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In the event that, despite his best efforts, a VFR-only pilot has gotten trapped on top of a solid cloud layer, what is(are) the safest course(s) of action?

For example, consider a long cross-country flight where the destination was forecast to be clear, few or scattered but upon arrival turned out to be broken or overcast.

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    $\begingroup$ Here’s a good video of a guy that got in that situation and had a good outcome. $\endgroup$ – TomMcW Dec 1 '19 at 17:37
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You should have an alternate planned that is forecast VFR, with appropriate fuel reserves in place, before you left. But if you didn't, you'd call an ATC unit and tell them your predicament. Maybe they can send you to VFR conditions either reported by PIREP or by calling around to other tower units in range.

Otherwise, you're going to have to do an instrument let down. If you're in contact with an ATC unit, let them provide you with a location to do let down that gives obstacle clearance, and hope your instrument skills are up to the task. In Canada VFROTT is not allowed unless you've had at least the commercial pilot level of instrument training (there is a special rating if you don't). Up here it would be considered crazy for a VFR pilot with no instrument training to do VFROTT in the first place, even if it was legal.

Say you didn't have contact with ATC for some reason. Well than I'd locate a decent size body of water with my moving map GPS and let down over that, and stop descending if I see water.

That's another planning factor. You want the cloud you are going to be flying over to have a decent VFR ceiling under it, so you only have to let down through a layer into nice VFR below.

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  • $\begingroup$ Is the few hours of hood time required for FAA PPL sufficient for an emergency descent through clouds? Or is it that one simply has no other options, so it's worth trying it controlled rather than waiting until you run out of gas? $\endgroup$ – StephenS Dec 1 '19 at 22:05
  • $\begingroup$ The PPL instrument instruction is intended to let someone make a 180 after blundering into cloud for one reason or another, maybe a few minutes. A let down that lasts 5-10 minutes in bumpy conditions would be pushing it, but if you have no choice, well you go for it. This is why no OTT in Canada for basic pilots. The comm course is a lot more training, and is in fact where you get most of the stick and rudder hood time. When you do an instrument rating itself later, the training is more about operating in the IFR system and you don't spend that much time on instrument fundamentals. $\endgroup$ – John K Dec 2 '19 at 0:11

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