I'll say in advance that Tom and I aren't bound to agree on everything in this series. While I think checklists and acronyms are great on the ground and in flight for things like emergencies, I don't think you can apply them to the shades of gray we find in instrument flying. If there is a good one, it would be called AOTBP. That's hard to pronounce but it is easy to remember because it is an acronym for "Awareness of the Big Picture." Without that you can't make good decisions.
With the preflight considerations out of the way, the cabin secured, the checklist run and the airplane started, you are ready to call for your IFR clearance and embark on a form of flying that is not much like VFR flying. The subject here is learning to use that IFR capability. The only way to do it is to get out there and fly IFR. The key to success is in recognizing that everything can and might change from the time you secure the cabin door to the time you open it at the end of the flight. All the preflight work is great and necessary, but we have to fly with constant thoughts about what might change and how it might best be handled.
Let's look at things that might happen from start to finish to see why instrument flying is so uniquely different. There are many things along the way that offer strong challenges. As examples, I am going to relate events that have actually occurred during my IFR flying and how they were handled. Certainly not all, or even many, happened on one flight but, for sure, any of these events could happen on any IFR flight. They are just a few examples to show that there is indeed more to IFR flying in the real world than is found in the training world.
In getting ready to fly, we plan a route. The flight plan may be stored in a GPS navigator, or it may be inserted after receiving the clearance. Whatever, it is best not to take off without the flight plan, or at least the first few waypoints of the flight plan, in the navigator. That way, it needs no attention until you are settled down in cruise flight. If a pilot ever fails to input the waypoints because he is in a hurry, that pilot is looking for trouble. If you don't have a navigator, it's a simple matter of having and understanding a navigational plan.
While most of the clearances we get are "as filed," that is usually not true when flying in congested areas like the northeastern United States. There, the controller often reads full route clearances. Also, the arrival route to a busy airport is often different than the departure route, so it's not possible to invert and activate the flight plan used when inbound. There is no way to anticipate this while strategizing, and the key to dealing with it is getting the clearance correct and inputting three or so initial waypoints before taking off. Take all the time you need to get everything just right.
When starting out in IFR flying, follow the guidelines about taking it slow in relation to weather. One reason to do this is that weather can be, and sometimes is, worse than forecast. You'll learn that in relation to weather, what you see is what you get. If you are a weather junkie, there'll be a better chance of anticipating what is really out there. If you take a briefing at face value, there might well be surprises. However it works, trying to start out dealing with better than minimum weather can only work to your advantage.
For a look at how this doesn't always work, though, I'll give you an example that happened to me the day before writing this. The trip was to Asheville, North Carolina. The forecast for arrival was visibility six miles and broken clouds at 4,500 feet. It was a trip that would have been easily recommended to a new instrument pilot. After I departed from Hagerstown, Maryland, I started watching the Asheville weather on the uplink. It was low in fog, but the new forecast stayed with the improvement to good VFR conditions by my time of arrival.
As I flew into the Asheville terminal area they had upgraded the weather on the ATIS to three miles visibility with scattered clouds at 4,500 and broken at 6,500. That still sounded good, for a new or an old instrument pilot. The ILS for 34 was in use, and the controller had me on a close downwind for that and said I could have a visual if I could see the airport in passing. He then said the airport was at 3 o'clock, three miles. Trouble was, I was flying in solid clouds at 4,400 feet, which was just over 2,200 feet above the ground.
I was vectored out for the ILS with a close turn in at the Broad River NDB to miss a shower just outside Broad River. I had selected vectors to final for the approach on the GPS, and Broad River is outside the final approach fix so it wasn't included in the loaded approach. The GPS had loaded the localizer frequency, which I had transferred to the active window. However, the Garmin 530 wouldn't switch from the GPS to LOC function until about two miles outside the final approach fix. The glideslope is intercepted on this approach before that point, so when it automatically made the switch the airplane would be well above the glideslope, so the change from GPS to LOC had to be made manually to get the glideslope indication when it was intercepted.
That might sound like no big deal but it is a prime example of an equipment-related distraction that you have to learn to deal with when flying IFR. That is why it is important to know each and every little detail about the equipment that you use.