Your Brain is the Most Important Tool
Your Brain is the Most Important Tool

Every profession has a lingo.  A language to cut through clutter and get to the heart of matters.

The Flight Safety Network (FSN) language is tricky.  It’s a combination of aviation, medicine, meteorology, fire science and 911 communications all bunched together.  Sometimes it’s a real challenge to figure out what someone is trying to say.

But from a personal safety perspective it’s really important to understand the lingo.

Until you learn the language, how do you know you’re safe?

We admit it.  Pilots do not share information very well.  There’s a couple reasons for this.

Many times guarding information is a pilot defense mechanism.  After all, few pilots are rewarded for sharing information, many are penalized.  It’s just a sad reality of how air medical works.  Sometimes guarding information is the only way to protect ourselves from the FAA, personal liability or company scrutiny.

Whatever the reasons, the end result for air medical crew is limited information and understanding.

The crime is how sometimes the information, or lack thereof, directly influences flight crew safety.

Weather is the perfect example.

Most air medical crew get zero weather training.

Even fewer air medical crew get any type of continuing weather education (other than flying in it).  So it’s really no surprise how many flight crew misuse and misunderstand weather words and phrases.

Here are five weather words for Flight Safety Network to get right:

Visual Meteorlogical Conditions (VMC)

The key to to understanding VMC is focusing on the weather condition you’re flying in.  If you can see outside the aircraft, you are likely in VMC.

VMC is the kind of weather we think of when dreaming of piloting our own plane.  It’s the simplest condition or category of weather and the easiest to understand.  Our advice is to keep it simple.

“If you can see, it’s VMC.”

A second easy way to remember VMC is to focus on the “Visual” part of Visual Meteorlogical Conditions.  What kind of weather is VMC?  The kind of weather that lets you look outside and see or visualize to steer the plane and keep from hitting any mountains or towers or other planes.

Here’s the rub:

Does VMC mean no clouds or clear?  No, not always.  VMC can mean no clouds or clear, but it doesn’t have to.  You can be VMC with clouds, as long as you fly around the clouds and not through the clouds.  It’s that simple.

Instrument Meteorlogical Conditions (IMC)

The key to understanding IMC is again focusing on the weather condition you’re flying in.  IMC is the segment of aviation the general public never considers.  IMC deals with piloting an aircraft by only looking inside the aircraft at the aircraft instruments.

The reason the public never thinks about this part of aviation is the language thing.  Unless you work in the industry, there’s no reason to speak this part of the language.

But Flight Safety Network is the industry, so let’s start talkin’ some talk.

If you cannot see outside the aircraft, you are likely in IMC.  And just to be clear (no pun intended), when we say “can’t see outside the aircraft” we mean you can’t see anything but gray, or white or the inside of clouds.

Don’t panic.  If you’re thinking “who the he_ _ flies an aircraft without looking outside to see?,” or something similar, we think that’s a very natural and understandable reaction and question.  We remember the same feeling prior to our first instrument flight.

The answer, however, is almost every professional pilot and flight crew at one time or another.

Our mnemonic for IMC is “Inside Many Clouds”

Here’s the rub:

Pilots can spend hours in IMC weather conditions.  But to takeoff and land safely a certain amount of VMC weather conditions is required.

It just makes sense.  At some point pilots must see the ground to land.

Again, keep it simple.

Visual Flight Rules (VFR)

The key to understanding VFR is focusing on the “rules” part of Visual Flight Rules.  VFR is determined by the VFR rules for the area you are flying.  VFR is not about the weather condition you are flying in.

Think of VFR rules like you think of rules for driving your car.  If you pass a speed limit sign labeled 65 MPH (Miles per hour), the speed limit for this part of the highway is 65.  The rule has nothing to do with your current driving conditions or the driving conditions on any particular day.  The speed limit is 65.  Period.

VFR works the same way.  Anywhere you fly in the United States has rules for what constitutes VFR.  Generally speaking, the rules are predicated on which type of airspace you are flying in.  We’ll save airspace for a future article.  Just realize VFR is dictated by the rules governing where you are in space and time.  Again, it’s about the rules, not about the condition of the weather.

Instrument Flight Rules (IFR)

The key to understanding IFR is again focusing on the “rules” part of Instrument Flight Rules.  The rules governing flight under IFR are more difficult and complex than VFR rules.

The reason is simple.  Flying while only referencing aircraft instruments to maintain aircraft control is more complex than flying by just looking outside the aircraft.

Having said that, IFR is again about nothing more than following the IFR rules.  It is not about the weather condition.

Here’s the big rub:

The rules stay the same for the duration of any particular flight.  The weather condition can and often does change.

So….. a pilot can start or file an IFR flight plan and complete the entire flight in VMC conditions.  You might be thinking?  Whoa, wait a minute?  I thought you said it was IFR.  Why would a pilot follow IFR rules to fly in Visual Meteorlogical Conditions?

The answer is simply he or she can.  It’s completely legal and safe and sometimes good practice for when the weather condition is so poor the only choice is to file an IFR flight plan.

Confusing flight rules with weather conditions

It is crucially important to differentiate between flight plan type or rules (IFR or VFR) and weather conditions (VMC or IMC).

While current and forecasted weather may be a factor in deciding which type of flight plan to file, weather conditions themselves do not affect a filed flight plan.

For example, an IFR flight that encounters VMC en route does not automatically change to a VFR flight, and the flight must still follow all IFR procedures regardless of weather conditions.

Actual (Instrument Flight Rules) or Actual IFR

Our fifth weather word stems from the confusion about the first four words.  Actual IFR is used to clarify the weather condition and the weather rule simultaneously.

If you understand the examples above, you also understand it’s easy for a pilot to manipulate the perception of his or her experience level.  For example, a pilot might legitimately state he has 500 hours of IFR time.  And a novice might understandably think the pilot means 500 hours of flying inside the clouds.

But of course, we now know better.  We now understand a pilot can have 500, 1000 or even 10,000 IFR hours and not a single hour inside a cloud.

How?  Well, because we know following an IFR flight plan or rule book is all that is required to log IFR flight time.  The weather condition is not a factor to log IFR time.

Actual IFR fixes this manipulation tactic.  Actual IFR means time spent on an IFR flight plan or following IFR rules and time simultaneously spent inside the clouds.

Got a question about anything in this article?  Feel free to ask it in the comment section.

Clear skies and tailwinds,


Troy Shaffer
Troy Shaffer

About the Author: Troy is an Air Medical Career Expert passionate about a team approach to improving air medical safety from the ground up. Troy is a former Army medic, Army pilot, Coast Guard pilot and EMS pilot. Troy has taught hundreds of wannabe flight medics, flight nurses and EMS pilots the exact steps needed to launch air medical careers.

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