VMC On Top

An old friend of mine, also a pilot, mailed me recently saying:

Hey, how about you tell me a tale of the day you really learnt to fly, you know – not when you got your licence, but an occasion, when you really learnt to fly, come on, I’ve got some, I’ll tell you if you tell me. :) And don’t tell me you don’t have one, cos every PPL does – promise not to tell!

I immediately remembered my screw-up the first time I flew in IMC. As I started to write it down, Sylvia said, “That’s a great story for Fear of Landing” and insisted I share my failures with the world.


Many years ago when VFR on top was legal and I had about 10 hours post qualification, I hired a C182 from Leicester to fly my new girlfriend to Paris for the weekend. In those days, you had to land at a customs airport on the way out, so I planned Southend.

Weather at Southend was clear, at Leicester was overcast at 1000′. We sat at Leicester for hours waiting for a break in the clouds; Brigitte was not known as the most patient of people. Finally a break appeared and I rushed off, without checking Southend again.

Arriving at Southend, it’s totally overcast between 700′ and 1200′, also for miles around. “What are your intentions?”

“Request half-mile radar to final,” I reply, fully confident after my four hours’ “Instrument Appreciation” that was part of my PPL. No autopilot so I’m about to hand-fly in IMC.

ATC are unfazed and give me headings and descent. I’m trying out that scan I was taught and all seems to be going well. “Fly 260 degrees and descend to 700′.”

A few moments later, I get a call, “Please confirm current heading.”

I look. It’s drifted to 250 degrees but I respond, “260 degrees” and adjust my heading.

ATC assume my DI is 10 degrees out and come back immediately with “Turn right, heading 270 degrees”. Now it’s too late to come clean and tell them that, actually, it was I who was 10 degrees off, not the instrument.

So I’m flying in IMC, trying to keep the scan up and having to add 10 degrees to all further headings. Or is it subtract? My work-load just doubled!

Breaking through at 700′ and seeing the runway ahead was an exhilaration I remember nearly 25 years later. If that didn’t teach me anything else, I learnt not to lie to ATC!


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