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 (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.

Thank you Doug Stewart; POH guidance!

This ancient “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 concernin fact the only concern at this pointis 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.)

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).

Author: David St. George

SAFE Director, Master CFI (12X), FAA DPE, ATP (ME/SE) Currently jet charter captain.

31 thoughts on “Inadvertent IMC: Level Wings, Climb!”

  1. Thank You for writing this up for me. I remember asking you this question when we met in Florida last year.
    It was something’s by that has bothered me for almost 30 years now. I hope it saves someone’s life.
    Doing the turn with the hope ‘maybe no one will notice’ has gotten so many people killed… and yes, we noticed. Leveling the wings, climbing, and calling for help is always the best answer.

    Calling for help may be embarrassing… but at least you are alive.

  2. I honestly can’t remember reading the 180 turn any where, but I do remember as a student long ago, shaking my head up and down with acceptance that this was the proper response to entering IMC without thinking through the problem.
    After the Bryant helicopter crash, seeing the attempted 180, I began to ask students, pilots, instructors, and DPEs, what should I do if I enter IMC? Everyone I asked almost immediately said they would do a 180… really… like the impossible 180 for an engine out, even if you could fly this perfect coordinated 180, you will not be at the same place you entered the clouds or IMC, even worse… you now don’t know what is in front of you. You are likely now completely lost. You were flying low already and now you don’t know what is in front of you. And if that isn’t bad enough, the turn will likely bring on vertigo if you changed the aircraft flight condition without looking at the artificial horizon first.
    Leveling the wings is the only thing that makes logical sense. At least you had an idea as to what was in front of you. A slow climb if required is the only thing you should be doing as you try to communicate with ATC for help.
    Yes, squawk 7700… it is an emergency! This sets off alarms for ATC to immediately see you and get everyone away from you. Bonus… now you don’t have to worry about another plane crashing into you, And… now ATC is looking to contact you. If you don’t know, or don’t feel comfortable looking for the correct frequency… 121.5 is where they will be looking for you. Yes, now you don’t have to search for the appropriate ATC frequency. Easy!
    And here is the best reason for admitting you screwed up… if you admit the screw up and ATC helps you, it is very unlikely they will take action against you, because they will want you at the ATC awards ceremony for the controller that helped save your life… because they likely did.

    For all these reasons… level the wings with eyes on the artificial horizon, climb if needed (it likely is if you were scud running) then let everyone know you have a very serious emergency 7700. Call for help. ATC really wants to help. No better feeling than saving someone’s life.

    1. I’m a contrarian on this one.

      Several years ago while flying south between Bend and Klamath Falls, Oregon I experienced an unexpected (AT NIGHT) penetration of an unforecast cloud while flying south at 6500′ — about 2000′ AGL. As soon as I entered the unseen cloud I calmly went to instruments, rolled to my left in a standard rate turn, executed a 180 and was very soon out of the cloud. Having briefed the flight I knew where my nearby lighted airports were. I landed soon thereafter and spent the night. Perhaps climbing to escape clouds “might” have worked, but I doubt it. My rented Cessna 172 was within 100 pounds of gross weight. Even in winter conditions it’s climb rate and service ceiling would likely not been adequate to get me ‘on top’ if the cloud deck was thick, nor would have climbing for 4,000 feet to the MEA been the ‘lowest risk’, i.e. ‘safe’ option for the non-instrument rated and proficient VFR pilot I was back then. IMHO, a 180 degree turn is the usually the least risk option in mountainous terrain. I’ve used a 180 degree course reversal in smoke, which like clouds, is impenetrable once I’ve climbed into the murk. I think a discussion of when a level 180 initiated from cruise is least risk vs attempting to climb while penetrating deeper and deeper into the clang would yield useful insights. Perhaps if I had been at 1000′ AGL, rather than 2,000′ above the rocks a climb would have been less risk… but then night flight at 1,000′ is in itself very risky and, I think we can agree, a VERY bad idea.

      1. Agreed, every “escape” is unique and context dependent (ice in clouds in my area of the world?)👍 Most of these”surprise encounters” are usually almost “predictable,” and even practiced pilots do lousy with a surprise IFR 180 (unfortunately); we need “super-simple!”

