Scud on mountain

Why student pilots should fly in marginal weather (with a flight instructor)

5 min read

Flight training is often presented as one long journey toward the Private Pilot checkride, but I think of it as three different phases stacked on top of each other. In the first phase, you’re learning how to control the airplane, so the emphasis is on steep turns, stalls, and airspeed control. Then you move to pattern work, learning how to make consistently smooth landings and how to talk on the radio. These two phases understandably get a lot of attention, but the third phase, cross country flying, usually gets short shrift.

Venturing beyond the practice area is the most exciting part of flight training, but it requires new skills and a new approach to decision-making, especially when it comes to weather. When this is covered, it’s usually in the context of how to get a preflight weather briefing. That’s a good start, but safely navigating weather on a cross country requires a lot more than just knowing what to look at before takeoff.

Scud on mountain

How low is too low?

The trap to avoid at all costs is VFR into IMC, a fancy phrase to describe the scenario when a non-instrument rated pilot flies into clouds, often with disastrous results. To a new pilot, stumbling into clouds or low visibility might seem downright stupid, but it’s deceptively easy to do if you don’t know what to look for. And that’s the problem—many student pilots have never seen weather worse than “clear and unlimited.” That’s fine for your first solo cross country, but if you plan to carry passengers on trips after you earn your certificate, you should experience marginal weather (with a flight instructor of course).

The first thing to note is the three main factors that affect flying weather: ceiling, visibility, and precipitation. A 3000-foot ceiling with no rain and 10 miles of visibility is considered “marginal VFR” but it’s perfectly flyable, at least in flat terrain. A 6000-foot ceiling with scattered showers and 3 miles of visibility is also marginal VFR, but flying visually in those conditions is a recipe for disaster. The key is to go beyond the colored airport symbols on your iPad and really understand all the weather variables. Reading about it is one thing, but until you see how it translates into the view out the front window, it’s hard to appreciate the difference.

In general, visibility is more important than ceiling for VFR flying, and more likely to be misinterpreted. Most student pilots are familiar with the METAR report of “visibility 10 miles,” but often that’s because airport weather sensors don’t report any values above 10. If you typically fly on clear days, you might actually be used to seeing 25 or 30 miles of visibility. The first time you see 10 miles, it might seem surprisingly hazy; the first time you see 5 miles it might seem like you’re flying blind. Learning to see the difference takes time, but if you can gain experience in varied conditions you can calibrate your “Mark One Eyeball.”

Another lesson to learn is the effect of terrain on weather. As you fly longer cross country trips, you’ll inevitably encounter mountains, river valleys, and cities. All of these can influence the weather: a small bend in a river can drop visibility below 5 miles on cool fall mornings; an airport on the coast can experience wind shear that is nonexistent 10 miles inland; a ridgeline can cause moist air to rise and clouds to form. Such microclimates are often so localized that they won’t show up on nearby METARs, so you have to learn how to anticipate unreported weather based purely on the terrin. Of course it’s impossible to see all of this in a typical Private Pilot training program, but seek out as much variety as you can.

In addition to getting a feel for what different weather conditions look like from the left seat, you’ll also want to practice abnormal procedures. The most obvious one is a diversion. If you’re flying toward a destination airport and weather conditions start to worsen, it’s not enough to simply recognize the problem; the next step is to identify a suitable alternate (a portable weather receiver is invaluable here) and fly to it. Get comfortable evaluating different options in flight, and practice the procedures for navigating to a new airport and making a safe landing.


A portable weather receiver is a good investment for cross country flying.

Being comfortable with technology is important during such a scenario, starting with the aforementioned weather receiver. These are much more than gadgets – knowing what the weather conditions are for that airport 25 miles off the right wing is essential information. Make sure you understand exactly what these devices can and cannot do.

An autopilot is another critical tool for safe cross country flying, but one that is often ignored in flight training. Simply put, if the airplane you fly has one installed you must know how to use it. It’s not there to make up for poor flying skills, but in an emergency situation it is a potentially life-saving tool. If you ever do stumble into a cloud, you should be proficient at engaging the autopilot and using it to fly you to VFR conditions.

Nobody likes to add time and expense to a flight training plan, especially at the end when you’re anxious to take the checkride. But the ultimate goal is not to get a plastic certificate, it’s to become a safe pilot, and you can’t avoid something if you don’t know how to recognize it. So the next time the forecast shows 2500 overcast and 5 miles of visibility, call your flight instructor and go flying. If nothing else, you might learn what “too low” looks like in the real world.

5 replies
  1. Wayne says:

    Highly recommend doing at least one real IFR lesson in IMC with instructor for VFR pilots. There is no cheating like foggles. My first time in the clouds was disorienting and you quickly learn your life depends on eyes focused only on the instruments and the auto pilot is your best friend. When I got disoriented it was clear to me that I would have crashed without instructor. That was a real wake up call. I’m now just a Checkride away from IFR rating.

  2. Mike Sheetz says:

    Much if flying in less than perfect weather is knowing what is at your disposal and how to really use it. My last BAR instructor had me close my eyes and hold heading and altitude for one minute by using my hearing and seat-of-the-pants feel. Afterwards he informed I had varied from heading by 60 degrees and altitude by 300 feet. Pretty good demonstration of how NOT to trust your senses.

