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Note: I'm not a pilot, so I don't have much basic knowledge of how the pilot licence ratings work

If a pilot doesn't have an Instrument Rating, and the weather conditions drop below VMC; what do they do?

Presumably you can't instantly land, but nor can you safely continue to fly without sufficient visibility?

I know the basic licence includes some instrument training, but is this enough to fly and land without visibility? I was under the impression that was the entire point of gaining an Instrument Rating... To train the pilot to fly on instruments alone

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    $\begingroup$ Obligatory: http://www.aopa.org/AOPA-Live.aspx?watch={CCA30EA1-A94D-4E45-ABCD-3AD4074403E0} $\endgroup$ – falstro Nov 18 '14 at 13:58
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    $\begingroup$ @AE it's not so much the horizon, it's the visual cues that are gone, nothing moves any more, or moves in directions inconsistent with the actual movement of the plane. Add that to sensations of movements by our inner ear and other sensory systems, and we're all pretty much doomed without training. Classic test, close your eyes and let someone spin the chair you're sitting in. Eventually you'll get the feeling you've stopped (fluid in your ear has caught up with the rotation). Open your eyes and you'll go dizzy due to the fact that your eyes are now telling you you're still actually spinning. $\endgroup$ – falstro Nov 18 '14 at 15:49
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    $\begingroup$ @JonStory ok. Mr. Over-Confident. :) Yes, you probably could, but as soon as you take one look away from that instrument, switch radio frequency, change VOR radial, GPS configuration... There's more to flying a plane than keeping it stable. Especially if you're in the soup, and you don't want to be there anymore. You look back at that thing and it'll now show a weird angle, your AI just failed. Only, as the post crash analysis might show, it didn't, it just didn't tell you what your stressed out mind was able to accept. $\endgroup$ – falstro Nov 18 '14 at 15:55
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    $\begingroup$ You're not unusually logical; but you've also never been in that situation. Most people think they'll do just fine. Keep in mind, every fiber of your body is telling you you're sitting upright, only that instrument isn't. I have been in that situation, and it wasn't even in IMC. I was looking at my chart for too long. The feeling when you realize it's not what your body tells you is extremely humbling. $\endgroup$ – falstro Nov 18 '14 at 16:05
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    $\begingroup$ @JonStory The leans are quite common even in VMC when you can see the horizon, so you can imagine how much more difficult it can be in real IMC. This is also worth a read. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Nov 18 '14 at 17:07
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It is very rare for weather to go IMC unexpectedly.

A responsible pilot should see that weather is deteriorating, and begin planning for the nearest available landing. If they cannot find a landing, they should contact ATC while still in VMC, declare an emergency, and begin working with ATC to get down safely.

In some cases, a pilot may inadvertently enter IMC unexpectedly. The standard procedure is to execute a standard rate 180° turn, and fly equal time in the opposite direction. That should get them back to VMC conditions.

If that doesn't work, unfortunately inadvertent flight into IMC is a leading cause of GA accidents, especially CFIT (Controlled Flight into Terrain - i.e. 'aircraft flew into the ground'). Because of that, even basic private pilot training includes more basic instructions on instrument flying (BAI) than it used to.

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    $\begingroup$ Good answer - thanks. It did occur to me that it would likely be a rare occurrence, but I was reading about a crash involving it so was just wondering what the 'right' thing to do was... It sounds like the right thing to do is get an instrument rating :p $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Nov 18 '14 at 13:54
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    $\begingroup$ Two small points: climbing in IMC is probably a dangerous maneuver for a non-instrument rated pilot; and not all countries include instrument skills in basic training. $\endgroup$ – Pondlife Nov 18 '14 at 14:26
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    $\begingroup$ The 5 C's are specifically for lost aircraft. Inadvertent IMC should be handled by either an immediate climb or descent back to VMC, or a level 180 degree turn, if you flew laterally into IMC. $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Nov 18 '14 at 16:01
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    $\begingroup$ I suppose the other advantage to the 180 is that even if it doesn't take you out of IMC, it should take you along the obstacle-less path you just flew down $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Nov 18 '14 at 16:09
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    $\begingroup$ @JayCarr Sure, if you are instrument rated you can just climb to the MSA (which you should be at anyway?) and then file IFR and carry on your merry way. However, if you are not instrument rated its a legitimate emergency and you need to immediately get back to VMC. The trouble is, the only VMC you know about is the one you just left. If you climb and then 180 you might climb into another layer of IMC you didn't realize was there earlier. It is imperative that you make an immediate correction back to known VMC if you don't have an instrument rating. $\endgroup$ – Rhino Driver Nov 19 '14 at 3:18
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A visual pilot flying into instrument conditions is a serious emergency. It's much better to avoid the situation in the first place which is why there's a significant amount of training around preventing that from happening , namely in learning meteorology and practicing good flight planning. Pilots should always be looking out for deteriorating conditions, and planning an escape route, or a precautionary landing, even if it's in a field.

