Is scud-running ever OK?

low clouds at airport
Does this view automatically mean you should cancel?

Most of my flying is IFR in high performance airplanes, so a recent helicopter trip through Kentucky and Tennessee was an interesting change of pace. In fact, it was the first time I’d flown a strictly VFR cross-country in years (this helicopter is not IFR certified, so it’s not even an option). The trip was flat out fun, but I also learned some valuable lessons about weather, staying flexible and embracing the delays that sometimes come with VFR flying.

The weather was forecast to be interesting all week, and on the day of the trip Mother Nature did not disappoint. While the weather at my departure was decent and the weather at my destination was good VFR, in between looked challenging. A large band of rain showers was producing low ceilings and reduced visibility across a wide area, and the forecast called for little change over the next 8 hours.

My first lesson came early–a good VFR weather briefing is wildly different from a good IFR weather briefing. Maybe that’s obvious, but I hadn’t done a VFR weather briefing in ages, and I had to adjust my habits. Planning for a VFR flight in marginal conditions means carefully studying the weather at each point along the route, not just at the departure and destination (as is typical with an IFR flight). In particular, I focused on the trend in the METARs more than the forecasts. Forecasting ceilings is very tricky, and planning a flight based solely on a three hour old forecast is wishful thinking.

Since filing IFR was not an option, I was forced to consider another option: scud-running. The very phrase may strike fear in the hearts of some pilots, but a well done scud-run can be safe and effective. As Richard Collins has written, scud-running “was widely done in the good old days. A lot of pilots were pretty good at it.” In the last 20 years, we’ve conducted a war on scud-running, placing this technique in the same league as smoking and drunk driving. While the latter two deserve their bad reputations, I think we’ve gone too far with scud-running.

Certainly, it is not easy–a safe scud-run demands precision and discipline. There are some rules that simply must be obeyed, like having a hard limit on how low you will fly and never getting backed into a corner. But with the right preparation and some experience (don’t do it on your first solo cross-country), it’s another tool in the pilot’s bag.

parked at KBRY
Parked at Bardstown waiting for higher ceilings.

For my flight, I also tried to build in some extra margins. On the plus side, my departure was good VFR, so I could always turn around. I had plenty of fuel to take a circuitous route if needed. I had no significant schedule pressures. I had a GPS with current terrain and obstacle databases. And my destination was good VFR and forecast to stay there. That’s important, since get-home-itis seems to be worst when you’re trying to make it the last 25 miles in worsening conditions.

I’m an advocate of “taking a look” when it comes to weather and I was up for an adventure, so I departed. I simply flew as far as the weather allowed, hopping from airport to airport. This meant flying away from rain showers and low clouds and seeing where that led. It can be hard to ignore the magenta “direct-to” line on the GPS, but that’s exactly what must be done in low weather.

As I approached Bardstown, Kentucky, some moderate rain had brought down visibility to a point where I was getting uncomfortable, so I landed to wait it out. While some might find this to be an annoying delay, I took it as a chance to explore a new place. As it turns out, Bardstown is the bourbon capital of the world, home to Maker’s Mark and other famous bottles. After borrowing the crew car, I enjoyed an hour-long tour of the charming town and made plans to return some day (when I could enjoy the local product). By the time I got back to the airport, the weather had lifted and I could easily fly south under a 1000 ft overcast and good visibility.

In the end, I made it to my destination, and only about two hours late. The trip was not direct, but it was safe and surprisingly enjoyable, with spectacular scenery throughout the rolling hills of southern Kentucky. I saw places I’d flown over dozens of times before, but never low enough to appreciate the beauty.

The highlight was a stop at Mt. Cloud, a mountain-top resort with a great restaurant and incredible views. Fortunately, they have a beautiful heliport on site with a dramatic approach to the ridge. My wife and I enjoyed a once-in-a-lifetime meal looking over the valley below, then had a stunning sunset departure from the mountain. This was an experience only possible for a pilot.

Mt. Cloud
A mountain-top restaurant with a helipad was the highlight of the trip.

