Responding to the Unexpected

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In-flight anomalies can have serious consequences when a pilot encounters them for the first time.

Truth is often stranger than fiction. Perhaps that’s why reports from the Aviation Safety Reporting System are so compelling. There is a lot to be learned by reviewing the mistakes other pilots have made—and who then lived to tell us about them. Here are some recent ones that have several critical learning points.

Attitude Indicator Fails in IMC

The AI indicated that the Skylane was in a steep climb, then a turn. The pilot briefly followed it. Crosschecking, she discovered that the AI was wrong. The vacuum system was functioning and the DG agreed with the compass. Looking for a suction cover to hide the apparently errant attitude indicator, she found one in her flight bag—then dropped it.

Reaching down, she lost her scan, and decided not to try to retrieve it. She said, “It is odd how much the eyes travel back to a failed instrument.” Reading lower than they should, the fuel gauges added to her stress.

The pilot called ATC and explained that she had an instrument failure. The controller asked if it was an emergency. She said no—was that a mistake?

The pilot had approach plates handy for her destination and alternate, but not for the airport to which she now wanted to divert. Attempting to call them up for the new airport on her tablet, she felt overloaded trying to find and brief the plates while flying without the attitude indicator.

She then requested a vector to VFR. The controller discussed options with another pilot and they all decided that she should divert to a nearby airport. Despite having landed there many times, she could not recall the identifier and did not hear the identifier if it was mentioned. She was very disappointed to realize that she was capable of an apparent “brain freeze.”

Unable to locate the airport on the sectional, she asked for and received the identifier from the controller. She then proceeded there in IMC, partial panel. Fortunately, she encountered VFR and landed.

Her postflight debrief noted: “Carry paper charts and approach plates. The iPad shutting off in the middle of all this did not help my situational awareness. Practice partial panel in actual IMC with a more experienced person aboard.

“I was starting to feel more comfortable in IMC after almost 100 hours in actual. The regs are there for a reason. I will work toward more redundancy in my instruments and paper backup in my cockpit.

“I was very disappointed in my ability [to function] in a high stress situation. Not very pleased with control of my head-space in the cockpit. In a simulator I will practice partial panel approaches. I will also work toward experiencing high stress situations in a controlled environment to get control of the near panic I encountered in my cockpit today.”

Although she did a lot of things right, this situation was a prime candidate for an accident based on the chain of problems that were encountered. She quickly recognized the failed AI. She made good use of ATC to make up for her partial “brain freeze” and avoided panic. She headed toward VFR. Most importantly, she never stopped flying the airplane.

On the flip side, lowering her head to retrieve the dropped cover could have caused fatal vertigo. Her failure to declare an emergency deprived her of special ATC handling that could have eased her burden.

Lost in Space

While performing a 180-degree turn toward his first waypoint after departing Monmouth Executive Airport (BLM) in New Jersey, the pilot experienced spatial disorientation at about 900 feet MSL. Moderate to severe turbulence made it difficult to regain control for about 40 seconds. Understandably, this incident caused the pilot a lot of stress. BLM was below minimums so he could not return there. With the plane now under control, he elected to continue the flight.

Cleared to 5000 feet on V229 en route to JFK, ATC directed him to climb to 6000 feet. Acknowledging, he began the climb. Still distracted by the previous loss of control and re-living what had just happened, he climbed past 6000 feet and was called by ATC breaking through 6700 feet. He was then instructed to remain at 7000 feet. The rest of the flight was routine and no aircraft had to be diverted because of his mistake.

He later confessed that losing control so close to the ground rattled him and affected his ability to fly the plane properly. He could have advised ATC of his uncertainty and asked for delaying vectors until regaining his composure. He ended by saying that he was going up with a CFII for an IFR Proficiency Check.

The IMSAFE acronym doesn’t just apply on the ground—it’s equally true in the air. The S is for stress, and this pilot experienced plenty. Here is another incident where a stressed-out pilot thought about telling ATC, asking for some breathing room, but didn’t follow through. The other involved a pilot who miss-set his altimeter by 1000 feet and barely escaped a CFIT accident. Listen when that wise little voice speaks.

Do you really want to depart when the airport is below minimums?

The wisdom of departing an airport with weather below approach minimums, leaving no way out if something goes awry soon after takeoff, could be questioned.

Altitude Deviations

An IFR Cessna 182 pilot began a descent from 7000 feet to 5000 feet toward Melbourne, Florida. Turbulence in the middle of a scattered cloud layer between 4000 feet and 8000 feet created up and downdrafts exceeding 500 fpm, making altitude control difficult, forcing him as low as 4800 feet. Even outside the cloud it was still a challenge. The pilot began correcting just as ATC informed him that he was low.

ATC called traffic at twelve o-clock and three miles, opposite direction, VFR at 4500 feet. The pilot saw the traffic almost immediately well below and a little off to the side—no factor. The VFR aircraft had just popped out of a cloud at 4000.

If you are unable to maintain altitude, inform ATC—consider requesting a block altitude. This incident is a caution to all who fly VFR that entering IMC is not just illegal but dangerous. The cloud clearance limits are marginally safe at best. Ask yourself, “How good am I at dodging another aircraft just 500 feet above me that comes out of nowhere?”

An iPad Gotcha

Climbing westbound out of Weiser Air Park in Houston, the pilot debated whether to stay under a cloud layer or get on top. It looked hazy ahead below the clouds but clear on top and the layer was thin, tempting him to climb and stay VFR. His preflight weather check showed his destination as VFR and the satellite image showed isolated clouds to the south.

The rented aircraft lacked GPS. Checking the cloud coverage on his iPad app, the displayed area obscured the airspace rings around Houston’s Bush Intercontinental, Class B airspace. His request for flight following was delayed due to high ATC workload. Once in contact, they advised him that he was in the Class B and gave him exit instructions.

Those of us who fly with the tablet apps (as I do), need to know it well enough to be able to remove the weather layer—it takes only a couple taps. Perhaps that didn’t occur to this pilot. The opacity of the layers can be made more translucent. We should know that, too.

Practice with a table app before flight may prevent embarrassment in flight.

With more pilots moving to tablets in the cockpit, it is vitally important that you know and appreciate the potential problems that can interfere with IFR operations. If you choose to use a tablet in the cockpit, test yourself on your ability to quickly bring-up charts and plates before you commit to IMC.

There are several techniques that can be used to help make the transition. One is to plan and fly IFR in a simulator (yes, even a laptop) with a CFII providing typical ATC interaction. Placement of the device can also be a factor in how easy it is to incorporate it into your scan and work with it in flight.

Fred Simonds is an active CFII in Florida. See his web page at

This article originally appeared in the February 2015 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.

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