The Pilot’s Lounge #39:
VFR Flight Training in Marginal Weather

During their primary training, pilots are often taught what marginal VFR weather looks like and why it's a hazard. Unfortunately, the lesson they often receive from that training is how to handle MVFR, not that they should avoid it. AVweb's Rick Durden takes a look at current research in this area and comes up with some tips for CFIs and students alike.


The Pilots LoungeNot long ago I wrote a column about the discussions we had in the pilot’s lounge here at the virtual airport concerning training instrument students in actual instrument conditions. There was a lot of feedback from readers and, overall, it turned out that a fairly large majority of people was in favor of such training. The subject of weather training tended to dominate conversation in the lounge for some time, and, as with any discussion, the topic expanded somewhat. It worked itself around to whether it was a good idea to train primary students and new private pilots in marginal VFR weather, that is, in any combination of strong winds, low ceilings and reduced visibility. After all, the majority of general aviation accidents still involve attempting to fly VFR into deteriorating weather. Frankly, the lounge regulars wanted to know why pilots keep insisting on killing themselves in this fashion. Is there something wrong with our training? Is it simple “bloody mindedness” as the British would say, on the part of pilots, who know what crummy weather can do to them but insist on pressing on and smacking into hillsides and towers?

Real-world Marginal VFR

I listened to the conversations to see what I could learn about the subject. I was interested to observe that most instructors and pilots were in favor of taking primary students out and showing them what marginal weather looked like. The overall feeling was that a pilot who is shown how nasty and scary marginal weather is will be so awed by it that he or she will make the decision to stay on the ground when such weather is forecast or divert and land when it is encountered. That pretty much reflected my overall opinion on the subject. I made a point of taking students flying in strong winds so that they could see how difficult it could be to handle the airplane. I wanted them to get a feel for how the difficulty of landing in a crosswind increased almost exponentially as the velocity of a direct crosswind increased. I wanted my students to see what light and moderate turbulence really were, what it was like to have to fight it and how to avoid it. I attempted to show that moderate turbulence is very unpleasant, tires a pilot fast, adversely affects in-flight decision-making and makes it tough to handle the airplane when landing.

I also tried to take students up when the visibility was three to five miles, so that they could see what “marginal” VFR was and demonstrate that they did not even handle the airplane as well as they did on days with better visibility. Then I’d try to make a brief flight in the pattern on a day with only two or three miles’ visibility, getting a special VFR clearance if needed, to show just how fast they covered the territory they could see at any given moment and how diverting their attention to look inside the cockpit could rapidly be fatal. I also tried to take them aloft when the ceiling was below 3,000 feet to show the problems inherent with low ceilings, the inability to pick out landmarks and the proliferation of tall towers. I tried to mix this all in with a discussion of why scud running is something that simply is no longer viable in the majority of the United States because of the number of towers, something I wrote about in an earlier column.

I found that I did what most instructors do.

NASA’s Research

Then I spoke with Barbara Burian, Ph.D., a civilian employee of NASA, who has been looking at this very issue. Her research is ongoing and I’m very much looking forward to reading the results, because she has been taking a deliberate approach to weather training to see what both CFIs and newly stamped private pilots say about it. As one would expect, there are differences in what CFIs say they taught and what new private pilots say they were taught. She has done the statistical grinding of the data and found that students don’t always realize what is being taught when they are learning something (they don’t attach the same title to some lessons that CFIs do), but that’s no big deal. What rocked her back on her heels and got my undivided attention was what she learned about the unintended consequences of flying student pilots in marginal VFR weather.

Dr Burian, a pilot, asked CFIs whether they took their students into marginal weather (high winds, turbulence, low ceilings, limited visibilities, actual IFR) during primary training, and why. Most all said they did so and, in general, said it was to let them see how crummy the weather was so that they would stay out of it in the future; in general, to promote good weather decision-making; the old “scared-straight” approach. She then queried students about their training; however, she added a brilliant twist that led to answers that told me we instructors might be going about this in the wrong fashion. She asked new private pilots to rate how marginal weather training affected their level of confidence and comfort (two very separate ratings) about flying in such weather, or worse, sometime in the future. She found that 21.7 percent said that, as a result of having been exposed to marginal weather conditions in training, they would both feel more confident in flying in such conditions on their own and more comfortable in doing so. That means nearly a quarter of the students who we are trying to show that this deadly weather, the sort that is not the stuff in which they should be flying, are coming out of the lesson perfectly willing to fly in such weather and probably willing to make decisions to go when they should not.

