Visual flight rules (VFR) pilot encounters with inadvertent instrument meteorological conditions (IIMC) have claimed many lives tragically and unnecessarily. The tragic deaths of the passengers onboard the helicopter that included Kobe Bryant back in January 2020 has brought to the international spotlight a completely avoidable, but all too familiar, accident cause that was previously known only to those of us in the aviation industry.
Lucky escapes and learning from mistakes
One of my very first paid helicopter flights was a short ferry flight from our base airport to another airport only 20 nm away. I was a newly minted certified flight instructor eager to start building flight time. I had been tasked to find a student to accompany me (so that he could be billed for the ‘training ferry flight’) to take the small helicopter to the location where maintenance would be performed. In between both sea level airports was terrain that rose to about 1,700’. On this particular afternoon, the tops of the terrain were visible, but not by much, and there was a fair amount of moisture in the air. I coerced my one and only student at the time, a young man who was learning English at the same time he was learning to fly, to come along. He took one look at the direction we would traverse and expressed his concern. I can’t say I didn’t agree with him, but at the time I was worried about telling the boss no, so we pushed the aircraft out from the hangar, and as the rain began to fall, we fuelled the aircraft for its journey. On departure, even air traffic control (ATC) expressed some misgivings about the route, but in my deepest radio voice, I fake sounded like I knew what I was doing, and we proceeded.
There were two peaks that had to be navigated, and the first one we managed with some degree of clearance. The second peak
there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. When it comes to aviation, strive to be boring
was a bit lower, but before we reached it, the waves of fog were beginning to spill toward us, and the peak was quickly disappearing into the cloud base. My student further expressed concern as we began circling over a college soccer field that was in between the two elevations. During our initial orbit entry, I saw that a return to our departure point was not available due to the deteriorating weather developing over that point. My desire to get the job done and not be ‘that guy’ that couldn’t even complete a 20 nm ferry flight was weighing heavily on my decision-making process as the circling pattern we had begun flying got smaller and smaller and our airspeed got slower and slower. The weather had worsened.
I swallowed my pride and set up an approach and landing to the college soccer field. I walked a short distance to the campus security booth at the entrance to the school and used the phone to call back to the base. The security guard chimed in that he wondered what we were doing as he could hear us but not see us. Our chief pilot drove to meet us, and we all lived to fly another day (after the weather improved).
Your ego can get you into some stupid situations with potentially catastrophic consequences. Make the right choice, make it early and live to fly another day. IIMC avoided!
Is legislation the answer?
US politicians have now introduced legislation requiring the Federal Aviation Administration (FAA) to require helicopter terrain awareness systems (HTAWS), data and voice recorders on all aircraft with six or more passengers. Will that stem the tide of mechanically sound aircraft being flown into reduced visibility and those pilots losing aircraft control resulting in fatalities? An interesting aside is that back in 2017, the FAA mandated HTAWS on all air ambulance helicopters, so I speak with some experience of having flown both with and without this piece of equipment.
This Bill, while well intentioned I’m sure, would, in my opinion, do little to prevent such tragedies. What a terrain awareness system does is give you an audio alert when you’re within a prescribed distance from the ground below (‘Warning, terrain, pull up’ – that sort of thing) and that added information, especially at night, is nice to help with ground proximity and situational awareness during approach or while diverting, but once you’re in the clouds and spatial disorientation has taken hold, you start to respond to the sensations that your inner ear is feeding your brain, and one more warning sound in your helmet will likely not result in recovering the aircraft to stable flight.
Avoidance tactics – top tips
We’ve identified the problem: a pilot's decision to continue visually into deteriorating weather conditions. The following steps identify my top six suggestions for avoiding entering IMC during a VFR flight in a VFR aircraft.
