Transitioning to visual conditions shouldn’t be a problem, but sometimes it is

Much ink has been, and continues to be, expended on the subject of transitioning from visual meteorological conditions (VMC) to instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), and, without question, for good reason. Loss of aircraft control while in instrument conditions usually results in loss of life.

Except for those articles concerning flying approaches to minimums, there are relatively few articles that deal with transitioning the other way: from IMC to VMC. Most likely this is because any issues that may result are not usually fatal. Nevertheless, there are pitfalls to be avoided when flying out of the clouds and into visual conditions. I stumbled upon one of those on a recent trip.

I own and fly a Mooney M20C. My Mooney is well equipped for flight in instrument conditions. A Garmin 530W GPS unit paints a reassuring magenta line from point to point along the route of flight. The GPS is connected to an ASPEN Pro 1000 primary flight display that, in addition to displaying flight data such as altitude, speed, attitude and heading, also provides GPS steering for an S-Tec 30 autopilot. For traffic and weather, the Mooney is equipped with a Garmin GTX-345 transponder, which provides ADS-B in-and-out surveillance. I always fly with an Apple iPad Pro utilizing ForeFlight Pro software to provide additional situational awareness during flight. The iPad connects to the avionics panel through a Garmin FlightStream 210, enabling me to stream flight plans and route amendments between the iPad and the GPS unit.

With all of the great gadgets and terrific technology in my Mooney, you’d think that transitioning from IMC into VMC would be snap. Well, here’s what happened.

My wife, Sandra, and I live in Pell City, Alabama. Our daughter, Emily, lives in Roswell, Georgia, which is a three-hour drive, or a 40-minute flight, from our home. Whenever Emily desires to come “home” for a visit, I am always happy to make the short flight to Cobb County International-McCollum Field in Kennesaw, Georgia, to fetch her. At the end of her visit, I provide her with a return flight. Needless to say, I fly to and from Cobb County frequently and, consequently, am very familiar with the airspace in and around Atlanta Class Bravo, as well as the five or six airports in fairly close proximity to Cobb County.

One day this past winter, Sandra and I flew to Cobb County to get Emily. We then flew to Montgomery Regional Airport in Montgomery, Alabama, for an overnight visit with my mother, who lives south of the city. The flight from Cobb County to Montgomery required some instrument flying but was otherwise uneventful.

During my flight planning the next morning, I found that instrument meteorological conditions were forecast for our return flight with marginal VFR conditions at Cobb County.

We drove back to Montgomery Regional where the Mooney had been topped with fuel. I completed the preflight inspection and made one final check of the weather. I was confident that we could safely return to the Cobb County airport. I obtained an IFR clearance and taxied for takeoff.

Dark and foreboding clouds hung approximately 500 feet above the ground in Montgomery. Less than a minute after the Mooney became airborne, we were swallowed up into the gray gloominess. My transition from visual to instrument conditions was flawless. The Mooney was under control and on course.

When I called Atlanta Center after being handed off by Montgomery Departure, I was informed that there would be an amendment to my route. I was cleared to fly direct to the BOKRT (pronounced Booker T, as in Booker T. & the MG’s) waypoint for the BOKRT.1 arrival into Cobb County.

I entered the amendment into ForeFlight and transmitted the amended flight plan to the GPS. I activated the amended flight plan from the GPS, which then directed the GPS steering computer in the primary flight display to command the autopilot to turn toward the BOKRT intersection. Technology is a marvelous thing, provided that the human component provides correct information!

As we began the arrival procedure, Atlanta Center handed me off to Atlanta Approach. The new controller advised that I was cleared direct to Cobb County. I entered the “Direct To” command on the GPS, and the Mooney turned to a 20-degree heading, putting us on a magenta line running straight to Cobb County International Airport.

I obtained the weather at Cobb County and found that visual conditions prevailed and runway 27 was in use for landing and departing aircraft. So, I was not surprised when Atlanta Approach advised me to expect the visual approach to runway 27.

