The JFK Aftermath

Fly in weather or dont, but make peace with yourself and lets move on


I suspect many pilots spent the weekend of July 17th the same way I did: Alternately fielding puzzled questions from friends about the John F. Kennedy Jr. crash and being irritated beyond description by round-the-clock news coverage of the incident, much of it depressingly incompetent.

When the local news outlet wanted answers now, a pimply faced 300-hour CFI is suddenly transformed into an on-camera authority and those of us with the restraint to keep our traps shut while the NTSB does its duty can only grimace at the results.

At a dinner party that weekend, I was asked by a friend You wouldnt do that, would you? as if that was as plain as the nose on my face, even as the Coast Guard was still fishing Saratoga scraps out of Rhode Island Sound. I sensed that she wanted a pithy one-sentence analysis to put things neatly into perspective. I could only shrug and think to myself, No, Id never do that, but Im happy slogging through weather that my pilot friends think is lunacy. There but for the grace of God.

Buried in the clamor of high-profile accidents such as the Kennedy crash, you can sometimes find a nugget or two of useful wisdom. For the general public, there may be none. Even competent investigations of light aircraft crashes are often inconclusive. Uncomfortable though it may be, sometimes there arent any answers; if youre seeking closure, you may have to manufacture it.

For pilots, the illumination round is already burning brightly. Even with no known cause – for all we know, a mechanical failure is possible – the Internet is alive with discussion of risk tolerance and judgment, specifically with regard to flying in marginal VFR, day or night.

Is it just dumb to do it? Is there such a thing as doing it safely? Can technique reduce the risk? Answers: No, yes and yes.

Dont Fly
Pressed for more details when none can be had, I tried to explain to my dinner companion that not every pilot measures risk the same way. She had seen an earnest young pilot explain on CNN why he had canceled a flight from Caldwell, N.J., to Marthas Vineyard the very same night, the unspoken implication being that any pilot who wouldnt reach the same decision must have been necessarily doomed.

Myopic pinheads on the networks – Dan Rather and Barbara Walters come to mind – are ill-equipped to sense let alone explain the nuances, thus aggravating the publics failure to grasp this risk assessment business.

Instructors tend to preach conservative risk assessment, but once out of the instructional nest the fledgling pilot learns that the hard edges of go/no-go judgments suddenly become fuzzy. The dyed-in-the-wool worryworts cancel a flight given the thinnest excuse, while the bolder neophytes launch into weather at or perhaps a bit beyond their abilities.

Most of the bold ones survive what can be tense experiences, learn a lesson or two and move on. No value judgments here; its just the natural distribution of the pilot population, which tends to attract risk takers in varying degrees to begin with. If you dont like risk, take up tennis.

The standard dont-fly-in-marginal-VFR rule serves conservative pilots well, and Id never argue against it. Marginal VFR has a hard definition and here it is, right out of the AIM: Ceiling 1,000 to 3,000 feet and/or visibility 3 to 5 miles inclusive. For an inexperienced pilot, even the upper end of that range may be uncomfortably murky. Yet a competent and current instrument pilot accustomed to slipping in and out of the system as tactically necessary will consider weather like that childs play.

Geography matters. It significantly affects the risk level. In the flat midwest, flying VFR with 3 miles of visibility under a 2000-foot ceiling is not a big deal. Yet trying the same thing in the Blue Ridge Mountains borders on the suicidal. Similarly, a trip over a flat or populated area in thick haze where you can see features straight down but without a horizon might be acceptable. Move the venue over water or after sunset and conditions become downright creepy, even for an experienced IFR pilot.

In my view, none of this constitutes an automatic no go, at least if innocent passengers dont clog the equation. The only way to find out where your limits are is to venture near the edge and peer over. If youre uncomfortable with that, fine. Dont.

Get Some IMC
I recently met an aircraft owner who has been in the aviation business for 30 years, flies 200 hours a year and has accumulated more than 6,000 hours, yet has no instrument rating. When I gently suggested that surely an instrument rating would be a plus, he said he felt safer without it.

I find this thinking to be undiluted idiocy. Yet in 6,000 hours of flying, this guy hasnt proven himself to be a crater in search of a grid reference. Still, theres no denying that having an instrument rating – even an out-of-currency instrument rating – is an asset in marginal VFR or in an inadvertent VFR-into-IMC encounter.

There are lots of reasons not to pursue an instrument rating; lack of time and/or money are the usual excuses. But if a pilot flies often enough to even consider having to cope with marginal VFR ops, an instrument rating is cheap insurance. Even half an instrument rating is probably better than none.

If you cant be dragged into IFR training or have the bizarre idea that youre better off without it, consider this: Collar a CFII on a medium-low IMC day and fly four or five hours of IMC. Forget the hood work, get the cloud time and log it as PIC toward a BFR or other recurrency work.

A critical but often overlooked step in IFR training is getting past the spookiness of initial IMC exposure and accepting that yes, you can keep the airplane upright in the clag and no, its not especially difficult to do at a survival level if not a proficiency level. This practice ought to include ILS work, including a coupled ILS, if the airplane has that capability.