The actual training pilots get for inadvertent flight into IMC is to do a 180 degree turn on instruments while maintaining a stable altitude, and then fly out of the cloud they've gotten into. This won't always work, it is possible to get into IMC gradually, especially at night or over the sea (It's happened to me but I have an instrument rating so no big deal), or have IMC conditions form over an area all at once. In these situations a 180 degree turn isn't going to get a pilot to safety so they should:

  • Don't panic, you will get through it
  • Fly the airplane: concentrate on maintaining controlled, level flight. The artificial horizon is your bestest friend in the whole wide world right now, but don't forget to check your other instruments and do your regular engine checks and carb heat
  • Get your aircraft set up for flight in cloud or bad visibility, so pitot heat on, navigation lights on
  • Call air traffic control if available, notify them of the situation and ask for assistance. ATC can help the pilot find an area with better visibility, or direct him/her to an airfield with instrument landing facilities. They can also get someone on to help talk the pilot through setting the instruments available for an instrument landing, or do a surveillance radar approach
  • Use navigation aids to keep aware of location and to keep clear of obstacles. ATC will probably direct you, but you still need to be aware of your location and situation. If there's no ATC it's all up to you, so fly yourself to the biggest airport around, or one with lots of space and as little terrain as possible. Climb if necessary to avoid the tallest obstacle around
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    $\begingroup$ To add to what you are saying about this situation being a serious emergency studies have been done on private pilots in IMC. A pilot with no IFR training in IMC conditions survives less than 3 minutes on average. $\endgroup$ – usernumber Nov 18 '14 at 14:14
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    $\begingroup$ I didn't know that statistic @usernumber. That's pretty scary! $\endgroup$ – GdD Nov 18 '14 at 14:21
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    $\begingroup$ If that's true then the answer to the question is probably: die. $\endgroup$ – GdD Nov 18 '14 at 14:38
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    $\begingroup$ @JasonC, my aviation weather professor told us that number during the first lesson to get our attention, but I haven't found any link to an article that might confirm. $\endgroup$ – usernumber Nov 25 '14 at 14:29
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    $\begingroup$ @JasonC This leaflet describes a 1990s study at University of Illinois which concluded that on average, from their sample of 20, it took 178 seconds for a VFR pilot to lose control in IMC. However, here's an article which debunks this story. In particular, all the gyro instruments were apparently covered during the experiment, and the University of Illinois no longer seems to have even the excerpt, let alone the entire story. $\endgroup$ – Roman Jan 9 '15 at 23:39
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Special case: our university has an exceedingly good autopilot installed in all of our trainers. If one of our private pilot students gets into IMC by mistake, they hit the button marked "Straight & Level" and then let Otto fly the 180 turn to exit IMC.

While not every student or private pilot has access to the level of cockpit automation that we do, even a wing leveler + elevator trim might be enough to keep you alive until you can get your bearings.

As an anecdote, my first time in IMC, I had over three hours of hood time, I had been fully briefed on what to expect and I knew that my body was going to lie to me. Not more than thirty seconds in the cloud and I knew beyond a shadow of a doubt that the airplane was tumbling backwards.

If my instructor hadn't been there I would have pushed the nose into the dirt and held it there until I broke out of the cloud or hit the ground.

