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High risk flying into marginal conditions

The risks of flying visually with rising terrain and lowering cloud base became evident to an RV4 pilot in December 2016.

General aviation fixed wing aircaft depicted in low cloud

On departing Inverell, NSW, on the last leg of a flight from Corowa, NSW, to Archerfield, Queensland, the pilot inadvertently ended up flying in a valley. The pilot decided the only option to fly out of the valley was to enter instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) in cloud and climb through.

Just after contacting Air Traffic Control (ATC), the aircraft broke clear of the cloud at about 7500 ft above sea level. The pilot asked for a weather report for near the coast and was informed by another pilot that Ballina weather was clear.

With ATC monitoring, the pilot was able to sight Ballina and made a normal visual approach. After a few hours on the ground, the pilot then flew on to Archerfield without incident.

Not all pilots are so lucky. Flying with reduced visual cues too often results in fatal accidents, made all the more tragic because they are avoidable. In the five years from 2012 to 2016 there have been around 40 occurrences of VFR into IMC, resulting in four accidents, 10 serious incidents and seven fatalities.

Problems with pilots’ assessing and planning contributes to about half of all fatal accidents in private operations.

To improve the odds of reaching a destination, pilots should make decisions before the flight. They should continually assess flight conditions (especially weather) and evaluate the effectiveness of their plans.

Pilots should set personal minimums and assess their fitness to fly and make safety the primary goal. And they should seek local knowledge of the route and destination as part of their pre-flight planning.

More information about VFR into IMC is available from the ATSB's Avoidable Accidents booklet and our SafetyWatch page Flying with reduced visual cues.

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Last update 14 February 2017