How Safe Is Single-Pilot IFR?

Les Abend is a well-trained airline pilot who gets comprehensive recurrent training, who is bound by extensive government and company regulations, and who never flies his Boeing without a well-qualified second pilot and without concurrence of a dispatch system. It goes without saying that the capabilities of his airplane outstrip what most of us fly by a considerable margin. He also flies as many hours per year as five or 10 general aviation pilots.

What Les does with his airplane is exactly the same thing that a private pilot with a new instrument rating does all by himself, with none of the extensive backups or the airplane performance that Les has. The private pilot often doesn't fly a lot, maybe once or twice a month, and he had better have a good job or business if he is to afford IFR flying.

It doesn't take a rocket scientist to deduce whose operation involves the least risk. In fact, knock on wood, the airlines have an almost perfect safety record where general aviation IFR flying has proven to be a high-risk activity for many pilots.

Flashback 53 years, to when I first started flying single-pilot (and usually single-engine) IFR. There is no way to even imagine how well the few pilots flying small airplanes IFR managed risk in the '50s because there wasn't enough activity to draw any conclusions.

The airlines, though, didn't do nearly as well then as they do today. The things they didn't have that Les has today are airplane performance, reliability and training. They were flying two- and four-engine piston airplanes, many pressurized, and none with anywhere near the performance or reliability that they have today. Crew resource management often as not comprised of the captain telling the copilot to sit down, shut up, and work the landing gear and flaps on command. By recognizing and taking advantage of everything, the airlines slowly evolved their flying into the lowest risk form of transportation on (or over) the planet. General aviation copied this in jet operations with an almost equal level of success. Fifty-three years later we haven't made substantial progress in reducing the risk in piston-engine single-pilot IFR flying.

It is interesting that back when the airlines had a lot of accidents in bad weather, many of them were for the same reasons general aviation pilots are wrecking airplanes today. They flew into mountains, they flew into the ground on approaches, and, in some cases they were confused about equipment or had failures they couldn't manage.

The airlines got a better handle on the weather over the years, too. Early on they didn't understand things like the stratification of wind, especially in mountainous terrain. Given the nature of the navigational equipment used, this caused problems. One's location in space was often a wild guess. With their dispatch services and the altitudes for their en route flying, airline pilots don't have to understand all that much about weather now. There is still a strong requirement that they understand low-level wind shear.

General aviation pilots are still flying down in the clag, just as we did 53 years ago. That means the requirement for weather wisdom is as strong today as then and while weather in the cockpit brings information, there's no understanding button on the set. And where airline guys have FAA and company programs to keep them out of the worst weather, we can go flying in anything that happens to be out there.

Airline pilots (as well as those flying freight) have always flown a lot at night. Back in the bad old days a lot of the airline accidents occurred at night. They have taken care of that. In general aviation, we have not. A proportionately huge number of our IFR accidents happen at night, probably because most pilots don't fly a lot of night IFR, so they are trying to do something they don't really know how to do. Certainly there is no specified training or currency requirement for night IFR operations other than those recent night takeoffs and landings that are required if passengers are to be carried at night.

Airplane performance (including the ability to fly after the failure of an engine) and systems redundancy are big contributors to the airline's good safety picture. But I once took a large collection of general aviation IFR accidents and looked to see how many of them might have been prevented had the same pilots been flying airplanes that met the Part 25 Transport Category standards. The answer was: very few.

So, the airplanes could help a little but not a lot. The second crewmember would help a lot more than the airplanes. But that means it isn't single pilot any more. That leaves training, proficiency and recent experience, plus one thing that is impossible to quantify: The single pilot's ability to remain aware of what is going on, to resist urges that lead to risky behavior, and to understand the consequences of everything that is done with the airplane. That can form a basis for taking everything else and merging it into a successful single-pilot IFR operation.

Or, look at it another way. A pilot who is capable of questioning everything he does, as a second crewmember should do, will be better off so long as he actively uses that capability. If a pilot can look at reported weather that is below minimums and say to himself, "it would be stupid to try that approach," and go somewhere else, he'd be managing risk. Incidentally the airline pilots also have better rules taking care of them. They are not allowed to attempt approaches when the reported weather is below minimums. Simply put, they fly with answers to every question where we get to ask ourselves questions that we can't really answer.