      2. Climbing is not to escape the cloud… climbing is to escape the objects connected to the ground. If you don’t need to climb… don’t. It also sounds like you entered the cloud wings level and you were flying at night with your instruments set. Also very different from the typical inadvertent IMC.
        When you made your 180, you might not have exited the same cloud you entered 2 minutes earlier ( if you made a 2 minute coordinated turn ).
        This sounds like you randomly bumped into a scattered cloud. Far different from the people that are actively avoiding a serious overcast cloud layer. They tend to weave through the low hanging clouds until they eventually go into them.
        Working as an Airway Systems Specialist in the military at a military Approach control, and with the FAA at several Approach Control, and centers. I was the one usually pulling the tapes and I could pick out where they crashed in remote areas. It was quite helpful in Maryland at Patuxent Approach when the Civil Air Patrol would call asking me to go fly a search pattern to find them. You could see the start of the turn by the radar returns and then nothing. It was pretty easy to see the rate of altitude loss and figure out where they crashed and killed themselves as well as the people with them. The ELT usually didn’t survive to point out where they crashed.

        You got lucky. And I wouldn’t bet my life on luck to many times. Luck always runs out.

      3. On a better note…
        Those people that crashed attempting the 180 really didn’t die in vein. It was while trying to find them in the little Civil Air Patrol Cessna 172 equipped with this very new thing called GPS not yet in any civilian planes, as it was only permitted for finding locations not navigation in the late 80s, is where the idea of ADS-B came from.

        During my searches for downed planes, I quickly realized the accuracy of GPS location over the radars I maintained because of radar sweep time, radar estimation computed inside the sweep counters, and the limited capabilities of transponders. I thought about a transponder type system that could transmit back the location of the aircraft constantly (no radar sweep wait time). I presented the idea to the military, then to the FAA, both said it wouldn’t be a good idea because the signal of the GPS was far to easy to jam because it was so weak.

        I knew if I keep telling enough people the light bulb would turn on. I knew GPS tracking would work… but I knew back then, I couldn’t get it done. I remember telling anyone that would listen the issue, even telling one passenger forced to listen to me during a flight back from Miami to Atlanta how great it would be to be the owner of a system everyone had to use to fly, like the IBM computers required to use windows…

        Now we have ADS-B… it took almost 30 years. I know I can’t fix this issue of 180s. I don’t have that type of influence to get it done. Like ADS-B, I hope someone will. I think it really will save lives. Just as I believed what is now called ADS-B will now save lives.

        As with the common sense requirements of WAAS and GPS augmentation sites for ADS-B to work… some common sense does need to be used when avoiding death for IIMC.

  3. The post seems to state that the pilot suffered a fatal LOCI during the turn attempt. Was that the accident cause? It’s not clear to me that a pilot unable to make a standard rate turn in IMC would have been able to escape. Are there stats on how many times pilots successfully escaped and what did they do?

    1. This is not a review of a specific accident (was that from a link?) This blog is recommending a change in “general advice” found in many airplane handbooks (upon encountering inadvertent IMC, initiate an immediate 180-degree turn). This newer advice is based on GAJSC accident data of VFR into IMC accidents. VFR into IMC involves loss of control and is often correlated with CFIT; pilots are low, in a panic state of mind. An “immediate 180” was a recommendation based on very limited data and >50 years old). This was before the required 3 hours of instrument training for private pilots and also the invention of computer simulators.

  4. I don’t think the 180 turn procedure (from the Cessna POH) is suggesting a skidding turn. In step 2, the procedure is to initiate a standard rate left turn holding the symbolic wing on the left index mark. It’s a standard rate turn then only when the ball is in the middle and it’s a timed turn to minimize confusion from compass errors. Step 4 is the only place a skidding motion is mentioned if a heading correction is needed, which would be an advantage to banking since banking is what makes the compass sometimes suddenly spin up to 40 degrees from dipping forces.

    I’ve used both escape tactics. Generally as long as I haven’t previously descended enough to make obstacles or the terrain a threat (i.e. still a cushion above the MEF), the 180 should be the safer maneuver in terms of aircraft control and escaping from cloud and ice and minimizing time in cloud. Climbing could also result in getting trapped on top. The FAA also recognizes in the Airplane Flying Handbook that the instrument training received for the Private certificate is designed for relatively quick escapes from cloud. Climbing stands a greater chance of extending beyond a safe time limit in cloud for the non-instrument pilot.

    1. Have you ever tried this perfect turn while encountering vertigo? I believe the FAA might still have the Vertigon machine at the Aviation physiology branch in Oklahoma. Try doing a coordinated turn while almost puking. You see… the first thing someone does when they enter the cloud… they do level the wings… without looking at the artificial horizon, you can see it in the radar tracks. Then they try to make the 180 turn while disoriented. Had they flown a few minutes level, they would likely be alive. The time it takes to get acquainted to instrument flight will take you well into the clouds. But a rash attempt of a turn on unset instruments is crazy at best. Yes, you may be lucky… and you might have enough gas to get to the next airport when you have no idea how much fuel is left… luck Is no way to fly. You won the lottery this time, great. Good for you.

