Almost IFR

By Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091

This piece originally ran in Robert’s Stick and Rudder column in the July 2022 issue of EAA Sport Aviation magazine.

The summer haze had set in over coastal New England like a pall. The feathery gray blanket didn’t leave us blind per se, but blinded us to many of the visual details we would like to have for safe flight. According to the regulations, this was VFR conditions — a cloudless sky and 4 miles’ visibility. The plan was to fly an insurance agent out over the ocean to observe a fishing boat that had been abandoned due to a fire. But as we set out across the coast of Long Island and over the seemingly endless Atlantic, it became apparent that even though the visibility was above the 3-mile threshold and we were technically VFR, we were still “almost IFR.”

Into the Gray

The rules regarding instrument and visual flight are pretty clear, but in some cases, it’s difficult to tell if conditions call for VFR or IFR. Regardless of which rulebook we’re playing by, it’s our responsibility to see and avoid other aircraft. If we aren’t equipped and qualified, the only option is to do the flight under VFR, and steer clear of any clouds.

It all sounds simple enough, until we find ourselves in hazy conditions and over the water where the horizon is obscured. Sometimes the only way we know which way is down is to look straight down to see the water.

In conditions such as this, our best defense is a good instrument scan combined with a vigilant scan for traffic. But we can also turn elsewhere for some assistance. We might contact ATC and ask for flight following to provide an additional measure of traffic awareness and avoidance. Yet another tool that can help us cope in these conditions is ADS-B to help pick out the traffic that we will undoubtedly struggle to see visually. In fact, it doesn’t take too much flight time in such conditions with an ADS-B to see how impaired our visual scan really is.

Into the Darkness

Another place we run into trouble in visual flight is in the darkness. Where we might be fine when flying over populated areas, the challenge comes when we fly over sparsely populated areas and wilderness. Even on a clear and cloudless night, we can easily find ourselves struggling to maintain orientation to ground references or the horizon.

The challenge is made worse by false horizon illusions that can trick our brain and put us unwittingly into a compromised position. For example, street lighting along a road or highway can take on the illusion of lights along the horizon. Sparse lighting conditions, such as on hillsides or steep terrain, can easily blend in with the stars to erase the horizon from view. Likewise, when flying over water, lights from boats can easily blend in with a starry sky to obscure the true horizon. In such situations, we can easily fly ourselves into an unusual attitude trying to find and maintain a visual horizon.

The other issue we have with night flying is that we can’t see the weather. We can easily and unwittingly fly into haze, precipitation, or right into the clouds. Here again, when it is dark, we might not recognize right away that we have lost our visibility and are no longer seeing the horizon. The situation can quickly — and literally — spiral out of control.

Chaos Among the Clouds

Any time we’re surrounded by clouds — even if we aren’t in the clouds — we can suffer the effects of spatial disorientation. Many years ago, while training for my instrument rating, my instructor demonstrated this clearly by having me fly visually while in a “canyon” among the clouds. Without an actual horizon, my brain quickly assumed an orientation to the clouds that seemed correct, yet put us in a gentle spiral. Only when he had me look at the instruments again did I see what was going on. It was a valuable lesson, and one that I’ve never forgotten. Unless we are trained and practiced at immediately transitioning to instruments when the actual horizon is not visible, such a scenario can readily lead to an upset.

Corrupted Senses and Compensation

What happens when we lose our visual orientation is we attempt to compensate through the use of a built-in “backup”— our vestibular system — to maintain orientation. Normally used to augment vision to maintain balance, the vestibular system is affected by accelerations and can easily put us into a compromised position. Such was the case for my aforementioned instrument training experience. In fact, some well-known illusions can occur when we rely too heavily on the inputs from our vestibular system.

One good example is what is known as the Coriolis illusion. This can occur when we’ve been in a prolonged turn and have lost the sensation that we’re turning. At that point, an abrupt head movement — such as turning our head to tune the radio or check our navigation — can create an overwhelming sense that we are turning or rotating on an entirely different axis. In our effort to correct the perceived motion, we unwittingly maneuver the aircraft into a dangerous attitude, possibly resulting in a loss of control.

Another situation where our incorrect sense of motion can trip us up is the graveyard spiral. This occurs when we’re in a coordinated turn but have lost the sensation that we are turning. If we see that we’re losing altitude, we might easily assume that we’re in a wings-level descent, and so we pull back on the elevator. This, of course, just tightens the spiral and increases the altitude loss. Unless we realize that we’re turning and level the wings, we can fly this illusion right into the ground.


I managed to keep the shiny side up and avoid any traffic (I didn’t see any) that day as we flew over the ocean. I kept a sharp eye out and constantly cross-checked the instruments as we continued another 50 miles over the ocean in the summer haze. We finally found the fishing boat we were looking for, flew around for a bit so my passenger could assess the situation, and then flew back toward the coast. It wasn’t a difficult flight, but it certainly wasn’t a relaxing one, either.

Every pilot needs to be familiar with and abide by the regulations pertaining to VFR and IFR flight. For VFR, we need to know the visibility and cloud separation requirements for various types of airspace — and we need to follow those rules for our own safety and that of others. But in the end, it’s not necessarily visibility or cloud clearance that determines whether or not we can safely fly by VFR. It all comes down to our ability to rely on visual references. Once we lose the horizon, and can no longer maintain our orientation, the jig is up and we need the instruments. The best medicine for this ailment — whether we’re instrument rated or not — is to get some recurrent training on flight by reference to instruments.

Robert N. Rossier, EAA 472091, has been flying for more than 40 years and has worked as a flight instructor, commercial pilot, chief pilot, and FAA flight check airman.

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