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    $\begingroup$ It's official - your body was trying to kill you. $\endgroup$ – Wayne Werner Nov 19 '14 at 12:03
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As others have said, this situation is best avoided. There's a term for trying to sneak under the clouds: scud-running. It can be deadly. As the dew point drops, the cloud ceiling falls. Combine that with rising terrain and accidents can happen. The spread between the dew point and the air temperature is a critical tool (the higher the better) for avoiding low ceilings. This is why the dew point and air temperature are part of weather information.

It's really critical to understand how disorienting IMC can be. You have to resist the temptation to fly with your eyes out the windscreen and switch to flying using the instruments. The expression "flying by the seat of your pants" is used a lot and it's just not true. One of my instructors wanted me to experience how undependable this is. He had me close my eyes and attempt to fly straight and level. After about 20 seconds, he told me to open my eyes. I was banked left about 20 degrees in a nose down attitude. While I had my eyes closed, I was certain that I was rolling to the right and climbing. That was a sobering lesson.

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    $\begingroup$ Flying by the seat of your pants (literal, actually) only applies to coordination/avoiding sideslip. And it is actual seat of the pants, not feel of balance because that one is getting conflicting information. $\endgroup$ – Jan Hudec Nov 21 '14 at 10:53
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I read a few times that the attitude indicator is your friend. That is not so much true. Just last night I was in IMC and my attitude indicator was acting up, a 2 month old AI... If you are flying anywhere near IMC conditions, you best be well rehearsed in flying by and trusting your life in that set of instruments(all of them), 3 hours a year ago in training is not enough. If you accidentally get stuck in IMC conditions and try to feel your way out of it, you'll be ascending into the heavens within minutes. I had never been in the soup, even as a passenger, until after I got my IR. I didn't realize the skill I had developed in instrument training until I took a non IR rated private pilot into the soup with me. Every 30 seconds he was asking why we were banking so hard when we were level, or why we weren't turning when we were. Thats coming from a guy just got his license and did his 3 hours in the past 2 months or so. Thats scary.

If you see IFR or degrading visibility anywhere near or around your flight, my advice is to stay on the ground

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Can't believe no one mentioned it, but first you need to transition to instruments. Then climb to at least the MEF (Maximum Elevation Figure [the number in the quadrangles on a VFR sectional]) or preferably a MIA (Minimum IFR Altitude) if you happen to know it, but do not climb into class A airspace unless it's an emergency. Exit IMC (instrument meteorological conditions) by changing heading OR altitude (i.e. 180 degree turn). If that doesn't work then squawk 7700 and attempt to contact the nearest controlling facility. Do not squawk 7700 if you are instrument rated, just pick up an IFR (instrument flight rules) clearance...

By the way, I've always learned the 5 C's apply to the lost scenario, but I suppose it could work in this case. Never thought of it!

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    $\begingroup$ You say 'transition to instruments' as if they know how to do so... If they did, they'd probably have instrument rating (or had it previously, in which case they could probably fly as normal while declaring the situation to ATC) $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Nov 18 '14 at 16:36
  • $\begingroup$ No not exactly. As mentioned above, every U.S. private pilot gets at least a few hours flying under the hood. You can't keep flying looking out the window in the weather and expecting things to get better. You need to develop some sort of instrument cross-check and not look outside. $\endgroup$ – user3309 Nov 18 '14 at 16:38
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    $\begingroup$ As other answers and comments have stated, not every country includes even basic IFR training $\endgroup$ – Jon Story Nov 18 '14 at 16:39
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    $\begingroup$ Fixed my above comment. But the principles are the same... You CANNOT look outside the aircraft in the weather and be expected to fly the jet.. Spatial D sets in very fast. Even without instrument training, a pilot uses the instruments enough to be able to rely on them solely for a few seconds to a couple minutes to get them headed in the right direction. They're not going to be expected to shoot an RNAV or LOC down to mins, just get out IMC. By the way, a lot of the instrument training isn't about learning to fly on instruments, it's about being able to comply with the IFR environment. $\endgroup$ – user3309 Nov 18 '14 at 16:41
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    $\begingroup$ You really ought to expand your acronyms. The question explicitly says "no instrument rating". $\endgroup$ – egid Nov 23 '14 at 20:22
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The airport I learned to fly at was the home of many planes. On Friday afternoon / evening during the summer the people would fly their planes to the beach, a couple of hours east of the airport.