  3. Tom Hurley says:

    Slightly off-topic but three skills that I believe should be taught as part of phase three are:
    1. Fueling procedures, both full-service and self serve. At the airport in which I trained, the truck always kept the tanks topped off. So except for sumping the tanks, we didn’t learn much about fueling procedures.
    2. Handling the airplane at full gross weight. A PA28 or a C172 feels a lot different at full gross than when your solo with 15 gallons aboard. It will make the trip a lot less exciting right after you take your check ride and then soon after head out with your buddies for lunch.
    3. Identifying Aircraft models. learn what other aircraft look like on the ground. It sounds simple but for a newcomer it can prevent a lot of embarrassment when a ground controller at the towered airport tells you to “Park next to that Aztec or Sundowner” when you’ve never actually seen one up close.

    I remember these three things tripped me up when I started making cross-country flights with my newly minted ticket 20 years ago.

  4. Robert Washburn says:

    When I was MUCH younger and still an active CFI (Holland, MI,), it was always a goal to have my students fly from Tulip City (C19 at the time) to Holland Township (HLM) over Lake Macatawa in minimum conditions, explaining “This is legal, but certainly NOT SAFE until you have a lot more hours and an IFR rating.”

    If those conditions were not available, a night flight out over the Lake Michigan shore line on a dark night with the admonition, “Keep your eyes on the instruments and don’t look outside, or you will probably lose control.” Not surprisingly, only two students did not become disoriented.

    A hood or “foggles” does not come close to the the real thing. Too many times new instrument pilots have told me they still weren’t comfortable enough to make a solo flight in actual IMC conditions.
    I am forever thankful to my instrument instructor (Roger Grassman) as 20 hours of dual were in actual IFR conditions.

    During my check ride with Ron Ludema, the vacuum pump failed. Then two days after my “ticket” was earned, my first solo flight was in IMC….and my primary radio failed! No sweat since because my instructors had prepared me well……thanks to all of you.

    . .

  5. RS Crumrine says:

    More than 25 years ago I took my Private SEL check-ride.
    I arrived early in the morning to do a little practice with my CFI, who was at the time, a very competent pilot with the National Guard. The plan was to return that afternoon to meet up with the FAA Examiner for the big test.

    When I returned to the airfield that afternoon, weather conditions had deteriorated substantially and were now reported MVFR at my Class D home field. As I sat with my instructor, waiting for the examiner to arrive, he told me that the examiner would ask about weather and decision making and then we’d just re-schedule the check-ride.

    Sure enough, the conversation with the examiner went as predicted except for one thing; after he told me that choosing not to fly was a good decision, he instructed me to go pre-flight the plane. I believe it was at that moment that my instructor’s eyes popped out of his head. I had never seen on his face anything resembling the unsettled look that now seemed to wash over him.

    I pre-flighted the plane in a blowing rain shower under looming gray skies. When it looked like I was about done, the examiner came out and got in the right seat and waited for me to finish up and get my completely soaked body in the left seat. He said “OK – lets go then”

    By the time we did the run-up and taxied to the active, the wind had shifted 180 deg. and we were just barely at legal minimums to fly in the pattern. Another decision point. I knew I could do the takeoff with plenty of room to spare on our 10K ft. runway even with the tail-wind. I discussed that with him and again affirmed I would not usually fly in these conditions. I got another, “OK – good call – lets go then”

    I took off and was a further surprised that the examiner instructed me to depart the Class D and head away from the airport. We were almost instantly in IMC.

    The examiner jumped on the radio and started talking to the controlling agency and saying things I was wholly unfamiliar with while he started giving me headings to fly. He helped run the radios and we navigated via VOR and ADF, I was put in unusual orientations and had to recover several times – all in little to no visibility. The whole time I am wondering if he knows this is suppose to be a Private check-ride. We did almost nothing I had ever practiced before. He eventually had me put the Foggles on as well, and gave me the brief rundown on flying a glideslope. Fortunately I had some theoretical understanding of how all that was suppose to work even then.

    When he finally told me to take off the Foggles, the approach end of the runway at my home field was right in front of me. I had done a real instrument approach, my first, and my landing was a perfect squeaker. We did 4 more touch and go’s from the pattern – amazingly, each one seemed better than the last. On the final one he pulled the power on downwind and made me dead stick it in. I managed to put it gently down right on the touch-down zone markers.

    As we exited the runway, he said to me, “Well, if you can taxi me to the ramp without killing me you got yourself a ticket, son”. Fortunately I managed to do that.

    Once I powered down the aircraft, he said to me, “I know your instructor well, and I know he would never let you do this check-ride if you were not completely proficient in all the practical test standards. I wanted to see how’d you’d perform and react to a situation that you were completely inexperienced in and not expecting at all.” He waved his hand out toward the FBO “All these students out here are trained to your level and earn their ticket and never have to face a situation like that – but that just makes them ill-prepared for the day they must. But now you and I both know you can survive, and you did a damn fine job of it.”

    By the time I tied down and got back inside the FBO my instructor was shaking the examiner’s hand as he left the building. The look of worry on my instructors face had turned to a big smile and he slapped me on my soaking wet back and shaking his head, said “Well, that must have been a helluva check-ride”

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