A Head-slapper

I spoke with Dr. Burian and then looked at the results and went off by myself for a little while. The head slap followed shortly thereafter. Good grief. Of course we have pilots crunching into the sides of hills in fog and rain and snow and we have pilots snagging towers in haze and pilots generally flying into terrain because we aren’t teaching how to make decisions. Dr. Burian’s results are perfectly consistent with the accident stats because a healthy proportion of pilots who do the VFR-into-IMC splat each year (oftentimes a majority) have instrument ratings. (Keep in mind the data doesn’t say if the pilots were instrument-current or if they were flying airplanes that were instrument-legal or if they had access to instrument charts.)

What we have is a situation where a good percentage of pilots who know what dog-meat weather is like (low ceilings and poor visibility), still motor into it anyway, and crash. That is entirely consistent with other marginal-weather accidents, those involving strong winds and loss of control on landing. Those usually aren’t fatal, but they keep happening to pilots who have certainly been around the block enough times to know what a strong crosswind is like and, if queried, claim to have a pretty good feel for what sort of crosswind he or she can handle in a particular type of airplane.

It’s consistent. Pilots who have some degree of experience and training in marginal weather continue to get accurate forecasts for marginal VFR weather or actual IMC and then elect to try to fly VFR into it, or they make the decision to try to continue a flight when they do not know what the weather is ahead, relying on blind optimism.

Don’t Try This At Home?

Nature is a hanging judge. Pilots who make the decision to go, or continue, in weather that exceeds their personal ability to fly an airplane by visual references, do not get probation or any sort of another chance. They die. And they take people with them. I think we flight instructors have the right idea about teaching pilots about marginal VFR weather by showing them just how awful it is, but I think we may be up against the “don’t try this at home” syndrome. We’ve got to come up with a better way to teach the go/no-go weather decision for VFR flight. I think we have to integrate it into every part of our training process so that students become so accustomed to it that it is a basic part of their subconscious.

I fully recognize that the VFR weather decision is also heavily weighted geographically. East of the Rockies, what is considered marginal VFR is probably anything when the visibility is at or less than about three to five miles’ visibility and the ceiling is at or less than 3,000 feet. Those numbers are not hard and fast, but they are a place to start. In the western high plains and Rockies, marginal VFR is different. There, anything less than 10 miles visibility is suspect because it is rare. When it does happen, it usually means the vis is going to go way down, so a pilot has to be wary of any sort of obstruction to visibility. That trips up a lot of flatland pilots in the mountains. Ceiling is also a challenging concept because it is measured above ground level and ground level varies so greatly.

I had a long talk with a very experienced pilot and instructor, Terri Watson, of Lander, Wyo. She said she teaches her students that if there is any indication of a ceiling in the reports or the forecasts, that by itself may trigger a marginal VFR warning. What may be a 5,000-foot ceiling at a lower airport may also be less than a 1,000-foot ceiling at the pass that must be crossed to get to that airport. As an interesting counterpoint to her experience with teaching students weather judgment, she is very reluctant to put numbers on any pilot’s personal weather minimums.

Now What?

So, what do we do? I did a lot of listening to pilots and instructors who know about this sort of thing. One of the results Dr. Burian received in her survey was that 68.1 percent of the private pilots said that after their introduction to marginal weather they felt more confident that they could handle it on their own should they see it again, but that they were not comfortable doing so. That’s definitely positive. Pilots who have internalized a situation and can say that it would make them uncomfortable in the future are probably less likely to depart into such weather. The fact that they have seen something like it and have obtained some degree of confidence in the process also tends to mean that should they get into marginal weather because of a mistake on their part, or a bad forecast, they are more likely to survive the encounter. So, overall, it looks as if we are on the right track; exposing pilots to marginal weather is good for the majority of pilots (assuming we can believe their responses). That’s step one.

The next step is to actively put weather decision-making into every lesson, including the first one. The instructor and student should go through the process of obtaining the current weather and forecast, discuss the process (including the fact that ASOS is a notorious liar in many areas and should be viewed with a great deal of skepticism) and then make a decision as to whether to fly. If it’s CAVU, that’s easy. If it’s marginal, discuss what is going to be experienced.

