Flying visually in poor visibility continues to be one of the most dangerous forms of flying, as evidenced by a fatal aircraft accident near Mount Hotham, Victoria on 23 October 2013.

An ATSB investigation into the accident found the pilot of a Cessna 182Q aircraft—who was flying visually in an aircraft not approved for 'instrument flight rules'—took off despite poor weather forecast along the planned route.

The ATSB found that the pilot likely encountered reduced visibility due to poor weather, which resulted in the aircraft colliding with Mount Blue Rag, at about 5000 feet (1,524 metres) above mean sea level.

ATSB General Manager of Aviation Safety Investigations, Mr Ian Sangston, said this accident serves as a powerful and tragic reminder to visual flight rules pilots of the dangers of flying in poor visibility conditions.

"Between 1993 and 2013 there were 11 accidents involving inadvertent visual flight into 'instrument meteorological conditions', such as poor weather or cloud," Mr Sangston said.

“While meteorological forecasts are inevitably set in terms of the likelihood of low cloud, rain or fog affecting a flight, it is the responsibility of pilots to analyse the risk and make appropriate decisions.”

"In forecast marginal weather, this involves considering alternative options such as diverting or turning back."

"It is important, also, for pilots and others involved in the operation of aircraft to actively support safety-first pilot decision-making."

"Pressing on into poor visibility conditions with no instrument rating, and/or in an inappropriately‑instrumented aircraft, carries a significant risk of severe spatial disorientation due to powerful and misleading orientation sensations."

"This tragic accident was avoidable. It's both sad and frustrating that we continue to investigate accidents where visual flight rules pilots push the limits when flying with poor visibility." Mr Sangston said.

Read the full investigation report AO-2013-186.

An important safety message

Flying with reduced visual cues is one of the ATSB’s top safety concerns.

Under visual flight rules (VFR), it is crucial pilots have sufficient visual reference to see and avoid obstacles and be able to navigate their aircraft. Visual cues are also required to maintain orientation so VFR pilots know which way is up and can maintain control of their aircraft.

This accident highlights the risks associated with operating under the VFR in adverse weather, particularly when flying in a challenging environment such as in mountainous terrain.

Thorough pre-flight planning is essential for avoiding weather. It is not only important to obtain the relevant weather forecasts to develop a mental picture of the conditions that may be encountered, but also to assess this information and understand how it relates to the planned flight. In forecast marginal weather, this involves consideration of alternative options such as delaying, diverting or turning back and pilots assessing their skills and/or aircraft’s suitability for the task in the conditions. 

During flight, pilots must continuously assess the weather for conditions that may adversely affect the safety of the flight and be prepared to use an alternative course of action if conditions deteriorate. This can include seeking assistance, such as that available from air traffic control.

The ATSB is concerned about the frequency of accidents—many fatal—that involve pilots flying with reduced visual cues. This has been highlighted as part of the ATSB's SafetyWatch initiative.

More information on flying with reduced visual cues.

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