      Even in your little Cessna 172 traveling at 120kts in two minutes, your attempted exit from the clouds will be nowhere near where you entered the clouds. Did you enter an airway where other planes are flying on instruments and can not see or avoid you? You just flew a 4 mile ark and hopefully know what is there at the end of the ride if you are holding it together making that perfect turn on instruments you likely didn’t have set for instrument flight. At the end of the little trip you took, there is a very good possibility you will not break out of the clouds… now you are in the clouds flying on a heading that isn’t really where you came from. Now, you really don’t know what is in front of you. If disoriented and you stopped your turn, Add in even slight vertigo disorientation and you are lost at best or worse… dead.
      I’ve seen it dozens of times.

      Remember when you first took hold of an airplanes controls… could you make a perfect level coordinated turn? I doubt it. Could you keep the plane relatively wings level without falling out of the sky? I bet you could, or you likely would have given up on flying. In any emergency it is best to keep the control of the aircraft simple. The attitude indicator horizon is an easy reference even for a first flight.
      I’ve seen people so disoriented they couldn’t hold a heading or understand which direction they were heading. It is why I recommend controllers give half standard turns until told to stop and only continue the turns if comfortable. Other wise keep the wings level.
      Yes, I’ve even been called into the control room, and had to talk pilots down. The first thing I always told them, keep the wings level, there are no obstructions or planes around you. It is going to be OK. No big deal. I then would have them do half standard turns to a clear area. Most were freaked out from the heavy rain and just wanted out. Another weird problem, Controllers at that time didn’t have a good working knowledge of how to show weather on the monitors. I had to come in to adjust the radar weather settings, so the heavy rain returns could be avoided.

      Why climb and call for help ? Yet one more reason… storm down drafts. I doubt your Cessna had a weather radar. Heavy down drafts in a dissipating thunderstorm will slam a small craft into the ground without mercy. I personally would rather be at 8,000 feet being pushed down… than 1000ft.
      What else does a slow climb do? It slows things down. It is a good idea to slow down to keep the aircraft in one piece if you hit turbulence inside the clouds or rising smoke. They tend to fly better with all the parts attached. In the mountains? Now your turn arks will be smaller.

      Should you avoid spending a a long time in the clouds… well, that isn’t really the issue once inside the clouds. Fear of clouds and stalls is something that has been drilled into new pilots for so long even heavy ATP pilots are killing themselves. The object is to get out of the clouds alive and with your aircraft in one piece.
      Yea, avoid spending a long time in IMC, turn on your pitot heat! If you don’t like to gamble, don’t fly near bad weather without proper training and planning.

      1. No one said make an immediate rash turn. Yes, the pilot has to transition to the instruments and then decide on the course of action.

      2. Richard:

        You consistently fail to differentate between unproficient/ill-prepared and prepared/proficient pilots. Please re-read your posts. Luck may be a small factor, but not the principal factor when pilots calmly and successfully execute a LEVEL 180 degree turn.

        If a pilot is either not calm, not-proficient, or both a wings level climb probably will turn out poorly, just as a 180 degree level turn as you perceive it will. We know about about how many pilots FAILED to execute a successful 180. We have NO IDEA WHATSOEVER how many pilots were successful, nor do we know what the circumstances were for those successful pilots.

    2. Every pilot’s control is initially *terrible* attempting surprise transition to instruments (especially in a high adrenaline situation like scud running). PIlots in these situations are usually in a panic situation. Statistically, IFR-rated pilots do no better than untrained VFR pilots at completing a 180-degree turn. Pilot control improves *dramatically* after just a little time on the gauges (based on 4K flight tests and 16K dual given). I agree an untrained VFR pilot has a limited endurance IMC, but priority #1 is “restoring control and buying time;” the goal here is to eliminate the “immediate 180” knee jerk reaction – and esp. hands-off rudder recommendation. This “boiler-plate” immediate 180 recommendation in many airplane manuals predates the required 3 hours of private instrument training >50 years. NO instrument training was required back then, and there were no computer simulators either.
      Since in most of these cases pilots are *not* at a safe altitude (GAJSC data) a stable climb is necessary to clear terrain (and buy time – impact is often imminent). Once clear of terrain threat, and under control, a gentle 180 might be the best course of action. This is an emergency escape; regain control, calm down a bit and decide then a pilot can decide the wisest action based on circumstances. A climb has the additional advantage of restoring radio contact with ATC (not a problem in the East but common in most of US).