One Friday afternoon while I was learning I was practicing touch-and-go's. I knew that my time was limited because there was a storm south of the airport, about an hour away.

For about thirty minutes I had the airport to myself, but then some of the earlier departures to the beach started returning. Next thing you know the airport has a lot of planes in the pattern. And of course I am last! I never lost sight of the ground but the thunderstorm I was in scared me beyond believe. (At one point I even considered landing at Andrews AFB that I could see and was in sunshine) My instructor got on the radio and eventually talked me through it.

Several weeks later while doing my long cross country I got a weather report indicating a thunderstorm ahead of me. Several minutes earlier I had passed over the airport at Orange, VA. Half an hour after landing at Orange, VA the thunderstorm hit.

GA pilots that test mother nature are a fatality waiting to happen.

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First of all, as a VFR pilot you are usually always watching weather and the chance that visibility just instantly drops is unlikely. That being said, you do have some "hood time" when training for your private pilot rating that you will likely fall back on ... but more importantly, if you are flying a modern aircraft, is to rely on autopilot. Turn the aircraft over to the autopilot, lookup weather conditions around you on your MFD (or call Flight Service and get their advise on where to go); then adjust the heading or punch direct to the destination with the better conditions. I would also notify ATC of my condition and if things were really bad, declare an emergency.

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    $\begingroup$ Just flipping on the autopilot and continuing inside a cloud while trying to determine where to go is dangerous. The three hours in the PPL curriculum is for emergencies, and currency is essential when flying in IMC. VFR into IMC is a very dangerous situation, and grounds for an emergency (though keeping the plane upright should take precedence over calling ATC.) $\endgroup$ – NathanG May 28 '15 at 1:12
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A pilot must have a very good kinesthetic sense : his or her position in the air, in the space. When you have that natural quality; training helps but it is natural, it is much easier to have the same feeling for you plane. Early pilots did not have any kind of instrument and they crossed very long distances. Bleriot, the French pilot, went over he Channel in the 1920s. Some veteran pilots are more competent than now a days when some feel over confident in their electronic system. The pleasure of piloting is feeling safe and confident in its own abilities. Piloting is a vocation; you have to have natural predispositions for it. When you have them, you like the job. You are less stress. Kinesthesie is the senses of a human being measuring motion in space, so in the air too.

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    $\begingroup$ Welcome to Aviation Stack Exchange! Sadly, your answer is incorrect - as mentioned in other answers, there are physiological reasons why humans, no matter the skill, cannot remain in control of an airplane in IMC based solely on kinesthetics. $\endgroup$ – NathanG Nov 21 '14 at 4:38
  • $\begingroup$ Sure, some folks have better kinesthetic sense. But in IMC flight an Olympic gymnast will succumb to the tricks the inner ear just as fast as anyone else. $\endgroup$ – radarbob Nov 25 '14 at 6:19
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    $\begingroup$ Its not just "tricks" of an inner ear... you can literally enter inverted flight with 1G through your butt the entire time, so that you feel you are sitting normally, and never detect the shift. It is acceleration and physics, not physiology. This is why airplanes must have Gyros. $\endgroup$ – abelenky Nov 25 '14 at 16:21
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    $\begingroup$ Early pilots had no instruments, true. They also frequently died because they were trapped in clouds or fog. There's a reason airmail pilots were instructed to bail out rather than try to land through fog. $\endgroup$ – cpast Jan 31 '15 at 4:12
  • $\begingroup$ @abelenky: Flying straight and level will be indistinguishable from flying along many other paths, but I would think the way in which the plane responds to controls would vary. If the wings are level and one elevators up and down, the all changes in acceleration will remain symmetrical left to right; if the plane is banking, however, I would think the elevator action would cause non-symmetrical changes in acceleration. $\endgroup$ – supercat Sep 2 '16 at 20:50

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