When told that it is dangerous to fly at a low altitude under an overcast or broken sky, some pilots go out and fly at a low altitude under a ceiling of clouds with marginal visibility. I did it myself just the other day with a CFI candidate, pretty much right after the GA accident in New York. No, I'm not crazy and I'm not big on taking risks. And I decided it was time to reveal my personal tips on How to Scud Run Without Killing Yourself.
If you are going to scud run (fly at a low altitude under an overcast or broken sky), there are several things you need to do.
First, know that you have chosen to do something inherently dangerous and, this part is important, admit it to yourself. Bravado and braggadocio are for nut jobs and pilots soon to be selected out of the gene pool. Now that you have accepted that you are heading into the danger zone, it's time to start evaluating and planning.
Scud running requires a clear idea of where you are going and how you plan to get there. Let's say you have both a surface weather observation and a terminal area forecast for your departure and arrival airports. That's great, but what about the area in between, the area that is most crucial, the area where you may come close to terrain, the area where there is no controller, no radar contact, and no runway? This is where you need to use all available information - satellite photos, pilot reports, and your knowledge of local weather patterns - to decide how best to get from point A to point B.
Once you have a planned route to fly under the overcast, come up with Plan B - where you will go if the route you want to fly is not passable. And while you're at it, how about a Plan C? The easiest Plan B is to just turn around and return, assuming the weather conditions haven't deteriorated, and it's the plan many pilots never seem to consider. Truth be told, some pilots seem so intent on continuing along their planned route that it's almost like they want to come to grief.
Don't let your Plan B consist of hoping to find a hole in the ceiling and climb through it to VFR conditions unless you have some really good evidence that this is indeed a possibility. Wishing doesn't make it so.
It's also foolish to assume that Plan B will be to ask for and receive an IFR clearance to climb to VFR on top if you get in a jam. ATC may be able to grant this request, but then again they might be too busy or you might be below radar or radio coverage. If ATC does agree to help you out, they may ask you "Can you maintain your own terrain and obstacle clearance until reaching some altitude?" The bottom line is never assume that an IFR clearance will be available for you.
Speaking of weather, who is? But if I were, you should be interested in the overall weather pattern. If the weather is marginal VFR, are things going to get better or worse, and how quickly? If you're going to scud run, it's best to be headed toward better weather conditions or, at the very least, to have a stable weather pattern. If the weather isn't going to cooperate, file an IFR flight plan or stay on the ground.
One you are airborne, pick an altitude that will give you adequate terrain clearance and legal visibility and cloud clearance. Then fly that altitude! Your eyes are going to be outside a good part of the time while scud running, so being able to accurately fly a predetermined altitude is an important skill. If your predetermined altitude starts to take you into the clouds, don't be overly optimistic. Instead, reevaluate the situation and consider turning around or implementing Plan B.
If you have terrain awareness features on your panel-mounted or handheld GPS, by all means use it. But don't fixate on it.
Don't scud run in areas where you don't know the terrain and where you don't have an understanding of the local weather patterns.
In busy terminal areas you should keep in mind that if you have chosen to scud run, there are probably a bunch of other pilots who have made the same choice. You and your scud-running brethren will be squeezed in to a thin layer of usable airspace and face the chance of coming into close physical contact.
If you find yourself maneuvering in tight quarters, slow the plane down to a slow cruise. Slowing the plane down makes things unfold more slowly, giving you time to think, make decisions, or at least react to what's happening. A slower airspeed gives you the ability to keep your radius of turn small. A 30 degree bank angle at 90 knots is going give you a higher rate of turn and a smaller radius of turn that blasting along at 130 knots.
Oh, and I don't scud run at night.
Finally, scud running can be a seductive experience. Do it successfully a few times and you might start thinking it's a piece of cake. Just remember that like airframe icing encounters, no two scud running adventures are the same. What worked one time, might not work the second time.
And if you have your tips or advice for reducing the risks of flying in marginal VFR, please chime in.