Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 5, 2013

10 Tips For VFR Flying In Marginal Weather

A few simple suggestions to help keep VFR pilots safe in marginal weather

Assuming you're flying above what the FAA calls a "congested area," you'll need 1,000 feet above ground and 500 feet below the clouds. That's 1,500 feet above ground level (AGL), and even that isn't enough. Generally speaking, if the forecast along your route or at your destination doesn't suggest the ceiling will be at least 2,500 feet and the visibility five miles or better, be wary.

I once delivered a purely visual flight rule-equipped (VFR) Pitts S2C from Dallas, Texas to Long Beach, Calif., over three days with nine stops for the 1,050 nm route, deviating three times for weather. It wasn't pretty, but it worked, and both the airplane and I arrived in one piece. It did cost the client a few extra bucks, but because I was willing to reroute and delay as necessary, I got the trip done safely.
Just because it's ceiling and visibility unlimited where you are, don't be seduced into assuming that's how it is at your destination.
5 Temper your judgment even further if you're flying in mountainous terrain. I've lost so many friends to combinations of clouds and mountains in the last 40 years that I've become more than a little paranoid about mountain flying with clouds nearby. A few years back, two highly experienced, instrument flight rule-licensed IFR pilots, one of them a good friend, flew a new Caravan straight into the side of a mountain in California's Banning Pass, apparently trying to stay out of the clouds and avoid icy conditions.

Every pilot has the right to decide what's an acceptable risk (if he's flying solo), but I don't even consider launching into the mountains even in slightly questionable conditions, regardless of whether there's a turbo out in front or not. Mountain passes aren't necessarily a better alternative either because clouds can close in behind and leave you with no way out.

6 If you've made a decision to launch toward atmospherics that you have the slightest question about, get an update long before you fly anywhere near the bad weather to minimize the chance of an inadvertent bout with something you can't handle. If you're not IFR rated and never fly into IFR conditions in the first place, you'll never have to worry about escaping from them.

7 One comment you hear repeatedly from many pilots concerned about flying in inclement weather is that an instrument rating only encourages aviators to operate in conditions they can't handle. Such a philosophy is fine, as long as you subscribe religiously to pure VFR and forgo use of your airplane when clouds are about.

Regardless of whether you have plans to earn an instrument rating, make it a habit to spend a little hood time now and then, to refresh your proficiency, just in case. If your total instrument training is the minimal emergency exposure for the private ticket, you may stand little chance of surviving a real IFR encounter.


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