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Handling An Engine Failure In IMC


A lot has changed in IFR flying over the past two decades. One thing that hasn't? Aircraft engines.

GA aircraft are more redundant than ever. The Cirrus we fly has dual AHRS, dual ADC, dual alternators, and dual batteries. Barring a catastrophic electrical failure from something like a lightning strike, the flight instruments are going to work.

In the incredibly rare case that we lose our PDF, MFD and backup instruments, we carry iPads that can give us pitch and bank information, as well as navigation information. So in almost any scenario imaginable, we're able to fly and navigate in IMC.


But we only have one piston-driven engine. And while aircraft engines are incredibly reliable, they do occasionally break. When you only have one of them, there's no backup, which means that if you have an engine failure, you're gliding back down to Earth, whether you like it or not.

Flying In (Or Over) IMC

A few weeks back, there was some debate stemming from one of our articles. The question posed was whether it's a good idea to fly single-engine aircraft in IMC at all.

When you fly a single, you're always assuming some level of risk when you operate in the clouds. But does that mean you shouldn't do it? Obviously, we have instrument ratings for a reason, and our aircraft are certified for IFR.

When it comes to flying single engine pistons in in IMC, mitigating risk is the key. There are several things you can do to keep your risk as low as possible.

Higher Is Better

If you have an engine failure in IMC, time is not on your side. The solution? Fly higher.

The winds aren't always favorable when the higher you go, but you do get a lot more glide time and distance. In most single-engine GA aircraft, you gain a little under 1.5 miles of glide distance for every 1,000 feet you climb.

So if you were to tack on 6,000 feet to your cruise altitude, you'd gain approximately 8 miles of glide distance, and roughly an extra 5 minutes of time aloft. When you think about it, that's quite a bit of extra time to troubleshoot your engine. On top of that, you have quite a bit more time to figure out where you're going for your power-off landing.

How Low Are The Ceilings?

Is it safe to fly over low ceilings? It really depends on how low they are, and what you're comfortable with. The reality of most IFR flights is that the ceilings aren't that low. When's the last time you saw 200 foot ceilings spread over an entire state? It can happen, but it doesn't that often.

If you're faced with widespread low IFR along your route, you need to ask yourself what would happen if you were to have an engine failure. If you have an engine failure in low ceilings, and you break out of the clouds 200 feet above the ground, you aren't going to have much time to react and find a safe place to land.

But what if the ceilings are 1,500' across a wide area? That's probably a different story. If you break out of the clouds at 1,500', you've got about a minute to a minute-and-a-half of time to maneuver for landing. While that's not a ton of time, it's gives you time to asses what's below you, and pick a reasonable place to land.

Making the decision whether or not to traverse widespread IFR is a choice any pilot can make, and there's no wrong answer. It comes down to what you're comfortable with, and how prepared (and proficient) you are at handling the worst if it were to happen.

Can You Make An Airport?

Another factor that can play into your decision making is your ability to glide to an airport. If you're forced to land off-field, things don't always go well.

Looking at your route, are you able to glide to an airport throughout your flight (or most of it)? Shooting an engine-out approach is probably not possible. But if the ceilings are high enough, gliding to an airport and making a power-off landing is.

Does The Parachute Affect Your Decision Making?

Obviously this is a question that only applies to BRS equipped aircraft, but it's one that we get quite a bit: "do you fly in worse weather because you have a parachute?" Our answer: absolutely no.

While it's a nice feeling to know that you have a parachute if the worst happens in IMC, it's not a "get out of jail free" card. We never make weather decisions based on our parachute.

Are we glad we have it? Yes. Do we push our personal minimums because of it? No.

Making A Safe Decision In IMC

Anytime you fly, there's a certain level risk involved. When you fly a single-engine aircraft in IMC, that risk level is higher. But that doesn't mean you should only fly on severe-clear days.

Airplanes are tools meant to get you from Point A to Point B in all kinds of weather conditions. Assuming you're proficient at flying in the weather, and you have a plan for "what ifs" along your route, there's nothing wrong with flying a single in IMC.

What Do You Think?

So what do you think? How do you make your go/no-go decision about IFR flights in a single-engine aircraft? What factors do you consider, and what level of risk are you willing to accept?

Tell us in the comments below.

Colin Cutler

Colin is a Boldmethod co-founder, pilot and graphic artist. He's been a flight instructor at the University of North Dakota, an airline pilot on the CRJ-200, and has directed development of numerous commercial and military training systems. You can reach him at

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