IMC, still scary sometimes!?

Hey y’all!

This is a sim topic, but it applies to real life as well so I posted it here.

So, I was flying around in bad weather, and thought about how scary flying without seeing something outside (Instrument Meteorological Conditions, IMC) can be, especially if you fly around in VMC (Visual Meteorological Conditions) and suddenly enter IMC.

I have to say I really got a LOT better at that in 2019 and early 2020. I have been flying the Challenger 300 in X-Plane11 with realistic weather, and the DCS C-101 in all kinds of weather, training my “basic airmanship”, and got myself into really bad conditions on purpose.

I like to say that I can now fly (simulated) in IMC pretty safely, but I also have to admit that my heart rate and blood pressure still jumps up quite a bit when the VMC -> IMC change happens, especially when it happens especially quickly and/or unexpectedly. And yeah I know that a thing as “unexpected” shouldn’t happen when having proper situational awareness. It still does, for example if task saturation diminishes SA.

Then I read a bit about it and found out that apparently VFR pilots flying into IMC is not only stressful, but one of the most common causes for accidents in aviation, and a pretty deadly one to boot.

https://www.aopa.org/training-and-safety/air-safety-institute/safety-spotlights/vfr-into-imc

I found some videos and accident reports online and watched/read through them. Here is one from YT (and I made sure to check, this one ended well. I don’t want to share some of the others I found).
https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=IMYGHGNZ47I

As a virtual pilot I am aware that this is quite a bit harder in real life. So I have a question to the RL pilots here:
How long does it take until that VMC -> IMC change becomes a non-event?
I suppose (well, and hope) that the IFR dudes like airline pilots have no problems with it.
What training methods are used to get used to it? (I hope that the answer is not “none, the autopilot flies the plane anyway”).
I guess a few hours under an IFR hood in some trainer plane are probably not enough to make you fly an airliner in IMC safely. So is it just done on the job maybe, with the more experienced pilot monitoring everything goes well in case of a disorientation?

And does every pilot in training have to spend time on that?
I mean: Even if you are training for VFR: You should expect that such things can happen. I wouldn’t feel safe in a plane that I cannot fly by instruments in a pinch. Who knows what can happen?!

Edit: huh. I just read some article that claimed that actually more experienced private pilots are more often involved in such accidents than students or pilots with less experience…

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I am probably not alone in theorizing that the S-76 accident in which Kobe Bryant was killed may have been the result of just this very thing. The pilot and helicopter were both instrument rated. But the operator was not. So that would mean that the pilots had very little recent, operational experience flying in IMC and probably not a lot of recent IFR sim training. Well, anyway, it’s just a theory and we may never learn what really happened. I was a kid when I got my instrument ticket. The first time I actually got to use it in IMC was on a day of my choosing were there was an overcast layer at 1000’ and I planned an altitude that would let me fly on top. I was a little nervous until I hit the layer. Once I realized that I could fly precisely and just as smoothly as I could with a real horizon, it was honestly exciting as h***. After enjoying the ride on top I got a clearance to cruise at a lower altitude back in the layer. I still remember that day as vividly as when I first soloed.

As for the airliner aspect to your question, once you start flying faster planes, using a real horizon to fly becomes very imprecise. A pitch change of just a degree can result in a VVI change of 1000 FPM. So even in VMC conditions, I think if most of us are honest, we would admit to always flying on instruments, IMC or VMC. This still means that in VMC we scan outside to meet our see-and-avoid responsibilities. But this also explains partly why we use the autopilot so much. It’s not laziness and certainly not lack of skill. It’s that the autopilot allows for precision while also allowing us better SA. Often at my airline, if the weather is perfect for handflying (say 500 over and 2 miles) the flying pilot will brief that he will handfly the arrival and approach for proficiency. Doing stuff like that just a few times a year is more than enough to stay very proficient and confident. Hope that helps.

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Thanks for your insights!

Yeah, that was literally my first thought when I saw the route they flew.

I think that might be a very good point right there. It did not happen involuntarily. You knew you were going to do it, you had the training, and you knew the situation. You had planned to fly there.

Where the accidents happen seems to be (mostly) when people are not prepared.
Did you ever enter IMC in a VFR flight without planning to? (EDIT: Of course you haven’t that would be illegal. You know what I mean. Have you almost done that, and theorized about what may have happened?)