Hood work – along with a dose of realistic recovery from unusual attitudes – is a decent second choice, but it ought to be done regularly, not pro forma on the obligatory BFR.

Outs, Like Ice
Planning and plausible outs reduce the risk of plunging into marginal VFR. If you know the tops of the haze layer, you might be able to climb into clear air where a crisp horizon will clarify things. Guard against forging into lowering ceilings or visibility and check the weather en route frequently, especially dewpoint and temperatures during the summer and fall. When they come together, fog is not far behind.

Haze tends to be inconsistent. Five miles of visibility on departure may sag to 3 miles en route and improve to 10 miles by the time you land. Or the reverse. A briefing should include as many METARs as feasible to paint an accurate picture of variable en route conditions.

When you see visibility lower to the south in remarks alongside a 2-degree temp/dewpoint spread in late afternoon, conditions are on the edge of going sour fast. This should give even a current IFR pilot pause.

Gas. Have lots of it. If you have to climb and get stuck on top of a layer, more gas translates into more range and more airport options. Speaking of which, its better to plan a route over flat ground with lots of airports than over remote or hilly areas with fewer airports. Its always preferable to have more airports at hand than not.

Autopilot? Use it. With George doing the flying, you can spend your time scanning, chart reading and doing radio work without fear of drifting off heading or upsetting the airplane. If the autopilot has control wheel steering, pitch modification, altitude hold and/or a coupler, know how to use them before the sweat beads up on your upper lip and, above all, know how to uncouple the autopilot in the event of runaway trim. It doesnt happen often, but it does happen.

Inveterate scud runners know that current charts and chart reading skills are a must and that brings to mind two other position awareness aids: Moving map GPS and ATC radar. A state-of-the-art handheld GPS provides a wealth of information about features outside the cockpit that you might not be able to see, not the least of which are runways. Having a moving map clamped to the yoke may easily forestall positional disorientation or help you get back on the bubble if you do lose it.

These days, ATC radar advisories are a gimme just about everywhere. In marginal VFR, it makes sense to use this service, both as an adjunct to your own navigation and for traffic point outs and even separation in Class B airspace. The workload of yakking on the radio is offset by the assistance ATC provides.

If the weather worsens beyond your abilities, you can instantly barge your way into the system and get an IFR clearance to better weather or an approach, as necessary. Last, with radar advisories, the search and rescue apparatus is cocked and ready.

Youre Stuck
Having flown into weather that slowly deteriorated from marginal VFR to IMC, now what? Nothing is more critical than letting the autopilot retain control. If George got you into this mess, he can fly you out of it. I have noticed a marked tendency for pilots to disable the autopilot and assume manual control when something unexpected happens. I assume this fulfills the need to do something.

Resist the urge. If better weather is known to exist behind you, turn around. If its better above or below, climb or descend on the autopilot, terrain permitting. If you cannot extricate yourself into satisfactory weather quickly and/or divert to a near airport, a call to ATC is a must, using 121.5 mhz if nothing else works.

Setting aside worries about enforcement, confess your plight and request a vector to known better weather or to the closest airport with an ILS. Plan on a coupled ILS and let ATC know that, so the intercept vector will be handled to accommodate a coupled approach.

Is it worth declaring an emergency? Your call. Declaring will merit priority handling so youll get on the ground sooner if theres other traffic around. Not declaring raises a lower profile and may or may not result in a delay. Either way, worrying about enforcement or paperwork shouldnt cloud the decision. Declare if you need to. Its a low-cost option. And by the way, if you tell ATC youre instrument rated and youre not, it may be the last lie you tell. Just a thought.

With sufficient fuel aboard, an ATC-approved autopilot climb to known on-top conditions may be an option, too. You can sort yourself out, figure out where the better weather is and proceed for a visual landing. Failing that, you can work out a deal with ATC for the closest ILS and take your time briefing it up. As an emergency option, its common sense to carry instrument plates for the areas in which youre flying. Even if theyre expired, having the approach on paper is less confusing than listening to a controller describe it.

Another option-especially if you dont have an autopilot-is an ASR or PAR approach, both radar approaches. The former is a non-precision procedure, the latter a precision approach thats available only at military bases and probably few of those anymore. Even ASRs are declining, since theyre rarely used. In either case, ATC will provide no-gyro vectors and descent information right to the runway threshold. If you can hold a heading and execute standard and half-standard turns, you can fly an ASR or PAR.

Deal With It
Flight into marginal VFR with or without an instrument rating is a personal judgment. There is no magical, one-size-fits-all formula to make the call easy or to assure a safe outcome.

If you choose to do it, thats your business. There are ways to reduce the risk but theres no point in pretending its the same risk level as a bright VFR day or if you fly the same trip under IFR.

The siren song of marginal VFR is that the risk can go from acceptable to insanely stupid in a matter of minutes and its sometimes hard to tell the difference. If youre disinclined to do your aviating from a living room chair and youre not instrument rated, know that before you take off.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Realistic Recoveries.”

-by Paul Bertorelli

Paul Bertorelli, an ATP and CFII, is the editor of The Aviation Consumer.


Please enter your comment!
Please enter your name here