Practical Tips For Flying IFR

Lessons to help you fly well in the IFR environment.

pilot flying a plane using instruments
Listening and flying in the ATC system will teach you more about the practicalities of flying IFR than any book or video.BanksPhotos

I still believe my instrument-rating check ride was my toughest, but then maybe it just seemed that way because the technology in the Cessna 172 I flew was pretty basic: two communications radios, two VORs, an ADF and a transponder.

Keeping an airplane upright in the old days demanded constant brain work to scan the basic six-pack panel of round gauge instruments. And, of course, no one even thought of installing an ­autopilot on a 172 back then. The oral exam was no snap, but I passed and the ­examiner and I were soon headed out to the ­airplane at Chicago Midway. One examiner-induced failure left my No. 1 navcom dead just as I was headed direct JOT for the VOR approach. That meant just one VOR to track my position and prepare for the approach.

The examiner’s final request called for a single-radio hold. I recall my fingers were a blur on the frequency and OBS knobs as my brain worked to keep track of my route to the holding pattern as I tried to identify the correct entry. I remembered help from a column Richard Collins wrote in Flying on the ins and outs of IFR with just one radio. That check ride taught me the importance of keeping a constantly evolving mental picture of the approach foremost, but also to have a backup plan long before the airplane waved a red flag at me. It was tough ride, but having met the minimum standards, I drove home a newly certified instrument pilot.

Today, things seem pretty different, especially in a glass-cockpit airplane. No ADF approaches, holding patterns graphically displayed that make the correct entry a snap. Scanning seems to have evolved into just monitoring a more tightly integrated moving color display of vertical tapes and gauges. The demand for brain engagement is way easier with a 10-inch multifunction display or an iPad nearby. Autopilots easily fly the entire approach. But I’m not so sure we’re better off now than we once were, because what hasn’t changed is that being proficient still means more than being able to read numbers on an approach plate or a screen.

Technically advanced airplanes brought glass to the GA world and were expected to reduce the accident rate, but that didn't happen, mainly because they didn't eliminate the risks inherent in instrument flying that had been around for decades, like pilots making poor decisions. Pilots are human and we make mistakes. Consider the never-ending rash of VFR-only rated pilots flying into IMC weather, often at night and sometimes in mountainous terrain. So technology is obviously no panacea for safe flight operations.

foggy runway
When you break out of the clouds with the runway straight ahead, don’t change anything. Fly the airplane right to the touchdown zone.istock/NORRIE3699

More or Better Training?

If simply dumping more ­information on pilots doesn’t necessarily create safer flights, what will? Perhaps making better use of the information already presented to us—assuming we understand it, that is. Because every flight is different, preflight demands risk management so that pilots understand not simply what they’re doing, but why. In the Airman Certification Standards, the phrase “demonstrates an understanding of…” appears often. Without understanding that “why” behind our decisions, pilots remain mere pawns in the IFR system with the airplane and events outside leading them, hardly a rousing endorsement for logging time as pilot in command. IFR quizzes are helpful, but they don’t dig nearly deeply enough into the human-factors aspects of flying to explain how a pilot will actually perform in the heat of the moment. Realize too that you can earn an instrument rating having never spent one minute inside an actual cloud.

Short of changing the guts of FAR 61.56 or 61.57, only an intensive flight review with an instructor willing to dig down a few levels into a pilot’s real understanding of the ATC system, their aircraft and its technology is probably the best we can hope for. But only pilots who want to be better prepared than simply “meeting minimum standards” required to pass a check ride need apply. Consider your own skills against what the world might toss at you that demands “maximum standards” ­performance. A couple of notable training successes include the ­intensified knowledge sessions offered by the Cirrus Owners and Pilots Association, the American Bonanza Society and the practical discussions that emerge from the EAA’s IMC Club sessions. Here are some topics that represent the low-hanging fruit of life beyond ­minimum standards:

Approach Categories:

Are you ready to shoot a circling approach today? How about at night? No checking, but where is the pivot point where the circle back to the runway begins? When are you legally allowed to leave circling altitude?

Explaining the important ­elements of a circling approach on paper doesn’t mean nearly as much as performing the maneuver in gusty winds below a 600-foot cloud base with ­visibility sitting at a mile and a half in rain. Adrenaline pumping through a pilot’s system can lead to mistakes if they’ve never trained in those conditions, or anything even close. Many simulators like a Redbird MDX can recreate challenging circling weather conditions. Who cares if it’s not credited toward an instrument proficiency check. Go learn what it’s like before you need to fly one of these.

FlightSafety International instrument training
Good IFR skills come from a thorough ­understanding of an ­airplane’s systems.FlightSafety International

The Duck Under:

Nothing embeds the practical aspects of IFR flying like actually flying in the weather because it feels so very different from pretending to fly IFR with a plastic view-limiting device attached to your head. Remember your training, when the instructor said, "Take off your hood," at minimums? Usually, there was a big beautiful runway straight ahead. But real life's not like that.

