Learning to Use an IFR Rating

Getting Your Wings Wet

The first time I flew solo on an instrument flight in actual instrument conditions was the day I flew from Morristown to Teterboro, New Jersey, to take the check ride with an FAA examiner to add the instrument rating to my instructor certificate to make me a CFII.

I sufficiently impressed the examiner to add the rating, but fortunately I recognized that though I was now technically qualified to instruct students in the science of instrument operations in the ATC system, I wasn't ready to teach the art of instrument flying.

The instrument rating is proof that we've convinced an examiner that we can employ the skills and know the science - the rules, the procedures, the techniques - of flying by reference to the instruments. What's still up for debate is our ability to safely incorporate those skills into our MO, our modus operandi.

With the ink still wet on your upgraded pilot certificate, you'll want to begin to build your instrument experience by tiptoeing into the weather. Plan several flights that involve relatively benign conditions. Early on a hazy summer day - before the thermal heating makes convective activity likely - is an ideal time to begin to exercise your instrument privileges.

Plan several trips that will slowly incorporate more serious weather. Start with flights during which you'll encounter IFR conditions en route with VFR at the departure and destination. Then graduate to trips with weather at the departure point and en route but VFR at the destination. Finally, begin to make trips where the destination is forecast to have IMC conditions well above minimums.

As you use the rating, remember that weather changes and forecasts are not "now-casts." Always plan to have a way out to good - or certainly better - weather. Since weather is what instrument flying is all about, strategies for learning to access and process weather information, both during preflight and in flight, are critical.

The FAA has an excellent online resource to help pilots learn to make informed go/no-go decisions and continually update their situation while en route. The General Aviation Pilot's Guide to Preflight Weather Planning, Weather Self-Briefings, and Weather Decision Making was written and compiled by the FAA's Susan Parsons, one of the few instructors who has qualified to be recognized as both a Master Flight and a Master Ground Instructor. The program can be accessed at: faa.gov/pilots/safety/media/ga_weather_decision_making.pdf.

Parson's site uses the Perceive - Process - Perform risk management framework as a guide for preflight weather planning and in-flight weather decision making. The basic steps are to Perceive weather hazards that could adversely affect your flight; Process the information to determine whether the hazards create a risk; and then Perform by acting to eliminate the hazard or mitigate the risk.

Perceive is the stage where you collect information about current and forecast conditions along your route to "see" what the weather is and what it's expected to become. Once you've perceived (and obtained) the weather, you have to process - or analyze - it. This step requires you to evaluate the information you've collected and consider what it means for your proposed flight. Having perceived and processed the information, the perform step is what you're going to do with what you've found out and evaluated. According to the website, this step requires you to "perform an honest evaluation of whether your skill and/or aircraft capability are up to the challenge posed by this particular set of weather conditions. It is very important to consider whether the combined 'pilot-aircraft team' is sufficient."

It may be that even if you're very experienced and current, your pilot-aircraft team may not be up to the task if you're flying an older airplane with no weather avoidance equipment. The converse could also rule out a flight, if the airplane is fitted with new technically advanced equipment but you don't have the proficiency to use it. You can't count on the airplane's capability to "compensate for your own lack of experience."

One way to "self-check" your decision (regardless of your experience), Parsons suggests, "is to ask yourself if the flight has any chance of appearing in the next day's newspaper." If so, make other plans.

The use of the Perceive, Process and Perform method isn't limited to preflight planning. It should also be used during a flight. In flight, perception can include visual updates-looking outside-monitoring ATIS/AWOS broadcasts from airports along your route and help from Flight Watch (En route Flight Advisory Service EFAS), available on 122.0.

Processing the updated in-flight conditions means to honestly evaluate and update your situation and then "perform" the prudent action. For example, you might "perceive" the temperature aloft is decreasing and approaching a value at which airframe icing is a good possibility. You would then "process" and evaluate the situation and determine that conditions are going to get worse. At that point, you'd "perform" what's necessary to avoid an icing encounter. Many instructors and safety experts recommend that all pilots - those flying under both VFR and IFR conditions - establish personal minimums. The idea is to create a grid of objective criteria that would indicate the wisdom of embarking on a particular flight given all the conditions and circumstances that might impinge on that flight.

