On 21 February 2014, the pilot of a Piper PA-28R aircraft, registered VH-TBB, departed Scone, New South Wales on a private flight to Warwick, Queensland. The flight was planned under the visual flight rules (VFR). The planned route took the aircraft overhead Tamworth and Inverell, then on to Warwick.

The flight proceeded normally until the pilot encountered an increasing amount of cloud and light rain showers while en route between Inverell and Warwick. The pilot initially attempted to pass beneath the cloud, but had difficulty maintaining visual meteorological conditions (VMC). Although the cloud appeared to be relatively light with ill-defined edges, the pilot found that forward visibility was restricted.

The pilot advised air traffic control (ATC) that he was occasionally encountering instrument meteorological conditions (IMC), and with the aircraft intermittently identified on radar, ATC was able to assist the pilot with relevant advice. About 30 NM from Warwick, the pilot reported clear of the weather, and the flight continued without further incident.

The pilot later indicated that during the intermittent encounter with marginal conditions, the aircraft was in cloud for a total time of about one minute. The pilot had undertaken some instrument flight training about 2 years prior to the incident, which provided some confidence with respect to aircraft control during his encounter with marginal conditions.

Pilots are encouraged to make conservative decisions when considering how forecast weather may affect their flight. If poor weather is encountered en-route, timely and conservative decision making may be critical to a safe outcome. VFR pilots are also encouraged to familiarise themselves with the definition of VMC criteria, and carefully consider available options where forecast or actual conditions are such that continued flight in VMC cannot be assured.

The ATSB SafetyWatch highlights the broad safety concerns identified in investigation findings and from safety data reported to the ATSB by industry. One safety concern relates to general aviation pilots who fly into conditions of reduced visibility, without the appropriate training, skills and qualifications. The ATSB research report Avoidable Accidents No 4 – Accidents involving Visual Flight Rules pilots in Instrument Meteorological Conditions provides some key messages with respect to weather-related general aviation accidents.

Additional information: Flying with reduced visual cues


Aviation Short Investigations Bulletin - Issue 32