What Part of “Cloud” Don’t you Understand?

May 12, 2010 by Bruce Landsberg

act4.4cloudheightThis has got to be one of the most chewed-over topics in aviation. Pilots who are either not instrument rated or rated but not on file, somehow find themselves in clouds and then not surprisingly often find that the ground or an obstacle has risen to ensnare the aircraft.

Most of these mishaps perhaps should not be called  accidents in the technical sense of the word. Webster’s Dictionary defines accident as “an unforeseen or unplanned event.” Launching on a visual flight when the ceilings are running 400-600 agl and visibilities a mile or so doesn’t really strike me as “unforeseen.” Webster goes on to list  the second definition of accident as “An unfortunate event resulting from careless or ignorance.”  That starts to get to the heart of the matter and both those adjectives are not something that pilots should aspire to.

The 2009 Joseph T. Nall Report shows 21 VFR into IMC deals and 86% or 18 were fatal.  All 21 are shown on ASF’s interactive map with  links to each accident report from there.  If you were looking for a quick way into the next life  –  this is one of the quickest and reading the narratives confirms the lunacy of such thinking.

Naturally, ASF has numerous resources to help one  not to get into the careless and ignorant category.  But how many times have you been given a VFR not recommended (VNR) forecast – decided to take a look and found the weather perfectly flyable? This becomes the basis of many pilots’ decision-making and it serves them well for awhile. But if you’re going to play the “let’s take a look”  game it’s essential able to 1) recognize clouds when you see them and 2) be willing to turn around or land BEFORE getting into them.

We would be curious about your VNR experiences, pro and con, as I will be speaking with the National Weather Service later this month.

Bruce Landsberg
Senior Safety Advisor, Air Safety Institute

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  • http://none Tommy Brazie

    You have been arrogant. I have twice been VFR into IMC and was more careful that almost anyone I know. First time at new pilot. Forecast was solid VFR to Smith Mountain Lake from Andrews AFB in a C-150. In those days I actually believed the FSS. I was in constant contact as the wx got worse and was repeatedly assured that there was no weather across the flight path or at my distination. I made one last call as I could still divert to Farmville or I was comitted. They said, No problem and noted how inexperienced I was. I believed them. Finally I asked that they call by telephone, Roanoke. They did and they were IMC. I had to use special VFR. I used all the information I had including a wx briefiing in person at the wx center on the Air Force base.

    Second time was similar. Night xcountry Scottsbluff to Dayton. No wx forecast. FSS said no weather anywhere with in three states. Hit a cloud
    over the IL Iowa border area. Did immediate 360. Had to do it three times (lowering altitudes to where FSS said was clear) on my way to a precautionary landing in Champaign in a rain storm. (By the way the vacuum pump failed right after the first encounter with clouds.) Each move was made consulting all available information. STUFF happens. Be trained to handle it. My instructor insisted upon hours of unusual attitude training (ex Navy). I never intenionallly fly into IMC and have landed or turned around dozens of times. I also learned that what I see out the window in real no matter what things you have been told, or what the charts say should have happened. I was nieve that one time. The night flight was bizzare. Twice into IMC with partial panel at night. Gets your attention.

  • William Campbell

    I encountered VFR into IMC, despite my best efforts to avoid it. I was preparing to depart a non towered airport. I called FSS, before the transition but during the run-up to local FSS closures, and got a weather report. I was assured the ceiling was above 10,000. I disagreed with the briefer based on my vantage point on the ramp. I was told again I was wrong. I requested to file IFR. I was told that it was not necessary. I suggest it looked like it to me and was again declined.

    I took off and watched the ceiling closely as I climbed to 6500. It seemed I was rapidly approaching that “10,000 ceiling”, at about 4800 feet I observed a thin line in the overcast. I knew immediately it was a separation line between two clouds. The lighting and contrast made it very difficult to discern this until right on it.

    My observation, recognition and penetration were almost simultaneous. I immediately transitioned to an IFR mental process and leveled out the airplane. I was monitoring the TRACON which had responsibility for this airspace, several calls to them when un-answered. (There are known dead spots in this region) I was most concerned about “cumulo-alumianous”. I commenced a 180 degree climbing turn to provide additional ground clearance and hopefully better reception. CFIT was not a concern but radar/radio visibility was.

    After several minutes I returned to clear air. I descended and reversed course at a much lower altitude. I continued to my destination VFR. That FSS is now closed and I have never been talked out of filing IFR since. This would have been a non-event IFR flight. I now file most flight plans on line and make the decision without comment from the person in the cozy room sipping coffee.

  • http://www.aopa.org/asf Bruce Landsberg


    Didn’t mean to come across as arrogant. You made an excellent point which I neglected to mention. What you see out the cockpit window trumps ANY forecast. If you see clouds – there are clouds.

    VFR pilots need to plan and perhaps more importantly, act accordingly. We hear of too many cases where the pilot says to FSS, his passengers or himself that he’s just going to “take a look.” Often, however, the mindset is more mission focused.

    Many thanks for your post .

  • Vin O’Leary


    I think you still don’t get it. Both of the comments above yours describe situations in which FSS said the wx was fine. They were NOT ignoring a VNR.

    My close call was similar. Plus I’ve had many, many occasions where I stayed on the ground due to predicted bad wx only to find out later that the wx was fine. Those occasions did not result in accidents, but they did have negative consequences that I would like to have avoided.

    The real learning is that you can’t trust the wx predictions whether they are good or bad. You make your best guess based on information available and have a Plan B on every flight.

    You are guilty of “selection error” in your analysis. You can’t just look at those VFR-IMC accidents, you have to look at all flights. Of course, those statistics are not available, so we will let you off without punishment.