John and Martha King of King Schools have developed two systems for managing risks: PAVE for establishing personal minimums for preflight planning and CARE for managing risks en route. PAVE stands for Pilot, Aircraft, enVironment and External pressures, and offers a checklist that can be used before flight for a pilot to establish personal minimums. The Kings recommend you "use CARE in the air." CARE stands for Consequences, Alternatives, Reality and External pressures. (The PAVE checklist is available as part of an FAA website for risk management: faa.gov/education_research/training/fits/guidance/media/Pers%20Wx%20Risk%20Assessment%20Guide-V1.0.pdf.) As pilot, the checklist has you look at your experience/recency and physical condition. How many takeoffs and landings have you made recently? How many instrument approaches? How many instrument flight hours? How familiar are you with the airspace and terrain that the flight will involve? In terms of physical condition are you sleep deprived? When have you eaten or had something to drink? Have you taken alcohol recently? Are you ill or on medications? Are there stressful events in your life?

The aircraft checklist includes fuel reserves, your experience in type, the aircraft's performance (weight and balance, density altitude, etc.) and the equipment on board and your knowledge and ability to use it.

The environmental factors include the airport conditions (crosswind, runway length) and the weather. Will the weather at the destination be sufficient for the approaches available at the airport?

Perhaps the one factor that has caused more accidents than any other is external pressures. The pressures of returning after a weekend, of going on vacation, of proving that you're a "good" pilot, of not wanting to have someone waiting for you at your original destination, all may force you to attempt flights that, in hindsight, should never have gotten off the ground.

The checklist is an objective way to consider the various elements that combine to affect a flight. Space is provided on the checklist for you to complete a personal minimum for each item. For example, your minimums might require a forecast of a ceiling of 1,000 feet above the minimums for a non-precision approach and 500 feet for a precision approach.

Once you've assessed the risks and decided that there's no reason not to make a flight, you should continuously perceive, process information and perform based on the most conservative action. Using CARE you can consider the Consequences of the situation (weather, headwinds, fuel, etc.), determine what Alternatives are available (a different route, a precautionary landing, etc.), accept the Reality of the situation and deal with the External pressures. If the idea of developing personal minimums by filling out a form feels a bit like a homework assignment, Parsons offers an easier method in a recent article in the FAA Aviation News. She suggests you consider the lowest IFR conditions you have comfortably, recently and regularly experienced and set those as your minimums. It's not how low you've gone but how low you've gone comfortably. Be honest!

You can also establish minimums for crosswinds the same way. What were the most challenging wind conditions you comfortably experienced? Not the most challenging you have managed to survive without bending an airplane. Again, be honest.

Personal minimums, Parsons wrote, are "a 'safety buffer' between the demands of the situation and the extent of your skills. Think of personal minimums as the human factors equivalent of reserve fuel. You shouldn't consider making a flight that requires use of skills at the 'reserve' or (worse) 'unusable fuel' level of your piloting skills."

Having established your minimums there may be circumstances when you might want to raise them. For example, for a night flight to an unfamiliar airport, you might want to raise your visibility and ceiling minimums.

As your experience level increases and your skills and judgment improve you can consider reducing your personal minimums. But a word of warning: No matter how tempted you are, never reduce your minimums during a flight. The strategy of using personal minimums is to give you specific criteria for conducting a safe flight. If you arbitrarily reduce your minimums in flight, you've defeated the purpose.

Pilots have a tendency to challenge conditions and if they're successful, reduce their anxiety and caution the next time they encounter similar circumstances. But weather is not constant and what you've survived once may be sufficiently different the next time to rise up and smite you.

After each flight hold a personal debriefing and assess how you did. Analyze how the flight went. Was it as safe as it could have been? What would have made it safer? Should I have asked for a diversion sooner? Briefed the approach better? Compensated better for the crosswind during an approach? Taken more time for the preflight? Arranged my approach and en route charts better? I don't know about you, but I've never flown a "perfect" flight. There was always something I could have done differently that would have been better. Be honest and plan to do it better next time.

The best way to learn to use the IFR rating is to incorporate the lessons learned from your own experiences. They say, "Good judgment comes from experience. Experience comes from bad judgment." Using the Perceive, Process and Perform method of assessing and responding to conditions, working with a PAVE checklist and using CARE in the air should help you have safe experiences without making bad judgments as you learn to safely use your instrument rating. 7