VFR into IMC

Lather, Rinse, Repeat...

by jeff edison

This article has been started at least a dozen times now, and I’m afraid, the time has come to get the final words down. An easy Google search provides a sobering reminder: half of weather-related accidents involve pilots attempting VFR flight into IMC conditions, and nearly three-quarters of those result in fatalities. A quick YouTube search also populates some frightening results: 178 Seconds to Live, and VFR into IMC. Scary videos indeed; please take 10 minutes to view them if you haven’t already. So much has been said about this killer phenomena, I’d not be so arrogant as to attempt to expand on this huge collection of validated statistics. What I can do however, is to translate some of this into real world personal experience. These personal experiences haunt me.

Daniel Delane

I met Dan when I was a recent college grad and a young private pilot. I was finishing my ratings and applying to the Air Force. I was invited to an Air National Guard (ANG) party for a F-15 unit in Atlanta. My contact introduced me to their newest member. He had been recently released from active duty, and they were so proud to have him join their ANG unit. Dan was the “creme de la creme.” He was a former F-4 and F-15 pilot. The Air Force had showered him with accolades. He was a graduate of Fighter Weapons School (FWS), then an “Aggressor,” (FWS instructor), and later became one of just a handful of F-15 demonstration pilots. Everyone was very impressed by this lean, six-foot-two friendly guy with a huge smile. We hit it off immediately. Dan became a mentor of mine, and later, I knew him as family. He followed my USAF career until I finished my tour. When I arrived at FedEx, he was already there, and naturally he was an instructor.

We flew together many times. When I was an LAX-based MD11 Line Check Airman, I lived on Dans boat, in the San Pedro Harbour. Dan had become the Chief Pilot of our LAX crew base and was held in extremely high regard by the crew force. After retiring, Dan quickly got his civilian CFI so he could continue to share his love of flying with “newbies.” People absolutely LOVED flying with Dan.

I awoke one morning to a planned day off at my country house. It was a day like any other day off. I was enjoying my first cup of coffee in bed as I gazed out my window at the lake scenery I was accustomed to. I opened my iPad browser to see an ominous communication: “We regret to inform you that Daniel Delane crashed his small airplane and is deceased.” My jaw dropped as my breath was sucked from my lungs. Dan's plane, his beloved CJ6 that he’d been using for over 10 years to fly formation air shows, was found on a hilltop north of the LA valley. Dans body was found inside; he was alone.

An investigation ensued as speculation about the cause(s) of his demise ran wild back at the airline. In the end, the investigation pointed to the likelihood that as Dan transited the LA VFR corridor--something he had done many times as an LA native--the sea fog blowing in had “squeezed” him towards the terrain. Apparently, he decided to just pull through the thin layer and proceed “on top.” During this VFR entry to IMC Dan's aircraft impacted a hilltop, killing him. I am haunted by this daily.

And the Devil returns...

It had been less than 3 days since my election to the LOBO board of Directors as the Director of Safety and Training, that we lost a staple of our membership. He’d departed the airport just a few minutes in front of me. We’d spoken about his beautiful, brand new, and very well equipped, Lancair Legacy. I didn’t think to discuss the 4000’ overcast with Neal, nor his filing status or route of flight. I suppose I’d made some assumptions. My IFR flight plan had me climbing to FL250. After thorough review of the weather and notams, I loaded up with plenty of fuel, identified a few easy alternates, and I was off. I figured, if need be, I’d just pick my way through the scattered line of weather on my way home, as I’d done many times previously. I proceeded IFR, using TKS and propeller heat, preventatively. My Sirius XM weather, ADSB weather and strike finder gave me the data I needed to complete the flight uneventfully. Later that night, I got the bad news about Neal Longwill. He’d departed VFR. His wreckage was found in Southeastern MO; an apparent flat spin until ground contact. VFR flight into IMC had struck again. I’d been director of Training and Safety for less than 48 hours. My blood ran cold.

A Vicious Killer

The risk associated with VFR into IMC is there for every pilot. It doesn’t respect experience or aircraft type and has already taken too many of our best. If you’re reading this still, thank you. Please honestly review your own flight training history. I’m no Dan Delane--he was truly iconic--and I think that you’ll arrive at the same conclusion about your aviation accomplishments. But more than that--I’m begging you now--please do not become another Dan Delane.

Please fly safely.

For questions/comments about this post contact Jeff Edison via email: j.edison [at] lancairowners.com.