June 26, 2015

IMC – think you could hack it?

We’ve had a stonker of a day today with a high of 33 degrees Celsius or so and as I type this at 10.00 pm with the sky still light outside, the temperature is still hovering around the 26 degrees mark. And it’s going to get hotter with 40 degrees Celsius forecast for the middle of next week, which is getting to be seriously hot in my book!

I’ve been sorting through the photographs and videos from our west coast trip and rearranging the notes that I took so as not to forget things but before beginning to post them on My Trike, I put together a short video yesterday with a title the same as this post. ULMs/microlight aircraft are forbidden by law to fly in IMC (Instrument Meteorological Conditions, simply put, flying on instruments only with no external visual cues) and must always stay clear of cloud and in sight of the surface. Nevertheless, there are those who think that modern microlight aircraft do have such a capability and that pilots are able to do so safely without any proper training just by using an artificial horizon app on their smartphones.

As someone who was IMC qualified (now lapsed as the rating has to be maintained annually by experience), undertook several hours of intense training at considerable expense and who has flown for quite a few hours in real IMC, I believe this point of view to be totally misguided. However, there are regular discussions on the topic on the various UK fora and those holding such a view are usually just rejected as naysayers. And unqualified, inexperienced pilots still regularly get themselves into IMC conditions and just survive, if they are lucky, or end up killing both themselves and their passenger(s) if they are not.

It is possible that the gung-ho types who think that flying in IMC is ‘easy’ confuse the friendly trailing white puffs that people often encounter while climbing up through holes in clouds to do a bit of cloud running in bright sunshine above them with real IMC. They could not be more different. With the former you invariably get the brightness of the sunshine shining through the cloud layer from above while below you can still see the darkness of the ground. Real IMC isn’t like that. It’s dark, even when there’s bright sunshine above (this video was shot near Mimizan in south-west France on a bright sunny day). It lulls you into a false sense of security and before you know it, it grabs and envelopes your aircraft, affording you no view of the outside at all except for a uniform wall-to-wall greyness.

The video gives a pretty good impression of this. It shows me flying into a bank of sea fog that looked fairly benign while I was approaching it but which suddenly enveloped 56NE in a few seconds. Nobody knows for sure, but this is what is thought to have happened to poor Martin Bromage who died on the first leg of his UK-Australia flight in 2010 while approaching the French coast in poor weather conditions. Martin was a highly experienced, high hours pilot and it’s easy to say that if it happened to him, it could happen to anyone. But that’s a bit too simplistic, I think.

The video can be viewed by clicking on the following image. It shows how I responded but I’ll let you see for yourself. In the same circumstances, what would you have done? Do you think that you could have hacked similar conditions….. with your smartphone artificial horizon app?

IMC - think you could hack it?

You could always stay safe, and just keep well clear of it, of course 😉 Joking aside, if this video makes a single pilot think twice about flying into IMC on the, possibly mistaken, assumption that they can hack it and come out the other side, then it will have done its job.