Thorough weather check and frequent updates
Before you head out, planning is paramount. You must conduct a thorough weather check to include departure, destination and enroute weather and forecast. Take into consideration any stopovers or possible delays, diversions, time of day and weather trends. There really is no excuse these days not to have the latest professionally interpreted weather before deciding to fly. Pilots who have come along in the last few years are so spoiled. If you’ve been flying for less than a decade, you probably have no idea of the monotony of deriving the weather for your proposed flight by calling the Flight Service Station, waiting for a briefer and then trying to jot down in shorthand their rapid fire, thousand-word-a-minute reading of the weather while trying to mark boundaries they give you to any airmets, sigmets or convective sigmets. Now, you have everything at your fingertips. Make use of this incredible tool, and strive to master all of the features applicable to your type of flying.
Set an Enroute Decision Point
The National EMS Pilots Association (NEMPSA) developed the Enroute Decision Point (EDP) program, which recommends that when flying, you never descend below 300’ during the day and 500’ at night, and those altitudes are far from other hazards, so set higher minimums for yourself based on your experience, the route you’ve selected, and your comfort level. If you find yourself slowing down to allow yourself more time to visually process the terrain ahead of you, that’s the time to consider alternatives, turn around, divert or land. NEMPSA recommends if you have slowed to 90 knots or some benchmark of airspeed reduction – 10-30 knots for example – below cruise airspeed, you now need to proceed to an alternative area or return to base. This is another great, practical objective measurable parameter that when it occurs, that’s it.
Discipline is a must-have characteristic to develop in aviation. Weather minimums allowed by regulation are just that, minimums. Establish your own higher minimums based on your familiarity with local geography, seasonal weather patterns, and by talking to more experienced pilots in your area, and stick to those rules you’ve set for yourself. Experience is an excellent resource to aid in avoidance, but don’t allow experience to create an attitude of overconfidence. If you read through many of the accident investigation reports from the National Transportation Safety Board (NTSB) where the primary cause was listed as ‘continued visual flight into instrument meteorological conditions’, you’ll see these aren’t only happening to junior aviators. Arrogance, complacency, apathy; none have any place in aviation. Establish your higher personal minimums for enroute altitude and minimum airspeed and absolutely stick to those minimums.
Likely you’ve heard the saying or seen it at your local fixed-base operator (FBO), ‘Truly superior pilots are those who use their superior judgment to avoid those situations where they might have to use their superior skills.’ Along those lines, I also like ‘I’d rather be on the ground wishing I were flying, than flying wishing I were on the ground’. Monitor the weather in flight. Altitude permitting, you can access any number of ATC facilities or the Flight Service Station for updated weather reports. Pay particular attention to the temperature/dew point spread and query ATC for PIREPS along your route. At the very first sign of deteriorating weather, make a decision to abort, or divert. With helicopters, you also have the luxury, as I did, to land in an open area or college soccer field. There may be consequences for an unplanned landing on what might be private property, but it certainly beats the possible alternative.
Divert to areas with better weather. As a result of your diligent weather planning, you should have identified an area in case you need to divert. Think of it as a VFR alternative. Possibly an area of lower terrain, higher pressure, greater visibility. If that’s not there, then turn around or land (clearly a lot easier in a helicopter). The point here is don’t wait until the decision is made for you. One of the primary benchmarks of a professional aviator is making good decisions in an environment with multiple, often changing variables.
At the very first sign of trouble, get hold of ATC, company radio, local FBO, other pilots flying; they can help you with real-time weather information, areas of better weather and useful frequencies. Don’t be afraid to declare an emergency. There is a stigma attached to it that isn’t warranted. Anytime the successful outcome of your proposed flight is in question, get help right away.
Do it safe, do it right
Flying is one of the greatest experiences you can have, second only to landing safely. Develop a professional mindset from the start, be disciplined, set limits, make good decisions in a timely manner, utilize all the tools you have available, never stop learning, review any close calls and endeavor to learn from any mistakes. Remember the old quote ‘there are old pilots and there are bold pilots, but there are no old, bold pilots. When it comes to aviation, strive to be boring’.