Preventing VFR Flight Into IMC Accidents

By Robert Mark on March 30th, 2021


Across the board, loss of control still produces more fatalities than anything else no matter the type of aircraft. Last fall, Flying took a deep-dive look at these accidents for common causes as well as what might prevent them. Flying’s Editor-in-Chief Julie Boatman suggested we break the story up into some manageable bites. What you’ll read here is the first in that series in which I examined pilots who fly their airplanes into bad weather that results in them losing control of the machine.

Rob Mark

The Story Begins …

Three men chartered a Beechcraft Bonanza for a late-night flight between Mason City (KMCW), Iowa, and Fargo (KFAR), North Dakota, about 200 nautical miles. The 21-year-old charter pilot’s initial review of the forecast that chilly February evening called for VFR weather with bases along the route at 5,000 feet and visibility of 10 miles. The only possible snafu was near Fargo, where a chance of snow showers existed around their original arrival time of 1 a.m., with a cold-front passage due a few hours later.

Just before their original departure time from KMCW, according to the Civil Aeronautics Board report, the pilot checked the weather and learned the ceilings had dropped to 4,200 feet en route, but visibilities were still good. Light snow was reported in Minneapolis, however, some 100 nm southeast of Fargo. The weather briefer also told the pilot that the cold front was moving faster than expected and would pass through Fargo about 2 a.m. local time…

Today, the National Transportation Safety Board would call the famous accident that followed “continued VFR flight into instrument meteorological conditions.”

While VFR flight into IMC isn’t responsible for as many accidents as loss of control, more than 60 years after “the day the music died”—as the famous words from the song go—VFR-into-IMC accidents are almost always fatal. Flight into bad weather is simply the precursor to a complete loss of aircraft control, usually followed by a collision with terrain. Inexperienced pilots don’t realize until they’ve entered a cloud—or a rain or snow shower—that looking out the windows for help is useless. Their senses are instantly confused, and their brain can no longer tell up from down or left from right. Factors known to convince pilots to press on include their lack of solid decision-making based on a lack of instrument flying experience, as well as human-factor concerns such as the self-induced pressure to continue a flight as they near home, despite watching the weather close in around them.

Read the complete story on Flying magazine’s website.

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