Beyond the pure fun of the trip, I learned a lot of lessons about VFR flying in marginal weather:

  • Visibility is more important than ceilings. 3 miles under a 2000 ft. overcast is very uncomfortable, while 10 miles under a 900 ft. ceiling is flyable (in a helicopter at least). If the visibility starts to drop, get on the ground.
  • Always have a real out. Turning around and flying 80 miles back to your departure probably isn’t realistic, so be honest about where you’re going if the weather goes down. If it’s really low, have two or three outs. In a helicopter, sometimes this means a nice field–not an airport.
  • With most weather systems, an hour makes a big difference. Don’t be afraid to land and wait it out.
  • Eyeballs beat datalink weather every time. I love datalink weather (ADS-B on my iPad for this trip), but it only tells part of the story for VFR flying. Flying to better visibility worked much better than just looking at radar pictures.

Another lesson has less to do with flying and more to do with attitude. The out-of-the-way places you discover on a long, winding flight should be part of the fun of being a pilot. We’d all love to fly direct under perfect blue skies for every trip. But I would never have visited Bardstown without a little rain. So I’m trying to embrace the delays and the non-direct routing on longer trips. If you don’t, you might as well fly the airlines.

As Richard Collins says in his great book The Next Hour, “A well-flown scud run was (and is) far more demanding of perfection than is a non-precision IFR approach.” It certainly is. But it’s just as rewarding.

Tags from the story


  • Scud running was almost always the way to go in the 1960’s in Africa. Going somewhere seldom meant there would be IFR facilities or controllers at the destination.
    I agree wholeheartedly that it is a highly disciplined activity with very little forgiveness.
    Having never done it in a helicopter, one of my most often used outs is still straight up. I would scud run at a decent speed so if I run out of options I’d add full power and pull up into the clouds and fly back to where I had clear skies. There are no rocks in the clouds.
    Only once did I almost not make it while scud running.
    I was flying low in a valley to get to a break in the hills to my left through which final approach to the village’s dirt strip was. Ice went through my veins when about 100′ feet off to my right a local farmer’s steel antenna passed by the wingtip, sticking into the clouds. There was no indication of the obstacle on the map. I missed the break in the hills, had a brief decent look at the strip’s final and decided it’s workable, pulled into the clouds, climbed above the local mountains and traversed back to good weather, turned around and ducked back under the cloud layer and landed without incident.
    By God’s grace alone did I miss that antenna because there was no particular reason why I couldn’t have flown 100′ to the right. At about 120 kts it would have cut through the Twin Comanche like a hot knife through butter.

    • @Nico
      No rocks in the clouds? Round my parts there is plenty of cumulo Granite for the unwary pilot to fly into.
      Having some heli time, I also think there is a big difference in scudding in a heli vs. scudding in a fixed wing. You can go very slowly or even stop in a heli, and you can land it on a dime if the plan isn’t working out. You don’t have such a luxury in a FW.

  • Scud running is sooo much easier now than it was in Collins time with the advent of GPS, moving maps and an AWOS at every airport. I have had my best and most interesting stops made when waiting for weather at some unplanned destination (ok, some boring ones too). I would also agree that having good visibility allows for much greater comfort than a higher ceiling. I would also add that one should never, ever, attempt scud running at night.

  • Having done plenty of scud running in the bad old days, I thought i ought mention the role of speed. Slowing down gives an apparent increase in visibility. Also th rule was keep to the right when flying interstates.

    After i got my instrument rating I found I canceled more trips than I had when scud running but i am sure I was safer.

    Now a days with those #$% cell towers everywhere I think the hazards of scud running have increased so much that I’d never do it.

  • Good Evening All. I do find myself doing what some may call scud running a couple of times a year. It is generally when I am flying my Stearman cross country. My drill is to keep an airport of some sort handily available. As others have said, visibility is more important than a high ceiling. Depending on the terrain. I like to have at least five hundred feet between the surface and the cloud deck. So Far, So Good!

    Happy Skies,

    Old Bob

  • All,

    It’s good to see some posts from very experienced folks here… good to see you here, Old Bob.

    Unlike John, I’m VFR unless there’s a reason to file, so the opportunity to stay low is fairly easy and there’s advantages.

    Also, there’s times I could argue that it’s better be VFR than IFR and had two situations on the way to OSH recently. First one, I cancelled IFR, dropped down below 1000 feet to visually work around TRWs over the gulf (no obstructions), as the radar was acting up a bit and wanted to confirm visually what it was telling me. Worked great, smooth, non issue, and when thru the convective stuff, I called center, got my clearance again to get north of the rest of the weather and then continued VFR.

    Approaching the Chicago area, ceilings were dropping and filing meant a LONG detour, so over the lake it was easy to drop down below 1000, get close to the north side and easily pick up a direct IFR clearance into destination, without detours.

    There’s two times it worked great. I could argue to keep a back up plan, and good vis is important, but less so over water where 3 miles is more that adequate.

  • thanks for shating this & Suuuuuuuuuuuuure you might as well take the Airlines

  • Scud running kills. A non-instrument certified pilot will eventually run out of wiggle room, and that’s that. If one is flying a C-172 you can slow to about 65 kts, safely, but that means you can easily hit an obstruction that you didn’t notice on a chart or your GPS. New towers crop up all the time, so, did you update your GPS before this trip? Even in an LSA, you will not be going slower than 40 kts. If you are flying over anything but flat terrain, you odds go way down. And, if you are flying at, say, 1000′ and loose an engine, your operating radius just became one mile.

    • I’m not sure “a non-instrument certified pilot will eventually run out of wiggle room.” Not if they’ve been honest and planned the flight the right way.

      Part of the problem is definitions–what is scud-running? To me, a 1000 foot ceiling with 10 miles of visibility below is hardly scud-running. 500 feet with ragged bases and 3 miles is a dangerous situation.

      • Is 1000 foot and 10 miles dangerous if you’re headed toward rising terrain in country you are not familiar with? Is 500 foot and 3 miles dangerous if you’re in a floatplane following a shoreline you’ve flown a 1000 times? As you say, it is hard to get a handle on the definition. One man’s scud-run could be anothers’ good day. There are a lot of variables that one must take into account.

  • I flew the Alaska bush country for thirty-five years, and I did so without a single weather-related accident or incident. The majority of that flying was serious mountain flying. If you couldn’t safely and successfully scud-run in Alaska, you were never going to be a successful bush pilot. Most such Alaska outback flying didn’t provide alternate landing spots – – – certainly no airports or published strips. After almost 20,000 hours at that edge-of-the-seat flying, I retired from that work in 1985, long before GPS was avialable to us. ADF was our best tool, besides having very good eyesight. I once flew a fully loaded C-206 for more than three hours and thirty minutes, never finding weather that let me climb above sixty feet. That flight was through mountains rising to above 11,000 feet. Such flying isn’t for the timid, but neither is it for the over-condident flier. We lost a few pilots over the years to scud-funning, of course. On the other hand, we kept alive many villagers, hunters, and fishermen through our services to them. Alaska’s weather and its unforgiving geography provided a serious flight environmenet, but our below-VFR-minimums flying skills certainly helped that great empty land to grow and prosper.

  • John, your story lacks a lot of detail so one has to guess why the chopper was not IFR certified and what you really mean by ‘scud running.’ Did the machine have an AI? Were conditions IFR or MVFR as defined for helicopters or fixed wing? Was the obscuration fog, low clouds, ragged cloud bases or low vis? Was the terrain steep mountains or rolling hills and prairie? Was the GPS terrain feature working reliably or not? Or were you concerned with the chance meeting of a like-minded pilot in the soup (I assume TCAS equipped and IFR aircraft can avoid you. I know I know, that’s not a 100% guarantee, but it’s close).

    I used to do SAR in the Rocky Mountains and have a file of accidents that happened primarily because the pilot made decisions to stay ‘legal’ in low vis and got dead as a result. The solution was simple: Screw the rules and get on the gages. Engage the autopilot if so equipped. Then climb straight ahead at Vx until clear of all obstacles. Consider turning back and follow the bread crumbs on the GPS back to VMC only if you or the autopilot can do it safely. Or just keep the climb going and get a clearance. Granted, ice above might be why the pilot was shooting the valleys to begin with, but a load of rime ice might be better than sudden encounters with rock.

    The faa suggestion to do a 180 after blundering into IMC is silly. It either presumes some clue of an instrument scan or invites vertigo and the leans if not loss of control, and requires bits of info the pilot might not have, such as what heading to roll out on, what the winds are and what’s in the direction I’m turning and oh, how’s that scan going in the turn?

    The advantage a chopper has is another one we can learn from: Serious speed control. When going into ‘iffy’ conditions, going the speed of smell is a bad plan. Slow it down and trim for a more rational speed for the conditions. It gives more time to react, shorter turn radii and more time in the tanks.

    Spark Imesen wrote a really useful suggestion in his Mountain flying bible: If you get trapped, mark a spot on the GPS or a terrain feature in VMC and circle it at max endurance speed to see if conditions improve. If they don’t it gives lots of time to pick a landing spot and rehearse it.

    • Well, Tom – – – you are assuming quite a bit here. First of all, not every SES or SEA private pilot has his hands on an airplent with a bunch of the goodies you’re used to having available to you. More to the point, maybe, is that if you’re in a rather narrow valley with relatively high mountains on both sides (let’s say you’re at 500′ MSL but the mountains climb to avbove 11,000′ (as in Lake Clark Pass and several others we all used almost daily) only a real fool would try to climb above the overcast. There’s just no way to make a 5,500′ climb in a loaded airplane with a climb rate of around 300′ – 500′ per minute. Especially in a narrow and twisting valley. Further, almost no Alaska bush plane carries an autopilot. We all tried to keep the aiplane’s weight down. That’s the Alaskan Holy Grail. Many even dispense with starters, generators, and batteries, choosing to hand-prop anything smaller than a C-180 . . . . . .

      And before you say that only a fool would fly under those conditions, remember that if you don’t, the next bush pilot surely will. It’s pretty much a matter of knowing the country. I don’t mean to be arbitrary, nor do I want to encourage scud-running. Still, where I come from that’s a way of life.

    • Tom, all good points. For brevity I left out some details on my particular trip. The weather in this case was really an issue of cloud bases and not visibility–that’s my point that I’ll take good vis over high clouds most days. I did have two fully-functioning GPSs with 2-day old obstacle databases.

      I’m not advocating scud-running as an everyday thing. My main point is that we’ve overreacted–there are times when it’s safe and efficient. Part of judgment/experience/decision-making is knowing when it’s an appropriate time to use this tool and when it’s a trap.

      I like to think in terms of what Dick Collins calls flying with margins. This is true of all types of flying, but particularly VFR in marginal weather. If you burn down all your margins (ceiling, vis, fuel, terrain), you’re asking for it. If you have only one of those as an issue, it could be flyable.

  • As a former U.S. Army Aviator in rotary winged aircraft, scud-runs may have been an operational necessity overseas. While stateside, scud-runs may have been an option while enroute, particularly when unanticipated below VFR minimums weather was encountered or embedded thunderstorms made transition to IFR flight inadvisable. I have been the air mission commander when day-VFR, in-flight formation break-up and single-ship IFR routing was the selected option. Scud-runs are an acceptable option for rotary wing operations. “Don’t run out of airspeed, altitude and ideas at the same time; the results could ruin your day!”

  • First let me state that I have engaged in “scud Running” and likely will do so in future. As former Instrument-Rated Private Pilot in a non autopilot Cherokee 140 and now a Light Sport pilot I find that with the equipment in my CTLS to include Glass EFIS, XM weather, and an auto pilot I have much better equipment to handle low visibility/ceiling now than in past. However, as in past, I do not takeoff planning to purposefully fly in marginal conditions for the flight. I always/always get a complete WX Brief (I do not understand the phrase “VFR WX Briefing” and if I encounter marginal I will be prepared. Visibility is, I agree, the critical factor, so my bottomline is that have no problem continuing with adequate visibility, if not, I land. I see no particular problem with scud running with a modern GPS, XM WX available and a reduced airspeed.

  • The few times I’ve taken to scud running, I’ve found that visibility is more critical than ceiling, slow speed is your friend, and always have a plan B, C, D and E. An IFR equipped airplane and rating helps to keep your options open. If you are unfamiliar with the area, in hills, flying a fast aircraft, or, heaven forbid, flying in darkness, your definition for low weather had better be pretty high.