There are many risks that we are allowed to take that aren't there for airline crews. We go to any airport, we fly in any weather. We can fly when tired or irritated, and a lot of general aviation pilots fly when using contraindicated medications. Our recent experience requirements are sketchy at best. We can pick and choose from a long list of deadly risks and take chances that are not there in jet operations. Where jet crews have performance guarantees and training to handle every emergency, we wing it. All that does two things. It gives us great flexibility that would go away if it were to be fixed by regulation. And it offers up a fine challenge for those who want to do it and also to live through it.

The state of single-pilot IFR flying has undergone great changes in recent years, in two steps. GPS navigators revolutionized the way we navigate through flight plans and fly approaches. Though some would disagree, GPS navigators, properly used, actually reduced total pilot workload.

The second step is the fully integrated glass cockpit flight management system. It is basically the same thing that crews of jets use. Does it reduce workload and simplify tasks for the single pilot? I don't think that is a given. With the systems that are in virtually all new-manufactured airplanes and that are showing up in many existing airplanes, pilot training, currency and understanding requirements ratchet up by a lot of notches. There is a big, huge difference in professional crews who fly often operating this equipment and single pilots who fly once a month using it.

The complexity of the equipment is magnified by software changes. I have flown a lot of different software versions in the Garmin G1000 systems and enough things change from one version to another to create cockpit confusion. To say that they shouldn't change the software is to say they shouldn't improve the product for us over time. But some of the software changes that I have seen are not, in my opinion, improvements. They are sometimes things that look like they were done just because they could be done, not because they were needed.

Safety has never been anything you can buy in general aviation, and like everything else, there is no automatic reduction in risk in glass cockpit airplanes. That is strictly pilot driven. One bright ray of hope, though, is the "level" button in the Garmin/Cirrus system. Press it and the autopilot either reverts to a wings level, altitude hold mode or it comes on with that function. Jet fighters have had such a panic button for a long time.

I'll go out on a limb and say that the most common use of this button will be when the pilot screws up the programming of the flight control system and becomes overwhelmed with confusion about what was done and what is happening. Punch the button and start over.

That is important because as we go forward with single-pilot IFR we have to acknowledge that complexity has reached the point where we have to have a de facto crew of two: the pilot and the autopilot. The pilot has to learn to fly the airplane through the autopilot. With the new cockpits there is no way a pilot can pick and choose what functions to use. You have to understand it all and use it all.

Another thing to consider when comparing the workload with the new stuff with the old is that everything was direct back in the good old days. Each knob did one thing. Nothing was hidden from view. Compare that with a fully integrated cockpit and realize that we pay a price for all that capability and information. Nothing is as straightforward as a knurled knob that does one thing. I don't think you could say that the new equipment is as user friendly as the old. It is a lot more informative.

Is there a big difference between a paper and an electronic chart? Yes and no. The fact that the electronic version positions the airplane on the chart for you brings a new and great level of situational awareness. Yet there are legions of pilots who flew for years with paper charts and never misplaced themselves on the chart. There are also some, not around anymore, who didn't envision the correct location.

Over the years, one of the frequent single-pilot IFR problems has been with loss of aircraft control. The wider use of autopilots should help with this. When up to here in alligators, pilots without that magic button to press can press their own button and put the autopilot where it will command wings level while they think for a minute.

Most of the other IFR problems come from the interface between the pilot, the equipment and the weather. Here the single-pilot IFR person needs to have a continuous reality check before and during a flight.

If there is one overused word that has great importance it is "margins." That's another way of suggesting that you cut yourself some slack, as we used to say.

A pilot who always flies with margins in mind can reduce or eliminate a lot of risks. Staying away from areas where you are not current and proficient means trouble stays farther away. For example, in recent years I have not flown much IFR at night. In fact, on December 12, 2001, flying from New Orleans to Hagerstown, Maryland, I flew the last hour of the trip after dark and ended with a non-precision approach in scuzzy weather. Nothing untoward happened (ask Tom Benenson -- he was along so it wasn't strictly single pilot) but descending through the clouds, in the dark, I must have made the decision that this was no longer a risk I was willing to take. Except for ending one VFR trip after dark and going flying to do the three night takeoffs and landings, I haven't flown at night since.

I don't think night IFR has to be risky but if you don't do it often and if, when you do it, you are aggressive about it, trouble is at hand.

Likewise, I long ago resolved never to try a second approach if one was missed because of weather. Also, where I used to fly approaches to airports where the weather was reported as below minimums, I quit doing that a while back.

We have the freedom to do most anything that we want to do with our airplanes and that is something to cherish and protect. The lowest risk form of flying comes on clear calm days, when you are flying a simple airplane and don't do anything silly. Add complexity and the available risks multiply. The challenge is ours alone and that is pretty neat.


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