The controller directed me to descend to 4,000 feet and to report the flight conditions at that altitude. At 4,000 feet we were still in the clouds; however, the clouds were broken, and I could occasionally see the ground below us. It appeared to me that if we could descend another 500 feet, we would be below the clouds. I reported our flight conditions as instructed.

The controller informed me that there was conflicting VFR traffic below and to my left, and that he could not clear me lower until assured that the traffic was not going to be a factor. I couldn’t see the conflicting traffic because of the clouds; however, the ADS-B traffic information being displayed on the iPad depicted the other aircraft’s position relative to mine.

Moments later, the controller announced “traffic no factor” and advised that he would vector me for a left downwind to runway 27 at Cobb County. He directed that I turn right to a heading of 90 degrees and cleared me to descend and maintain 3,000 feet with instruction that I “report the field in sight.” I set the heading bug to 90 degrees, switched the autopilot from GPS steering to heading mode, reduced power and deactivated the altitude hold. The Mooney began a turn to the right and descended below the cloud deck. We were now in visual conditions.

I immediately spotted the airport approximately 5 miles away and directly in front of me. Without hesitation, I reported that I had the field in sight, and the controller cleared me for the visual approach to runway 27 at Cobb County.

I disengaged the autopilot and continued turning to the right to enter the left downwind. As I descended to 3,000 feet, the controller called: “Mooney 48 Victor stop descent.” ATC radar indicated that I was flying away from the Cobb County airport. The controller requested that I confirm my position.

I glanced at my directional gyro and discovered that I was flying a 110-degree heading, which was not an appropriate heading for a left downwind to runway 27.

A quick glance at the iPad revealed that the airport off my left wing was Dobbins Air Reserve Base, which is located about 7 miles southeast of Cobb County. The Dobbins runway numbers are 11 and 29. My 110-degree heading was perfect for a left downwind to runway 29.

Fortunately, the controller had spotted my error quickly. Had he not, then I could have discovered it on my own in one of at least three ways: (1) when I announced my position to the Cobb County tower only to be told that the tower didn’t have me in sight; (2) when I turned to final and spotted the big white “29” painted on the runway; or (3) when I landed at Dobbins and found myself surrounded by military police with guns.

You may be thinking, as I was at the time, “How could a well-trained pilot in a well-equipped airplane have flown toward the wrong airport in visual conditions?”

The short answer is “pilot error.”

The more descriptive answer, if this were an NTSB report, is that the pilot failed to appreciate and assess a risk associated with transitioning from IMC to VMC while being vectored to an airport.

Despite all the technology available to me in the cockpit, once I entered visual conditions and spotted an airport I assumed, without confirming, that it was my destination airport. After all, the controller had advised me that he would vector me for a left downwind to my destination airport. So, upon entering visual conditions, the airport that I saw at my 12 o’clock was situated about where my brain pictured it to be.

Once in visual conditions, I stopped looking at the heading on the flight display and concentrated on turning the Mooney for the left downwind to the airport in view. In retrospect, if I had not disengaged the autopilot, the Mooney would have stopped the turn at the 90-degree heading, and I would have immediately known that something wasn’t right with what I was seeing out the window. Of course, a quick glance at my moving map would have also revealed that the airport I was looking at was not Cobb County.

I corrected course and landed safely at the Cobb County airport. Apart from the sharp pain in my pride, my piloting error was “no harm, no foul.” Nevertheless, I learned a very valuable lesson about transitioning from IMC to VMC when being vectored to an airport, which is: Don’t assume that the airport you first see when leaving IMC for VMC is the airport you are being vectored to, especially when flying in an area with multiple airports situated in close proximity. And always verify what you see outside the airplane with the instruments you have inside the airplane.

Alan Furr serves as District Court Judge for St. Clair County, Alabama, and is a member of the St. Clair County Airport Authority. He is an instrument-rated private pilot and flies a Mooney M20C, which is based at the St. Clair County Airport in Pell City, Alabama.

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