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Yes. Before I got my rating I was building cross-country time in Florida. When I returned to Ft Lauderdale the entire coast was in rain. The ceiling was high and I could see quite well through the rain, so I continued. But when I hit the rain, it was nearly whiteout. I was scared to death and ended up landing at Boca Raton. After I chocked in the rain and walked drenched into the FBO, still scared, a corporate pilot questioned why I was flying in those conditions. I explained myself and he threatened to call my flight school. I basically told him to “shove it” and that anyway I was going to do it myself. The school gave me the choice of letting two instructors drive up and bring me and the plane home (5 minute flight) or I could wait it out. I chose to wait…4 hours. It is very VERY easy to fly into instrument conditions by accident. It is not always weather. One student of mine killed himself and his family by flying his Cherokee 6 over the Appalacians at night. With no moon and no lights he lost the horizon and spiraled in. I taught him better of course but he was a typical cigar-smoking business owner who listened to nothing but his own bad instincts.

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Ah that is a good point, I had not thought about that one!
What looks like “not too bad, this is still safe VFR” turned out to be pretty dangerous, because once the rain actually hits you it can look a LOT worse.

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Accidents like the one I described are very common in small planes with autopilots. The Cherokee 6 had one. Max, the accident pilot, I later learned would brag about using the autopilot to fly in instrument conditions. That’s cheating death and of course we all eventually lose. The Cirrus is a modern example. It has a very sophisticated AHRS and autopilot along with a BRS recovery chute. That chute gets used commonly because the plane’s typically wealthy and poorly experienced users often make the same calculation that Max made. Fortunately for them, they have the big red button.

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Here’s a link to an earlier post I made on the subject.

I could echo almost everything @smokinhole writes here.
I smiled when I read about his first actual IMC.
When you get your instrument rating you usually do most of the training under a hood, because flying single engine IMC increases the risk. You only have one engine, and if it stops you better hope the ceiling doesn’t merge with the planet, or you will have a very bad day.
So my first actual IMC flight was during multi engine instrument training. I will never forget bursting out on top of the clouds, for the first time! What a feeling!

But yeah, flying VFR and getting trapped by weather is dangerous if you’re not trained for it and have experience with it.

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I’ve done it. Pressed on despite the weather starting to encroach on the front of the aeroplane. I naively thought as it was heading north and I west that I would pass behind it.
Obviously I cocked that mental calculation up and ended up right in the middle of it.
Spun around 180 and realised that it was now ALL around me.
Not ashamed to say I panicked a bit and lost my cool. But after a minute or so my training and knowledge kicked in and I reversed my earlier course. Corrected for the wind (mentally) and checked the charts for MSA and airspace and headed for home. I knew 4 or 5 minutes had elapsed and decided that if I kept heading for 5 minutes and it hadn’t opened up (i was still in sight of the surface by the way I’m not a complete idiot) I would shout for help and take my licks on the ground.
Literally 35 seconds later I was in bright sunshine and feeling like a complete tool.
One thing I will say other than the obvious of my mistake, my fault and I was extremely lucky. Is that I can completely see how people kill themselves. I was on my own. I would of probably turned around before that with a pax on board but being in that situation with a panicked passenger and helmet fire trying to work things out is a recipe for death.
I always take the easy way out now and just head back now. It’s too easy to die.

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Thanks for your stories, guys!

Some remarks:
About autopilot: I can see how it is a immensely useful tool (imagine you have to take a look at the map but you still have to fly the plane, and you don’t know which direction the mountains are, or how tall they are…)
But it is also dangerous (Edit: mainly because pilots will rely on it in situations it isn’t meant to be used for, and because they are not prepared if it doesn’t work.)

Cheating:
I don’t know about y’all, but I discovered that I am a cheater.
When I started my virtual training I kept saying to myself “you got this, you know the instruments and stuff” but at some point I realized that I was still peeking at the F10 map, and looking outside, at the things I could still see.
It was a real eye opener when I finally flew a mission without the F10 map plane position icon, and under the IFR hoods of the C-101 and the L-39.
Its only then that I realized how much I was actually cheating.

And I think such things might happen in real life, too.
You might have flown without sight, but with help, or with an autopilot, or at least under controlled conditions during training, or maybe you just peeked through some slit of the IFR hood, things like that.
You might think that you are prepared, but you aren’t.

And that might cause some of the accidents.

