough ceiling and visibility to proceed to your destination VFR. If not, you will have to return to your departure point.

Thats a course of action many pilots are very unwilling to take, either because their ego says theyre good enough to proceed or because theyre locked into the fly mode once they push the throttle forward on takeoff. And even if you do elect to return for landing, there are many times when the weather isnt good enough to go back.

Pilots often launch through a low scud layer, and find themselves between the thin low layer and an overcast at 2,000 agl or so. In such a case, getting back into the departure airport is difficult, and now you are between the proverbial rock and hard place. You can avoid this corner by ensuring that you know the minimum enroute and vectoring altitudes for the departure area. Dont launch unless the ceiling is high enough to let you climb to them in VMC.

Unfortunately, these altitudes are not always easy to find. The new grid altitudes on the low altitude enroute charts will give you an idea of the MEA, but these are the highest MEA in a rectangle 60 nm by 35 to 45 nm (depending on latitude). Often, lower altitudes are available. Check the MEAs on the approach chart for the departure airport, or contact the controlling agency by phone before takeoff.

In the second case, youll need to find a place to hold until the controller is ready for you. This is what the Beechjet crew didnt have. Youll have to be adequately familiar with the surrounding terrain to safely operate VFR below the existing ceiling considering the prevailing visibility. This requires study of the sectional or other VFR charts for the departure area.

And if you want to stay strictly legal, also keep in mind the minimum altitude the FARs say is appropriate for whats under you. If you are operating over populated areas, that will be 1,000 to 2,000 feet above the highest obstacle, while staying at least 500 feet below the overlying deck. If the ceiling is less than 2000 feet, that will be just about impossible.

The third case is a test of preplanning, intestinal fortitude and negotiation skills. When you file your route, use the techniques discussed above to ensure that the route you expect and the route you will get are the same. Its a lot easier to get a controller to agree to an unusual routing after you are in the system than before. If your initial request before you get a clearance is too much trouble, the controller can tell you, Take a number, take a seat.

At the same time, you are not obligated to accept a clearance you dont understand. If you cant find the route elements or the clearance will jeopardize safety, you can decline the clearance or tell the controller what the problem is without accepting the clearance. Often, the controller will help you get started by giving you frequencies, radials and other information. You must, however, be in a position to remain VFR, fly the plane and maintain an adequate visual lookout so you dont run into the ground or another aircraft while working with the chart.

You may have to work with the controller to find a routing/altitude that will keep you clear of hazardous conditions such as icing or convective activity. But remember that the controller is under no obligation to deal with you if you arent already operating on a clearance. Thats why its much better to sort this out on the phone before takeoff if youre looking for a non-standard route.

Mind the Weather and Terrain
A lot of folks take a fast look at the reported weather at their departure airfield, and assume that what they see is what theyre going to get between takeoff and IFR pickup. That aint necessarily so. A ceiling is only the distance between the cloud deck and some specific point on the ground. Cloud bases are usually fairly level with respect to mean sea level, not a height above local terrain. Move away from that point into higher terrain, and the deck gets close to the ground.

A 2,500-foot ceiling at an airport near rising terrain may rapidly become a 1,000-foot ceiling or even hills obscured by cloud within a few miles. Just check out the terrain around some place like Lebanon, N.H., or Staunton Va., or Reno, Nev. This means that even when the ceiling is good VFR, you have to be thinking about what kind of terrain is nearby and whether you stand a chance of the ground rising up to meet clouds in the direction youre headed.

In order to do this, youd better have a sectional with you. There are a lot of pilots who fly IFR with only the IFR en route charts and approach plates on board. While the legal ramifications of this are not clear, it is clear that you can get killed if you dont keep the VFR charts handy, and that should be enough motivation. When launching in marginal visibility, you simply cannot see the rising terrain before you hit it. If you dont have a sectional, you dont have enough information to select a safe VFR altitude below the IFR MEA, especially if you arent operating on a published route.

The Beechjet crew cited earlier who departed to get a clearance airborne is very similar to the case of the IFR pilot who takes off VFR into marginal conditions, betting he can get a clearance if he needs one. Many IFR pilots think its as easy as calling Center and filing IFR to their destination, and in fact pilots get away with that all the time. Unfortunately, getting a clearance is not always so simple.

You must be high enough that the controller can pick you up on radar and start vectoring you. The controller must have the time to take you on without a filed IFR flight plan. The controller may pick you up and put you in the system, but he or she also may tell you theyre too busy.

In that case, you must contact Flight Service to file an IFR flight plan with them, after which the computer will crunch for a while and finally spit out a strip the controller can use to give you a clearance. In that time, conditions can go sufficiently downhill that you are already a smoking hole and theres no one left to read back the clearance.

It doesnt take a rocket scientist to figure out how to beat this trap.Recognize that despite the fact that airplanes give us the ability to avoid the beaten path, its not always possible to get a straight-line course. We must accept certain systemic limitations in our route choices, just as we must accept the fact that we cant fly through a thunderstorm.

If the weather doesnt provide you a VMC path all the way to the destination, file early and accept the longer trip. Since the reason for the circuitous routes in the A/FD is that ATC cant handle through traffic in those areas, they will not be any more likely to if you pop up unexpectedly in such a no-mans-land.

You will be left to twist in the wind (and clouds and fog) while the controller tries to work something out – and thats the critical period of time when you have nowhere to go. By putting yourself in a corner where you must have someone elses help to get out, youre putting a big wager on a less-than-sure thing.

In addition, when flying VFR into marginal weather, always be thinking about where youll need to be in order to get a clearance if things get worse. Do not allow yourself to be driven below the minimum communication and radar service altitudes in an attempt to stay below decreasing ceilings or to stay in ground contact as the visibility deteriorates.

Keep IFR charts available and study them ahead of time to get an idea of the lowest altitudes along your route that ATC can see and talk to you, and note the frequencies for the agencies that control those segments. You definitely dont want to be fumbling head-down in the cockpit in marginal VMC.

Leave your ego behind. Be spring-loaded to the this aint working position. At the first hint that things are going sour, give up the idea of continuing VFR and get on the radio for an IFR clearance. Yes, this will make your flight a little longer, but think how much more comfortable youre going to feel when youre up there 3,000 feet above the MEA, safe and secure in the capable hands of ATC.

Finally, always have an out that doesnt depend on anyone else. Just as you learned in your student pilot days, dont continue from where you are unless you can get from where you will be next to a suitable airport in good VMC. You cant always count on ATC coming up with a clearance for you in a timely manner, and its really embarrassing to have to explain to the FSDO why you had to declare an emergency while VFR in order to get a clearance from ATC.

Realize that the instrument rating is only useful after ATC is working with you – it doesnt help you when youre VFR. Consider yourself a VFR-only pilot when flying that route into marginal weather, and keep your VFR options accordingly open.

Weve all been there, and some have even been smart enough both to be sure that they always had an out and to use that good out before it was too late. Instrument instructors may want to train students in the problems with obtaining a clearance enroute, especially at low altitude in marginal conditions.

An instrument rating by itself is not a panacea. You must be foresighted enough to file and get a clearance while and when you can do it safely, and not wait until you are boxed in on all sides with no other way out to start trying to get a clearance.

-by Ron Levy

Ron Levy, an ATP and CFI, is Assistant Chief Flight Instructor at American Eagle Aeronautical Academy.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here