For years, instructors have noticed that a student who is used to flying in good visibility, with a clearly defined horizon, does noticeably worse on lessons where visibility is limited or the horizon is difficult to locate. I believe instructors should point that out to students. All pilots fly more accurately on days when the visibility is better. It may seem a little thing, but it is tremendously important when the visibility is bad and a pilot is trying to navigate with very limited outside references and landmarks. It becomes much more difficult and takes much more concentration to simply fly the airplane. Terri Watson pointed out that virtually all pilots use landmarks that are a significant distance away from the airplane when they fly VFR, whether it is to navigate or simply fly around the local area. When the visibility drops, rendering a number of those frequently used landmarks invisible, the ability to accurately control and navigate the airplane is diminished. Again, that just adds to the problems a pilot has when the weather starts to go south.

On the days when the CFI and student make the decision to fly and the weather is marginal, a wonderful opportunity is presented to let the student have difficulty and then bring that difficulty to a conscious level through discussion. The student knows things aren’t going as well as usual (students are many things, but they are not stupid) but he or she doesn’t know why. He or she is simply conscious that the lesson isn’t going as well as the last one and it’s frustrating. The instructor sees that sort of thing all the time, so it’s up to him or her to point out that a major part of the reason the student is having more trouble flying the airplane and isn’t doing as well is because he or she just can’t see as much.

On days when the weather causes a cancellation, the CFI and student should take the time to discuss it and do a little mental imaging as to what it would be like to try and fly in that weather. The CFI can ask some directed questions such as how long it would take the airplane to cover the ground the pilot can see when the pilot looks down at the map or otherwise into the cockpit. They can look over the sectional chart and see which towers will be sticking up into the clouds. They can discuss simple things such as the landmarks the student normally uses to enter the downwind and the fact that they might not be visible.

The cancellation should be viewed as a part of flying. Despite advertising, it isn’t possible to fly every day of the year. Based on the CFI’s evaluation of the student it may be wise to point out that canceling a flight is not a reflection on the pilot’s machismo or ability. It is a reflection that the pilot has developed an elevated level of judgment and is therefore to be respected.

There will be days when the weather is marginal and the go/no-go decision is not clear-cut. The CFI and student can discuss what to do, look at weather trends and then make the decision to conduct a flight in the pattern as a learning experience. The goals will be letting the student internalize just what that reported weather looks like from the cockpit, observe that many of her or his usual landmarks in the pattern are not visible (with a comment from the CFI to the effect of “just think how it would be if we strayed from the area we know well, right around the airport”) and add some other comments about the difficulties in controlling the airplane to let the student internalize a discomfort with flying in such weather. The instructor can then terminate the flight after a few takeoffs and landings so that there is some level of confidence built should the student inadvertently get into such a mess in the future.

A distressingly high proportion of the respondents (27.5 percent) to Dr. Burian’s survey said that they had experiences where instructors went ahead with lessons in bad weather not to teach about the weather but because the instructors simply wanted to complete a flight or some training that day (frankly, I’ve seen it done by instructors who needed the money). That one scares me because I do not think CFIs always recognize just how powerful they are as role models. In those circumstances they have just given a positive reinforcement of a form of get-home-itis to their students. Personally, I don’t think that is at all appropriate.

On the days that a flight is made in marginal conditions, I believe that the overall purpose of the flight probably should be observation and decision-making. It gives the chance for the CFI to demonstrate and discuss the concept of ongoing decision-making regarding weather. He or she can show that the process isn’t over upon launching the flight, it involves continual evaluation of the conditions by observing and comparing them to the forecast to determine whether the flight may even continue or if it’s time to stop at the nearest airport or, indeed, land in a suitable field. It involves making calls to Flight Watch for weather updates because that is what the pilot does in the real world.

Finally, I believe, it involves a healthy discussion of simply being honest with oneself. Aviation does not long tolerate any pilot who will lie to him or herself about anything regarding flight. A pilot who has experienced two-mile visibility and was aware of how difficult and dangerous it was cannot later tell himself that it will be okay to go this time, because it really wasn’t that bad. There is no probation for the pilot who does not take the steps to learn what the weather really is or launches with the optimistic “it can’t be that bad.” There is no second chance.

I have to defer to Terri Watson again because she described so very well what she tries to do with students: “The entire process is conscious decision-making. There may not be a rule regarding what you as a pilot are about to do, but that does not mean you can blow it off. Anything to do with marginal weather means the pilot has to understand deep inside that she or he is entering a statistically significant realm where he or she is likely to wreck an airplane and kill or injure people. It is up to the CFIs to inculcate the concept of conscious decision-making and intellectual honesty in pilots when they look at the weather decision.” I fully agree and feel that the process has to be repeated until it is second nature in all pilots, whether or not they have instrument ratings.

See you next month.