When flying under the hood, with an instructor, you know you can look up at any given time and the guy beside you won’t let you kill him.
But it’s that helmet fire that @Victork2 is talking about, that will kill you.
Because flying on instruments isn’t hard. You just need to maintain a situational awareness and have a mental picture of where you are. And stress will limit your mental capacity.
Here’s where the autopilot becomes useful. It will at the very least maintain attitude and altitude for you, so you can focus on where you are in relation to the planet.
That, and practice. As with anything, you do it often enough and you will get good at it.
So, you can fly on instruments all day long, and all you will get good at is just this.
You need to add the stress factor, and learn how to deal with that, so you can increase your mental capacity to deal with it.
This is why a good instructor will throw a wrench into your mental machine, every now and then.

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Wise words, thanks, @Troll!

Here’s a virtual story that emphasizes the points you just made. I know, it is a bit laughable compared to your real ones, but might be entertaining.

I was flying the C-101 over the Caucasus, in really bad weather. I had planned that, so no problem. I thought.

My mission was taking off from Senakhi, flying east until reaching the Rioni river near Kutaisi, then turn approximately toward Nalchik, but after half of the distance turn west to Sochi, fly almost there and return to Senakhi.
The mission started well and I was crusing at 8000ft or so, following some NDB. I turned north and flew for some minutes, and fiddled around with the frequencies to get to the next point. That’s when the trouble began.
If this had been the A-10C I would have just activated the autopilot and flown some circles. But the C-101 doesn’t have an autopilot.
I had not trimmed the plane properly and went heads down to look at the map, and when I looked back up I noticed that I had turned a bit, and descended.
I corrected that and went back to my map and flight plan. By the time I had figured everything out I had passed the point where I should have turned and switched frequencies. I quickly put in the new one, and followed it. No problem, I thought. (I was wrong).
Because of my disorientation earlier I didn’t realize that I wasn’t flying 008 as planned, but 080 (there were two zeros and an eight!) and my thoughts about being totally correct were reinforced by the fact that the ADF needle was pointing roughly into the same direction. The problem was that I had dialed in the wrong frequency. I was not ready for flying in IMC so everything took longer and was less smooth. My SA was basically not there.

At the altitude I was flying I was not quite safe flying into that direction.
After some time I realized my mistake and panicked a bit. I was too low and had no idea where I was.
I was sure I was going to meet the mountain goats any moment so I pulled up hastily and almost stalled the plane.

The episode ended with me aborting, flying back to Senakhi and landing. Badly. I had severe paranoia to hit the mountain north of the airport although it is like 3000ft or so. I flew at 10,000ft and almost the whole way to the coast only to be sure to have enough time to find the ILS because I totally didn’t trust myself anymore. I came in too high and too fast and made an ugly (but safe) landing.

I then decided to do some proper training. It helped.

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I’m as comfortable flying in IMC as VMC these days. Actually, when it’s 200 and a 1/2 mile it is kind of nice because there are fewer planes down in “Indian Country” (Apaches, Cherokees, Warriors…LOL…). A severe clear day in PDK is more dangerous than one hovering near minimums.

The only thing real low minimums has you thinking about is Plan B, C, and maybe D. That is my only reservation to flying to places like Bermuda (for us) - there is no Plan B. Once we shoot an approach out there, we are committed to eventually land. Which is also why our weather minimums are higher than the approach minimums (company dictates 2 miles and 800’ ceiling).

Like @smokinhole - I vividly remember my first solo IFR flight. I had a brand new instrument rating on my ticket, and took a Piper Warrior from North Myrtle Beach, SC to Charleston, SC one evening after work. It was about 300 overcast, with good visibility below - and I’ll never forget shooting that ILS to 33 in Charleston, breaking out under the evening overcast, and seeing those enormous lead in lights, runway, and airport all lit up. I only did a low approach, and then off back to North Myrtle. I was elated. It all worked!!

That period right after I got my IFR license and the next 100 hours was probably the most dangerous. I had several incidents where I wasn’t quite sure where I was (this was in the days before GPS and most of our planes didn’t have the old VOR/RNAV radios or LORANs). Both times (once in Florence, SC, and once in North Wilkesboro, NC) - I had a spidey sense feeling as I was fumbling around hoping to cross an outer marker and just wasn’t getting fuzzy feeling. Dark shapes in the murk, all the needles vibrating, feeling hot and sweaty even though it was the middle of January. Warning flags are warning flags and you quickly learn to recognize and consider them.

I had some of those. I had one guy fly a completely level, 5 degree bank 360 degree turn with no idea he had done it once during IFR enroute flight. He had NO idea he had done it. None.

