Into the Wild Grey Yonder

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.

As the approach continued, the weather where I was flying remained scuzzy. When my ground prox said "500 above" (the ground) there was no runway in view even though the runway was only about a mile ahead. Then it showed up. In fact, the flight visibility on the approach was barely one mile.

So even if, as a new instrument pilot, you cut yourself a lot of slack on weather, the time will come, sooner or later, when you get to fly a lower approach than you anticipated. On this approach, the forecast and reported weather was good but the actual weather was much worse. The only way you learn to deal with such things is through experience. There is actually no way to know for sure what the weather is for any approach in marginal conditions until it is flown. Back to the departure, where something to consider on each and every IFR departure is a return and land. Such has happened to me most often after the airplane has been in for maintenance, but that isn't always the case. If, as you start into IFR, you cut yourself some slack on acceptable weather for departure, any return for a landing will be that much simpler.

I had departed IFR one day and soon after takeoff started hearing an unusual noise from the vicinity of the engine. That meant a change in plan, but one that needed to be carefully crafted, so there would be no distraction other than the noise and no cutting of corners because while the ceiling was okay, the visibility was restricted.

I looked at all the engine parameters and everything was normal. I had the advantage of knowing what the noise probably was - a loose turbo hose, which had happened several times before - but I couldn't be sure. I got a clearance for an ILS approach to an airport close and ahead and got the turbo hose tightened. Any time you tell a controller you are going to make a change, he is going to ask why and if you need special assistance. Be forthright and while there is not much the controller can do to make a strange noise go away, if you think he can help with something else, say so.

Weather might also be a reason for a return, or an early diversion in a flight. If, for example, all indications were for a relatively smooth flight but the clouds are extra wet and bumpy, maybe there is a better idea, like landing to think it over. Cloud flying in turbulence in light airplanes is challenging and not a lot of fun. Turbulence seems worse in clouds to most pilots and what you might consider light turbulence on a clear day can quickly escalate, at least in the pilot's perception, to moderate when in clouds.

There's another factor here, too. If your weather briefing and your estimation of the weather indicated a smooth flight but the flying is bumpy, then the general weather picture you left with is in error. When that is the case, you need to get a new picture. I headed out one day with a rosy picture of the weather and then started hearing pilots up ahead requesting deviations around weather. Because thunderstorms weren't part of my picture, I landed at a nearby airport and did a fresh review of the weather. Storms were there, across my proposed path, but an hour or so later they had moved and I flew on unmolested. When we fly IFR we embed ourselves in the weather, and we feel things that aren't usually there in VFR flying. If there is unanticipated turbulence it comes from one of two things. The clouds are cumulus types with the attendant churning that comes with those clouds. Or, there is wind shear, a change in wind with height or distance. Wind shear is likely associated with a weather system, with the strength of the shear being directly related to the strength of the system. If you weren't ready for this, it means you weren't aware of the system so, again, it might be time to land and regroup. That's how you learn.

One thing here. Making the decision to return and land or divert is a definite distraction and can cause problems. A new plan has to be made. And while the autopilot should be used for all cloud flying, its use becomes especially important when making a new plan. As you sort things out it is essential to put the airplane in a "safe harbor," a configuration and position where no harm will come as your attention is elsewhere. The configuration can be handled with the autopilot; the position and altitude should be handled by not deviating from the original clearance until a new one is obtained.

Every pilot is stressed by different things in different ways but the outcome is always the same when the stressor is removed. Whether it is worse than forecast weather or a close call on fuel reserve, or anything else like that, the stress level builds as the situation becomes closer or tighter. Then, when you make the decision to change the plan and land early or to get down where there is better weather, the relief is like a huge burden being lifted. Certainly if you are worried about some element of an IFR flight, the best place to take that worry is to a runway.

When we work with weather while flying, we are "nowcasting." What is happening? Is it what you thought would happen? Is the groundspeed (and thus the wind aloft) what was projected? A serious error in a wind aloft forecast indicates structural flaws in the synopsis on which all the forecasts were based. With all the available and relatively low-cost equipment to receive and view weather, it is hard to see how any serious instrument pilot would fly without this equipment. Being able to see all the weather reports, satellite pictures, precipitation and lightning makes "nowcasting" so much easier. Where IFR pilots used to make do with terse reports from Flight Watch and perhaps word on precip from controllers, the really big picture is now available on portable or installed receivers. Again, though, as illustrated on that Asheville approach I told you about earlier, what you see is what you get regardless of any reports.

When weather is worse than forecast and slated to improve, there's often a temptation to hold for that improvement. If the tanks are awash with fuel that might be okay for a while.

Also, say for example you are trying to limit approaches to two miles visibility and at least 1,000 feet of ceiling. If the weather is below minimums, it will first come up to bare minimums and improvement to a better condition might take quite a while.

So far, most of what I have talked about relates to weather. Try to be conservative about weather and the challenge might be more manageable. Air traffic control is different. It is basically the same from start to finish on every IFR flight and it should be used in good weather or bad. If you are IFR and get a circuitous routing that you don't like, stick with it anyway, even if in good VFR conditions, to see what happens. This most likely happens in busy areas and the lesson learned might be to count on flying with extra fuel when operating in such areas.

Be especially conservative on fuel even when not in a busy area. By saying you are going to be picky on weather for arrivals, you increase the likelihood of diversions and changes in plan. An experienced pilot who is comfortable with a half a mile visibility and a 200-foot ceiling on an ILS has different requirements than does a pilot who is looking for markedly better weather.

Finally, whenever you are flying IFR, remember that while it is procedural in the sense that you match numbers on the panel with numbers on the chart, it is also variable, mainly in relation to weather. The accident record in light airplane IFR is bad mainly because the demands of single pilot IFR are great and are sometimes not met. It is true throughout a flying career but, in the beginning especially, you can do a better job of learning to use an IFR rating if you work at keeping the level of demand as low as possible. Some of that can be done in preflight work, but once you take off the activity peaks and you had best make a strong effort to know everything about everything as you bump along in those clouds.