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 “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.

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

  1. 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.

  2. 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.

  3. 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.

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