Very much so. And a distraction can be very, very subtle. One of my favorites as a CFII was to drop a piece of paper or chart, conveniently on the student’s side of the airplane, right after they had received their final vector to join the localizer. I’d ask them to find it and if they did find it quickly…I’d say something like “I think there is another piece of it down there” just to see if they would have the judgment to ignore me, tell me to sit and spin, and just fly the airplane and not fly through the localizer. Another good one is right after takeoff popping open a storm window or letting a low wing door pop open slightly. None of these things should kill you. All of them can kill you. Exposure to mild, I hesitate to call them emergencies, but situations, at the midpoint of training are important to building that confidence that “the plane will fly if I continue to fly it”. I would make sure not to do these things early in training and definitely never traumatized anyone. They should just serve as examples for the student to consider and tuck away in their mental filing cabinet.

I loved teaching IFR students. They were generally less likely to kill you than primary students.

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Those are great!

Distractions, it seems like they can lower your IQ by, like, half or so.

When I place some AI planes in X-plane and they constantly talk sh** on my channel, and among them is the ATC, spelling my registration number wrongly (**** dammit it is pronounced “LEE-MAH” not “LIE-MAH”, and nobody ever says “sevenhundred-and-fourty-seven-to-eight-hundred”) I noticed that even simple tasks like starting up the plane or taxiing on the right taxiways can become a hard task, let alone navigation.

And then one of my children may come and ask something or the cat may jump onto the desk, and I have to pause the sim. I just cannot work like that! :smiley:

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Evil. Pure evil…

Flightschool story

The flightschool where I got my license was an airline sponsored ab-initio programme.
About every fourth or fifth flight was a progress check. Fail one, you got one or two extra lessons and a re-check. Fail it again and you could be expelled. A big thing.

On one of my progress checkrides for the IFR I flew the LLZ for one RWY followed by a missed approach. The missed app beacon was also the initial point for the ILS to the opposite RWY. I climbed out on the missed app. procedure and set everything up for the ILS. As I turned to intercept the ILS, the readings were offset and I failed to establish on the inbound track… Wait! Shouldn’t there be a glideslope indication here?
Yep! I had set the ILS freq. in standby, but failed to switch. NAV1 was still on the other RWY LLZ freq.
DOH!!
The instructor told me I have failed and I could go in and land, or I could continue the rest of the sortie and get the best lesson ever. I didn’t quite get what he meant, but I took the bait and continued.
For the rest of that sortie I had to fight back the disappointment and depressing thoughts of having failed a check ride. It occupied a part of my mental capacity for the duration of the flight, and gave me a very real stress factor to contend with.
Oh! I aced the re-check :wink:

I remember a picture in a book I read about flight safety.
“The door of your aircraft pops open in flight!”
“What do you do?”
“-Fly the aircraft!”

:wink:

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I remember participating in sim check rides for pilots who where upgrading, and with out fail by the end of it they where wearing their O2 mask and smoke goggles while flying a plane with at least an engine(s) out, possibly more, all while having big decisions thrown their way by the sim instructor. Needless to say they usually look quite exhausted when everything was said and done.

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I am far from being an expert. However, a “hobby” of mine is aircraft accident investigations. From research in this area, I have noted that a contributing factor to a couple of accidents/crashes have been the pilot not “recognizing” that he had gone from VMC to IMC / VRR to IFR. For example JFK Jr.'s accident. He took off in daylight but flew into twilight/darkness. Did he realize that at some point in time, it had become too dark and hazy to maintain a visual horizon? Other accidents, usually small planes, have similar stories. Of course most of these pilots were not IMC certified but some were.

I assume that at some point a good pilot needs to say, “Hey, this isn’t VMC anymore, I need to change my mind set and start flying IMC”. However, there isn’t a light on the dashboard that goes on to tell him/her that “Its IMC time”, so…

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There is also a reluctance, when you are young and inexperienced, to ask for help. Whether it be from another crewmember, ATC, or some other aid. The older you get, the less that becomes a factor. I had my FO confirm a runway crossing a couple of days ago because we heard two different things (he was right). I told the ground controller, when I sensed a bit of exasperation…I said that I’d rather sound stupid than look stupid. He laughed at that…

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There are quite a few airports on the West Coast where I hope for a 500ft ceiling. I have had more RA’s going into Carlsbad, KCRQ than anywhere else. :crazy_face:

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Just happened to see this on YT. Pretty interesting. The guy is pretty honest about it all. Would appreciate any RL pilot comments. :slightly_smiling_face:

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That was a good video, and he made no excuses. Much respect for that.

Personal minimums are only useful if you choose to abide by them. It is easy enough to do so, right until it becomes an inconvenience or if it becomes the easier option to ignore them.

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