      1. Well really it is both pitch and bank control that are critical. I think the strategy of an immediate turn is being misinterpreted; i.e. it first requires good technic and the hands off rudder recommendation is done after the turn and rollout. I wonder where the recommendation of climbing may eventually lead and be interpreted – into immediate kneejerk climbs and stalls? Whichever escape strategy is chosen, the #1 objective is first DON’T LOSE CONTROL.

    1. I agree… flying is way to dangerous for people because it requires people to think.
      Don’t even do a climb out off the run way… it is way too dangerous.
      And if they do and crash… they just improved the gene pool.

  5. Hate to admit it, but I’ve flown into clouds accidentally twice in 1300 hours VFR. In both cases I followed the pink line (on a Garmin 430 in a Maule the first time and on a G3X with auto-pilot in an RV7 the 2nd time) to a valley and then descended below the clouds.
    In the Maule I was deliberately circling down at what “felt like” a 10 degree bank. Then I looked and noticed it was 30! No harm, no foul, but one heck of a wake-up call.

  6. When you get into a cloud by mistake and you are not IFR rated, it is a very scaring experience.

    Training and explanations like your are really useful to get out of trouble and do not loose more than just a beer.

  7. What are the statistics for the ones that decide to climb?

    That reminded me of a most unusual experience. We were IFR and IMC somewhere between mid-Connecticut and NYC and the IMC extended quite a bit vertically. The controller advised us of traffic and we responded IMC. Well the traffic continued to get closer, so much so, the controller had to give us evasive headings. And there’s was no way the other aircraft could have been VMC for even a second – he/she shouldn’t have been there.

    I think the main objective is for the pilot to avoid panic on the controls, which happens also of course in VMC. Then after that the action taken is more of ‘it depends’. I escaped easily once with a 180, but I was quite active and fortunately proficient. I climbed in another situation. That can be a great strategy, but as I experienced, it can now expose you to a mid-air collision with IFR traffic.

    1. “Statistics” in GA accidents/incidents and non-reported “survivals” make “data” on this difficult. Just like “the other 180” – “Impossible Turn” on T/O, no one reports the successes (and craters in the ground make diagnostics difficult).
      With that said, most experienced CFIs have seen how hopeless an unprepared pilot is (VFR or IFR-rated) with a surprise “IMC 180.” This is “data” also; pilots suck at this! Why recommend (in a/c handbooks) a dangerous maneuver? FAA guidance; straight ahead, control, climb, confess, comply. A 180 may be wise once control and calm are restored(?), but certainly not “immediately!”

      1. Yes I think that word ‘immediately’ can be taken incorrectly. No matter what plan of escape is decided, reasonably good technique is a must.

      2. “Immediate” is pretty unambiguous (and in this case wrong)…what we commonly see on flight tests (what we train and test) Let’s fix this (and save lives)!

      3. “A 180 may be wise once control and calm are restored(?), but certainly not “immediately!”” Absolutely. The procedure says make an immediate plan, not an immediate turn. Instructors must be very careful there and not cause the pilot to panic on the controls.

      4. What an outstanding article by mr st George. A recommendation long over due. . Let’s eliminate the “immediate 180 turn” advice and save pilots who blunder into clouds. Level wings, maintain control (breathe), and climb; no turning? Preaching this approach for years in 54 years of military and general aviation… nice job Dave!

  8. What are the statistics for someone that doesn’t turn? I haven’t found crashes where the person stayed straight and called for help.
    Every crash I’ve seen in the last 40 years was after an attempted turn.

    1. Again (as just mentioned) data is tough to find. GAJSC (total data-driven safety group) is working this now (Doug Stewart SAFE rep). One alarming takeaway is high correlation of CFIT accidents (hence the “climb”). The YouTube in the blog is an ideal outcome; control, climb, confess, comply.

      1. Thank You,
        as I said. HAI (helicopter Association International) has agreed to change the training. A 180 doesn’t get you back to where you started and will likely get the person lost and bring on Vertigo.

    2. “A 180 doesn’t get you back to where you started and will likely get the person lost and bring on Vertigo” (mentioned below). It worked perfectly for me getting us back in VMC in one minute. With that said, as David mentioned in the article, if the pilot is in a panic and unprepared, probably nothing is going to work, and the emphasis on initially staying calm and cross checking is the right strategy.

Tell us what *you* think!

This site uses Akismet to reduce spam. Learn how your comment data is processed.

%d bloggers like this: