VFR Into IMC Conditions: Altitude is Your Friend!

by Michael J. “Mick” Kaufman


I recently received a text message from a friend, who was looking to purchase a PA32. He found an airplane at in Controller Aircraft Sales that he wanted me to look at.

While I was looking in the publication, I noticed that the N-Number of one of the airplanes for sale was N2899D. This sparked my recollection of the fatal crash of a different airplane, N2898D, that killed a close friend and his passenger in 1984.

I had just returned from a Florida trip in 98D when the owner called to see if I was back and where the airplane was. The owner let me use the airplane anytime he was not using it by just paying for the gas. A few minutes later, I was reading an email about a study conducted in 1954 by the University of Illinois titled “178 Seconds to Live: Flight Into IMC Conditions by a VFR Pilot.”

I now have an interesting topic for this article and, hopefully, have some advice for pilots who could experience this situation. I wish I could say this is a cut-and-dried situation and you always do this; but, unfortunately, that is not the case,  as there are lots of variables.

It is sometimes suggested that a pilot should make a 180-degree turn and climb or descend, depending on the circumstances. This can sometimes be a difficult flight operation, as vertigo can set in. I have yet to find a pilot who can look me in the eye and say that he or she has never experienced vertigo. A well-respected Wisconsin FAA safety inspector and good friend of mine, Jimmy Szajkovjcs, used to travel around doing safety seminars with a vertigo chair, and he made believers out of many pilots.

First, let’s look at the type of aircraft you are flying and the equipment you have on board, as well as your knowledge of using this equipment. Let’s look at my J-3 Cub, which has an altimeter, airspeed, compass, and engine gauges. There is not even a turn coordinator, but it does have a turn coordinator ball. My guess is that in days long gone by, a pilot used a paper chart and would follow roads or railroads. There was very little controlled airspace at that time. One mile clear of clouds was the rule of the time, which is now classified as “Class G” airspace. Cruising at 60 mph gave you plenty of time to avoid towers and obstacles, which were few to be found.

My first trip to the Rockford EAA was a trip like that in an Aeronca L-3. Today, such a trip would be a lot scarier with cell phone towers everywhere and traveling three miles a minute in my Bonanza.

The last time I renewed my CFI certificate I took an online flight instructor refresher course, which I usually do in person. However, because of Covid and travel concerns, I opted for an online course.  I would recommend Aviation Seminars for anyone needing a CFI refresher or looking at a new rating.

The topic of VFR into IMC conditions was emphasized in the seminar called “Technically Advanced Aircraft.” Would John F. Kennedy, Jr. have survived if he had knowledge of his autopilot and used it?  The consensus is yes!

The best procedure to survive being in a situation of VFR into IMC conditions is to avoid the situation entirely, but that may not happen. We have all penetrated weather a bit longer than we should, or the weather just dropped in on us with no warning.

Some 50-plus years ago, I was training with an instructor for my commercial rating out of Kenosha, WI.  We were above a scattered cloud deck, when lake effect fog moved in from Lake Michigan and there was no place to go. Everything was down within reasonable flight distance and fuel reserves. We ended up declaring an emergency and doing an ILS approach into Milwaukee. Below minimums, I would have called it a  “zero-zero” landing. I was not yet instrument rated, but my instructor was. Some paperwork was required after landing, but we were alive.

The term “scud-running” has been around since the word airplane was added to our vocabulary, and it will be around forever. Many pilots have died that have tried it — and  I must say, I have done it a time or two, but I would not recommend it, unless it is the last resort with no place to land on or off an airport. If you are in a high performance or technically advanced aircraft like a Bonanza or Baron and have an autopilot, even though you’re non-instrument rated, I would turn on the autopilot and climb, even if that meant entering clouds. Put distance between you and the ground as soon as you can. There is far less chance of colliding with another aircraft than an obstacle on the ground (big sky, little airplane theory).

Now, it is time to confess your problem. ATC will help you; use the “E-word” – and the frequency to start the process is 121.5.  If you are instrument rated, do the same — don’t wait too long, as the ground or obstacle can smack you if you hesitate. Statistics show that of the accidents related to VFR into IMC conditions, 43% of these pilots held an instrument rating.

As mentioned earlier, there is not a solution that will work for every situation of VFR into IMC conditions, but I will give you a few points to consider.

If you are trapped, you must make a decision (aeronautical decision making). Don’t think of the FARs, this is an emergency and survival is the goal. A bad decision may have gotten you into this weather or it could have just dropped in on you, but you must make a decision based on your best judgment at the time.

Maybe you are trying to stay under a cloud deck to avoid icing and the ceiling just keeps getting lower. What type of aircraft are you flying? If it is a helicopter, a piper cub or other STOL aircraft, you might find a nearby airport or a field to land in.

Are you instrument rated or flying a technically advanced aircraft? If you are familiar with the autopilot, you should initiate a climb. Pitch up somewhere between 5 and 10 degrees on the attitude indicator (single engine) straight ahead depending on your aircraft, autopilot on heading straight ahead. Do not make a climbing turn as this can induce vertigo.

If you are in mountainous terrain that may be different, fly the airplane first: Aviate, Navigate, Communicate.

Aviate: If you continue to climb, you have a good chance of getting between cloud layers or on top of an overcast. Once on top or between layers, you need to decide again on where you want to go, or Navigate. This is where you may want to make a 180-degree turn if you know there is good weather behind you. However, this is not always the case, as you might be trapped.

Let’s Communicate: ATC is there to help you. If you are a VFR pilot, don’t hesitate to declare an emergency and use the “E word.” If you are an instrument pilot stay VFR, if possible, and ask for some advice on where to go and then get an instrument clearance.

Analyze your situation. How is your fuel supply? Are there icing or thunderstorms in the area? Your survival is based on your experience and the ability to make good decisions. Bonanza / Baron Pilot Training [BPT] has in-person courses that make you think about making the right decisions – and with other pilots in the class, it is helpful to share experiences. I have sure had mine.

To sum it up, if you encounter IMC conditions while flying VFR or lose situational awareness, always consider a climb as an option. American Airlines flight # 965 is a good example; study this accident: https://code7700.com/case_study_american_airlines_965.htm


Remember: “Altitude is almost always your friend.”

‘Til the next issue of “Captain’s Corner,” Fly Safe!