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 (CFIT is often associated with these accidents). But what happens next usually kills pilots. 2/3s of both IFR-rated and VFR die when they try to turn around without visual references; they lose control or run into terrain while maneuvering. A 180 degree turn immediately after entering inadvertent IMC seems unwise for a panicked and unprepared pilot (even IFR rated). But pilot training and testing often still recommends an immediate 180-degree turn as “the FAA solution to an IMC encounter”- and it is airplane handbooks everywhere. 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 now recommends all IFR turns (for pilot emergencies and in training/testing) be limited to a maximum of 10 degrees of bank.
This “boiler-plate” recommendation is > 60 years old and based on very limited data available at the time. This advice also predates the FAA requirement for every private pilot to have 3 hours of instrument training (and computer simulators). The 180-degree turn using a clock (with a sweep second hand) also seems to even predate gyro instruments in GA planes? Technically, applicants for flight tests are instructed to follow their POH guidance (required for check rides).
A turn before entering IMC is wise – avoidance! A turn immediately after entering IMC seems like poor risk management given the GAJSC data. A pilot in this scud-running scenario is usually low and in a panic. Getting control (level) and getting away from terrain (climb) creates time to calm down and determine the best course of action (and it might be a 180 is a good idea when you have settled down and achieved control – but not immediately). 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” and become part of some many flight manuals.
The FAA guidance on surviving inadvertent IMC is first 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 (if the terrain is not an issue). My personal advice (having watched many pilots attempt that immediate 180 degree 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” can often result in fixation and LOC-I too. (Personal simulators have helped greatly with these IFR skills though)
The pilot should make a conscious effort to relax. The pilot needs to understand the most important concern—in fact the only concern at this point—is to keep the wings level. FAA Airplane Flying Handbook
The modern age of YouTube confessions enables a look at an actual “inadvertent VFR into IMC” that worked out. This IFR-rated pilot admits to panic and confusion entering the clouds. To his credit he used all his resources; autopilot and ATC. He climbed, continued straight and was able to sort out the situation without resorting to sudden and inappropriate maneuvering.
Once a pilot is calmed down (trimmed and breathing again) some cross-checking is valuable. In most cases, the best next action is a smooth, stable climb away from the terrain (while maintaining control) since the terrain is often a threat. This maneuver is often emotionally difficult since this same pilot was just previously avoiding clouds. But now it’s time to avoid rocks. Accepting the emergency and climbing away from terrain in most cases is critical to survival. Finally, as control becomes more comfortable and a safe altitude is achieved, seeking help with a radar facility is important. There is a reason this is required on the flight test. Learning division of attention is essential to aircraft control. Every pilot must be cautious and assertive about flying the plane first (within your level of safety) when talking with ATC. Unfortunately, not every controller can understand the gravity of your predicament (SAFE has good people working on this). Flying the aircraft under control is your first priority. This video from AOPA with Rod Machado recommending flight training in real weather pertains to this situation (and also last week’s blog.)
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).
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