Inadvertent IMC: Level Wings, Climb!

Any pilot caught in “inadvertent IMC” usually got into this trouble somewhat intentionally, continuing into deteriorating weather with some hope of improvement or “getting through.” This continued flight, usually driven by “mission mentality,” often gets lower (and scarier) until continuing visual flight is impossible. But what happens next usually kills pilots – 2/3s of both IFR-rated and VFR – when they try to turn around without visual references. A 180 degree turn immediately after entering inadvertent IMC is almost certainly going to kill an unprepared pilot (even IFR rated).  Amazingly, pilot test applicants frequently recommend this immediate 180 as “the FAA solution to an IMC encounter”- some instructors must be teaching this? Actually, a 180 turn for IMC escape is *not* in the ACS  or any FAA guidance I could find! The newest FAA Airplane Flying Handbook also recommends all IFR turns (for pilot emergencies and training/testing) be limited to a maximum of 10 degrees of bank.

A turn before entering IMC is wise – avoidance!  A turn immediately after entering IMC might be considered very poor risk management on an FAA flight test (and it might kill you in flight). There is no clear source of this flight training dogma but the first mention might be a 1954 AOPA study with Bonanzas? After that, it seems have migrated from avoidance to escape?

Step one in surviving inadvertent IMC is recognizing and accepting the failure of visual reference to control the plane by committing to flight on the instruments – entirely! Then definitely do not make (or teach) an immediate 180 turn; job #1 is achieving and maintaining control; flying level is safest. My personal advice (having watched many pilots attempt an immediate turn) is to initially stare at the attitude indicator while you calm yourself, carefully keeping the wings level. “Stare” works best because an inexperienced pilot “scanning” usually results in fixation and LOC-I too.

Once a pilot is calmed down (trimmed and breathing again) some cross-checking is valuable. In most cases, the next best action is a smooth, stable climb away from the terrain (while maintaining control). This maneuver is often emotionally difficult because this same pilot had previously been avoiding clouds; but now time to avoid rocks. Accepting the emergency and climbing away from terrain is critical to survival. Finally, as control becomes more comfortable and a safe altitude is achieved, seeking help with radar facility is important. There is a reason this is on the flight test; learning division of attention is essential to safety here. Be very cautious and assertive about flying the plane within your level of safety when talking with ATC. Unfortunately, not every controller can understand the gravity of your predicament (we have good people working on that). Flying the aircraft under control is your first priority.

VFR into IMC resources from AOPA

SAFE Executive Director Emeritus, Doug Stewart, is working with the GAJSC to codify a new “IMC escape maneuver” that specifies a wings level climb. This was also advocated in an AOPA article in 2005. Usually, a pilot in these inadvertent IMC situations has usually gotten increasingly lower while avoiding clouds and CFIT is a significant hazard. Let’s eliminate the “immediate 180 turn” advice and save pilots who blunder into clouds. Level wings, maintain control (breathe), and climb; no turning?! Fly safely out there (and often).

Join SAFE and get great benefits (like 1/3 off ForeFlight!) Your membership supports our mission of increasing aviation safety by promoting excellence in education.  Our FREE SAFE Toolkit App puts required pilot endorsements and experience requirements right on your smartphone and facilitates CFI+DPE teamwork. Our CFI insurance was developed by SAFE specifically for CFIs (and is the best value in the business).

About the author

David St. George

David St. George is an FAA DPE (Sport to Multi ATP) and a Part 135 charter pilot flying the Pilatus PC-12 in the NYC area. He recently renewed his Master Instructor for the tenth time and is a Charter member of SAFE. Formerly a 141 Chief Instructor for over 25 years, with a Gold Seal CFI. David started flying at 16 and has logged over 15,000 hours. He owns a 1946 7AC Aeronca Champ and wrote the SAFE Toolkit app.

%d bloggers like this: