Stumbling into IMC without a plan

I’m an engineer by trade and state that only in reference to my desire to continually research ways to operate better. I, like many pilots, read articles about aviation and accidents in an attempt to fly safer. As pilots who research safety we hear, “Stay proficient, and don’t fly into IMC if you’re not on an IFR flight plan and not proficient.” So we get our instrument rating and make sure we remain IFR proficient.

The question for many pilots is why so many IFR-rated pilots lose control in IMC. I’m writing this to explain my own simple experience of what happened to me. I was a private pilot, IFR-rated for a little more than two years with about 200 hours total flying time when this occurred.

I had a little oil leakage from my constant speed prop so I took some pictures and sent them to an A&P. After instructions, I removed the front nose cover to inspect. Everything looked good so I reinstalled. I wanted to run the engine after the reinstall and do a few approaches since I hadn’t flown in about a month.

Clouds above airport tower
Is it an IFR day or a VFR day? It’s not always clear-cut.

I checked the ATIS and they were calling for 1300 ft scattered. The sky was very scattered with about four to five miles visibility (MVFR). I called clearance (small Class D airport) and asked if I could shoot an approach, the RNAV 16 which has an altitude of 2,000 ft at the initial approach fix. I didn’t think I could do it VFR so I asked if they could they give me an IFR clearance or if would I have to file.

Clearance said I would have to file with ATC. At the time, I wasn’t sure how to file directly from one airport back to that same airport but have since figured it out. With scattered 1300 ft clouds, I told clearance I would do two touch and goes in the pattern VFR, and I got my taxi instructions. I taxied, performed my run up, and was holding short for a twin to land.

Everything went fine. However, there was a little confusion on my part because I answered a clearance for the twin due to our call signs being similar. My mind was partially on the weather, looking at the clouds. The tower was asking the twin what he would be doing. He had flown from an airport about 15 miles to the north. The airport was located close to where I would have started my approach, had I been IFR for the RNAV 16. Tower stated the twin could not go back VFR and would have to return IFR. I was concerned/unhappy/confused as to why the tower seemed to aid the twin in another IFR clearance back, but could not provide me any assistance. All of this conversation and thought process was taking place during my takeoff roll on the tower frequency.

I lifted off at my normal 80 mph and started my climb-out. I was planning on a left pattern to keep my eyes closer to the runway, since I was flying a low wing (PA-32). As I was climbing out, the tower told me I could do left or right pattern, but that there was a lot of smoke to the left. I agreed with the tower and decided on a right pattern. At 800 ft, while in a right-hand climbing turn, I entered the clouds. My intention was to climb to pattern altitude at 1,000 ft, but I immediately went on instruments and became frazzled. What did I do? Of course, fly the plane.

I had no plan, and now I was thinking I was trouble.

I began to consider several options. First, stop the turn since I was in the clouds and didn’t know for sure where I was. The only game plan I had was to look out the window, keep the airport in sight, and do a normal traffic pattern.

I could tell the tower I was in IMC and I needed a pop-up IFR clearance. If I did this, how would the tower respond? What altitude should I climb to? I had asked for an IFR clearance from the ground a few minutes ago and been denied. If I chose not to file, was the tower going to assume I was a lazy pilot, choosing not to file and forcing this situation?

I knew circling minimums for several approaches are 600 ft, so could I go back down to 600 ft, keep the airport in sight, and be safe? Another wise thing for me to have thought about ahead of time was a downwind heading: I had departed on 16, so the correct heading would be 340. At this time, my brain was expecting to be looking at the airport for navigation, so I had nothing programmed into my GPS. I wasn’t planning to enter IMC, after all. I was flying the plane but I didn’t have a good plan.

I believe this is where things go bad for well-trained pilots. It’s not that we can’t improvise and come up with new plans, but when we’re a little lost and our original plan isn’t working out, we need a few moments to compose a new one. I was in the pattern in IMC, trying to descend well below pattern altitude to get below the scattered clouds while trying to do what I told the tower I would be doing – and also not get in trouble with ATC.

Cherokee 6
The Cherokee 6 is a stable airplane, so step one is to keep the blue side up.

