IFR Insight: Staying Ahead of the Airplane Makes Busy IFR Moments Less So
As much as we'd all like to think we are IFR super-pilots, every pilot has a limit in any airplane. No matter how good an IFR pilot you are, if you don’t manage things right, you can get to the point where you are lagging far behind the airplane.
Here are two simple rules to help ensure you’ll arrive at the airport at the same time as your airplane:
1. Use the time when your workload is not heavy to make things easier for when it will be heavy.
2. When the workload is heavy, use all the tools you can to reduce it.
Competent single-pilot IFR flying isn’t about physical skill — it’s about your ability to manage complexity successfully. Managing that complexity starts when you have the most time — before you get in the air. So before you are airborne, take care of everything you can that doesn’t absolutely have to be done in the air.
When you receive your preflight weather briefing, make sure you get the big picture of the weather — the location of pressure patterns and fronts — in your mind. That will tell you what the risks of weather changes are and what your alternatives will be if the weather does change. Then, if the weather changes while you are in the air, you’ll be way ahead of the game.
Many IFR accidents occur when the pilot is flying IFR into an unfamiliar airport. Give yourself a break by studying the possible approaches you might use before you get in the airplane. It won’t take long. You can narrow down the possibilities pretty well based on the forecasted wind and weather and the equipment in your aircraft.
If you will be flying a non-precision approach, you can avoid unpleasant surprises if you calculate the required rates of descent between fixes based on your groundspeed. For instance, a normal 3-degree ILS glideslope is 300 feet per nautical mile. And at that angle, your descent rate should be about five times your groundspeed. So at a groundspeed of 100 knots, your descent rate needs to be about 500 feet per minute.
If, on the other hand, you determine that on one segment of the approach you have to lose 600 feet per nautical mile, then your rate of descent would have to be twice as high. And at 100 knots, you’d have to descend at 10 times your groundspeed, or 1,000 fpm, to get down in time. If you haven’t calculated the rate of descent you need in advance, you can definitely wind up behind the eight ball on the approach. If you’re using paper charts (and some electronic charts), you can write the required rate of descent on the chart.
If you’re planning to land at night and there won’t be a tower in operation, study how the lights are activated during your preflight. Short final after an instrument approach is no time to try to figure that out.
After takeoff, a great way to reduce your workload is to use your autopilot. If you are comfortable using its functions, it will free up not only your hands, but also your brain to think about what’s coming next.
As soon as you are in cruise, start keeping tabs on the weather. If you have XM satellite weather available, tracking the weather is a snap. If you don’t, contact Flight Watch after each hour. What you’re watching for is the weather trend at your destination or amended forecasts with worsening weather. If you find out about it way in advance, you can start thinking early about where your realistic alternates are (not just the legal alternate for your flight plan).