    My reasons for choosing to fly a 172 under the weather had a lot to do with the lack of radar in the old days. Under a low ceiling with good vis, you could see and avoid rain showers and cloud to ground lightning. Seeing the first huge raindrops drops smack the windshield while flying IFR inside darkening clouds without radar scared me more than low flying. Flying low is a calculated risk, so is single engine IMC; you’ll still have to scud run when you break out of the bases if the engine quits (but at least ATC knows to begin the search).

    Radar information in the cockpit allows us to fly IFR more comfortably. The terrain/obstruction and enroute airport weather reporting allows for safer scud running decision making.

    My lack of proficiency at scud running kept my minimums to 600/5 over flat terrain, no precip, and towards improving weather the last time I did it (10+ years ago). Now I really want to hear more about 3.5 hours at 60 feet in a C-206 on a commercial flight through the mountains to put all of this into perspective.

  • Griz
    Your points are well taken, especially the part about familiarity with the area. The mountains are lined with the wreckage of those who tried to out-climb terrain. In low vis the trick is knowing which option is best: A turn back or straight ahead. GPS with terrain makes it easy: Pick a route that keeps you over black, which means 1000 ft clearance. A path that leads to yellow (200 ft or more clearance) then red (less than 200 ft clearance) might not end well. Knowing where the wires are is also helpful.

    But a consideration is how well the pilot deals with low vis. Some freak out, partly because they fear the FAA cop-mobile will pull along side and issue a summons, and partly because their situational awareness was poor to begin with and then goes to zip along with the viz.

    In my mountain flying I’ve observes pilots do incredibly stupid things to avoid a lone cloud fearing it hid a 747. Some are incredibly uneasy flying below the ridge tops. After a while we get used to it, but at first the pilot’s response can be rather interesting.

    I used to fly with a pilot who owned a C414 with every gadget known to man plus air safety sim checks every six months. He was in his element in the flight levels and we made the mistake of correlating that experience with low level mountain flying. He made the front page by piling in a USFS contract C206 south of Glacier Park. The sheriff visited the burned wreck at sunset as snow moved in and counted six bodies. Two days later two of those bodies walked out. Oops. Suddenly we had eye witnesses to the flight and it wasn’t what I expected: The pilot took no evasive action as the terrain rose up to smite them. He had turned up the wrong valley.

    I later flew the route at the same time of day but in good vis and discovered that the canyon he flew into – called tunnel creek – was aptly named. Turning into it in blue skies the world turned black as the sun backlit the ridge in front of my sun-adapted eyes. I might as well have flown into a cave. Add limited vis to that scenario, plus the reluctance of a pilot with passengers to yank and bank to get out of there and they hit a ledge, flipping the plane and breaking off the tail. The front seaters died in the fire, the back seater was crushed and the middle seaters survived.

    Why the wrong turn? At the foot of tunnel creek is a small settlement. There is another one at the correct turn point. I suspect he just chose wrong. If, as you suggest, he was familiar with the area and flown it lightly loaded so there was performance to get out of trouble none of this would have happened. But as far as we can tell he was a transient in the area. His ‘don’t spill anyone’s drinks’ mindset instead of yanking and banking didn’t help.

  • Just gotta tell a second hand war story to add to that last comment about aggressively handling your airplane.

    It was 1951 and I was a DC-6 copilot getting ready to fly a trip from San Francisco to Chicago. There was “real old” guy (must have been in his late fifties!) telling stories about the good old days to us wide eyed whippersnappers.

    His name was Harry “The Hawk” Huking and he was preparing to fly a Boeing Stratocruiser to Honolulu. He told us about one time when he turned up the wrong valley on a trip from San Francisco to Reno while flying a Boeing 40B. The ceiling was about four hundred feet and the visibilty a mile or so. As soon as he realized he was in the wrong canyon which was too narrow for a one eighty, he climbed up to the base of the clouds. With the big old radial wide open he built up as much speed as he could get in level flight, then shoved it down to just barely above the ground to build up even more speed. After that, he pulled hard into a half loop with a roll to level flight after completion of the half loop.

    As he described the maneuver, I visioned it as the first half of a Cuban Eight though that maneuver had not yet been invented when Harry used it! Back out that valley and on up to Blue Canyon which was the one he meant to use to get through the Sierras and into Reno. I asked what the passengers had to say? His comment was that they had hardly noticed the maneuver at all. The Hawk was just plain smooth at such things I guess.