Training to immediately fly on instruments kept me safe. Fear to do something other than the plan the tower and I had agreed upon could have resulted in a bad ending.

The problems continued for me, doing a right-hand pattern, getting below the clouds and being close to the airport. I lined up on the first runway I came to, which was 12 and not 16. Being disoriented, I could not determine I was on 12 until I was lined up and got my bearings. The tower had already cleared me to land on 16, while I was actually lining up on 12. I believe that clearance may have given me a false sense of security that I was lining up on the correct runway. I did not want to land on the wrong runway. I also did not want to push my luck by making some uncomfortable bank angles in order to land on 16 and take a chance of really messing up in the pattern. I decided to do a missed, so I turned to 160 upon crossing the runway intersections, and away I went.

I said to myself, “This time I will not get in the clouds and if I can get around at 600 ft, I should be safe.” Not being on a circling approach – and knowing there are a lot of towers in the area – I let the plane drift above 600 ft. I could not force myself to maintain the low altitude and got into the clouds around 700 ft this time. I forced the nose down, turned for a right pattern and skirted the bottom of the clouds in and out on my downwind. I kept better view of the airport this time and lined up on 16.

Here is the final ATC command that I still couldn’t refute. The tower told me I was cleared for the touch and go only. What? Why? I’ve never not been cleared for the option; why would I not be able to land? I did not want to go around again. I wanted to land and put the airplane in the hangar. I answered, “Cleared for a touch and go,” and query, “Not cleared to land?” He said “Touch and go only.” He did eventually clear me for the option on short final, by which I replied, “So I’m cleared to land?” and followed up with, “This will be a full stop.”

I let my lack of a plan get me into trouble. I’d like to hear from other pilots about what they would have done during these circumstances at any point in the story.

9 Comments

  • ATIS was saying the deck was 1300 and you entered clouds at 800. Always remember that ATC is there to help you. Should never be afraid to say ASOS or whatever was wrong, I’m in the clouds at 800 and need vectors to an approach.

    • Class D airports do not have a terminal radar. I don’t think they can give you vectors.
      I think they do have a remote radar representation, as I’ve heard my plane get called out by the class D tower, but it’s for awareness not control.

  • Anxious attitudes beget upset attitudes. The airplane doesn’t know it’s in the clouds. The instruments don’t know they’re in the clouds. Down below people are going about their daily lives… Everything’s cool except the pilot; he’s losin’ it… “R E L A X…!!” “Take a deep breath.” “Just fly the airplane.” “Are you a pilot or are you not?” These are the things you have to repeat to yourself in these situations. It’s no big deal. Fly the airplane, land, park it, go to the store to pick up those things your wife needed, go home, have supper, watch TV with your family. Flying in IMC is just like any other activity if you just relax and fly.

      • Richard; Yes, it is hard to do. I guess I should qualify the word “relax”. In over 47 years of flying and more than 26,000 hours, I have to say that I have never been able to fully relax in an airplane while I’m the pilot; I’m always, ALWAYS running “what-ifs” in my mind – from parking brake release to parking brake set. [Old habits are hard to break…]. And I can only sleep as a passenger if I’m thoroughly exhausted. I should have substituted the word “stabilize” for the word “relax”. Stabilize yourself, prioritize, concentrate. In other words, keep your cool as a pilot and do what you know you’re supposed to do. Whatever fix you may find yourself in at the time, the world does go on all around you; you are probably the only who knows you are terrified at that particular moment. (I’ve logged many hours of weak-kneed time over the years and been laughed at after returning to the ground). So, fall back on your training and experience, take some deep breaths and keep your cool. If we as pilots become unstabilized, then the airplane will surely escort us to our doom. In your more than fifty years of experience I’m sure you would agree.

  • Be straight forward and blunt with ATC. Just because ATC says touch and go only doesn’t mean you shouldn’t refuse that clearance. Remember it is ATC’s job for safe flow of traffic and it is their job to have plan b and plan c should something not go as planned. Let them know what you need as soon as you need it so they can develop a plan to get you out of your jam.

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