    Happy Skies,

    Old Bob

  • I had the opportunity today to ferry a helicopter from Atlanta to Orlando. LZU went IFR within 10 minutes of our departure (you could see the wall of fog moving in), and we flew under scud and VFR on top of low fog banks all the way to Valdosta. It was a beautiful trip, the weather was calm, the ride was smooth, and it was SAFE.
    The helicopter is the ultimate scud running champ, and in the hands of one who studies the weather, understands the trends of weather and his own and the aircraft’s limitations, it can be the prettiest ride a general aviation pilot or passenger will ever see.
    One of the tools I have in my box is one I learned from John and Martha King: ” The most chicken pilot (or passenger) wins.” if one person on board gets uncomfortable, we get to explore the hidden treasures and relics found at the nearest airport.

  • To add to the Alaska comment, I once heard a weather report on the VHF. Appparently someone asked the pilot how the weather was. Response I heard was, “Oh, not too bad. A mile, mile and a half and 300.”

    I know people that won’t do IFR in that.

    • That’s actually a relatively common report, especially in some parts of Alaska like Kodiak and Southeast. In Alaska, as well as elsewhere, a pilot’s comfort level when it comes to marginal weather depends on experience, and on how often he’s scared himself by pushing beyond his personal minimums. As has pointed out before here, it usually depends on how familiar the pilot is with both his/her aircraft and the terrain he/she is flying over. In country I am familiar with, flying under a 100′ ceiling with a mile visibility is OK, but in unfamiliar territory I feel much better with 500’/2 miles. As Grizzly has pointed out, if pilots in Alaska didn’t “scud-run”, folks in the bush would get hungry and cold.

  • Bush flying in Africa in my days as a Game Warden flying 180s,Cubs and Huskies whilst attending to anti-poaching missions,Fire fighting,Mt rescue,search and rescue,game counts and Forest surveys demanded low flying pretty much 90% of the time.Visibility was restricted by weather,Smoke,dust storms and just good old Sun in the Eyes.Looking down was normally the reason for the flight with constant glances ahead.Knowing your area was paramount to your safety and provided alternatives when things didn’t go according to plan.In my Job the alternatives which i was confident with also meant that i could stay out for longer and fulfill the Mission when others went scuttling back to base.I seldom flew above 500ft and Bird strikes and Bullets were of primary concern.One of my main rules was never loose sight of the ground,and this sometimes meant hauling on Flap and tightly circling a Tree until visibility lifted and i could advance with my flight.Situational awareness and constantly thinking “what if/what have i forgotten”i found was incredibly important to predicting and avoiding disaster.We all know that accidents are an accumulation of errors,judgements,mistakes and technical over sites and as such i relied on my Gut feeling alot of the time.In training other up and coming “bush pilots” i always emphasized the Risk management question of “do you really need to do it?” do you need to risk your Life with this Mission.Do you really have to put yourself and the Aircraft in front of the Wildfire when its not even threatening Peoples Lives? Even if you are trying to save someones Life,then do try and do it without adding to the catastrophe.Weathers bad,go tomorrow…….

  • It’s true that Alaska’s experienced bush pilots frequently stretch things when it comes to “marginal” weather. I once made a four-hour flight in a float equipped C-206, the first three-plus-hours of the flight being made at a MAXIMUM altitude of 60-feet. Many of us have made rainy night flights at a 100′ altitude between Port Heiden and King Salmon down on the Alaska Peninsula. The highest obstruction on that one-hour flight, though, was a hill of only 300′ height, and we all knew about where that hill was located. Since we had all learned to fly in such conditions, I guess we never paid much attention to worrying about it. Looking back on it today from the comfort of my Eames chair these days, I guess it should have been a little more sobering than iti was at the time, but it simply wasn’t. It was just another day in the front office. Our most sophisticated equipment was a reliable LF radio and a gyroscopic compass, but we were all comfortable with that. And, unlike most of today’s GA pilots, we were comfortable, too, with primary panel flight. It sounds aas though D. Woodley had much the same environment at times.

    There is surely a fine line between confidence and over-confidence, and most experienced outback pilots know exactly where that line is.

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