Breaking out of the clouds at ­minimums one night on the ILS to MDW’s Runway 13 Right, with the ground seeming to rush up at me, I remember pulling the throttles on a turboprop almost to idle before the guy in the left seat jammed them back up. “Why did you do that?” he demanded. “I wanted to use all the available runway,” I think I squeaked out after we cleared the runway. Pilots who’ve flown Garrett-equipped turboprops know that flight idle turns those big props into terrific speed brakes, a prelude to potential disaster.

I watch students today break out at minimums and begin fussing with flaps, an effort that diverts their attention from where it should be, straight ahead. When you’re on course and on glidepath with the right power setting, don’t change a thing after you break out. Fly the airplane right to the ground.

Approach Preparations:

When radar controllers guide aircraft to the final approach fix, they’re bound by standards that govern those final turns, so be ready. Normally, ATC will vector an aircraft no closer than two miles outside the FAF for a final turn of no more than 30 degrees. If the aircraft were turned on within 2 miles, that angle can’t exceed 20 degrees.

It’s the pilot’s responsibility to ­maintain a mental picture of the aircraft’s location related to that FAF, a task made easier by moving-map displays. But if you’re not ready, for any reason, tell ATC you need more time to perhaps finish programming the GPS, identify the localizer or final approach radial, or just in case you need a bit of a breather before descending to minimums.

Flight simulator for IFR procedures
A good flight simulator is the best place to learn IFR procedures. The airplane is the worst.mikulas1

Obstacle Departure Procedures:

A successful approach or departure in IMC demands not only skill at flying the procedure, but also a keen awareness of nearby obstacles that could present a serious flight risk. This means understanding local restrictions beyond weather minimums, through either a standard instrument departure or obstacle departure procedure.

The first clue that risks lurk nearby is the “T” found in an upside-down ­triangle on the left side of an airport approach plate that indicates the need to dig for takeoff-related information. The tiny symbol is easy to overlook. It is the pilot’s responsibility to locate the ODP’s particulars and decide whether or not to observe them, because unless they’re included in the ATC clearance, they’re not mandatory—not even during poor weather. If a pilot chooses to use an ODP during takeoff on an instrument flight plan, such as might be the case at a nontowered airport, it is the pilot’s responsibility to inform ATC. Pilots will find that having a local VFR chart can also be a handy briefing tool to see the big picture for local terrain and man-made obstacles.

The ODPs themselves can be difficult to locate, but can be found under U.S. Chart Supplements.

Let's use Carlsbad, New Mexico, by looking on an tablet on your favored flight app. In ForeFlight, begin by typing KCNM in the search box to find the CNM information. Click "all" under procedures, followed by "takeoff minimums." Under Departure Procedure and Takeoff Obstacle notes, the pilot will see a plethora of valuable information they need to understand before takeoff. These updates are also available on the web at FAA.gov/air_traffic.

GPS Interference:

Like it or not, we’ve become a world of GPS-based pilots. Plug in a flight plan and follow the magenta line. It’s tough to turn a flight into a complex planning mission when a few clicks will do all the work needed to convince the autopilot to follow along while you monitor on your iPad.

Optimum flight planning includes checking the receiver autonomous integrity monitoring page that pops up when the pilot boots the aircraft avionics. Who among us though hasn’t just pushed enter a few times to charge ahead to the flight planning page? It’s safer to give the unit a minute to breathe as it checks the satellites in range. You’ll see an “Integ Error,” if something doesn’t compute.

A recent check of the FAA’s FNS Notam page delivered 31 hits in just one day of locations around the country where GPS interference to satellite signals could be expected. That could make an IFR flight that includes a GPS approach at the other end somewhat problematic. Switching to a local VOR was once an easy solution, but the number of VORs being regularly decommissioned means those options are quickly disappearing.

FlightSafety International ground-school training
Glass cockpits call for more in-depth ground-school training.FlightSafety International

Automation Dependency:

This used to be a problem only for transport-category pilots, but no longer. In recent years, many GA pilots have come to better understand the meaning of the phrase, “What’s it doing now?” When that happens it’s clear the PIC has turned ­responsibility for the aircraft over to the flight-­management computer, a machine that may or may not be taking the airplane where the pilot intends. Spend 25 minutes watching “Children of the Magenta Line” on YouTube. It’s worth the time investment.

Today even a Garmin G1000- and autopilot-equipped Cessna 172 can fly an entire trip more smoothly than any human, including a coupled approach to minimums. But do you know how the G1000 behaves during a miss following a coupled approach? Hopefully you knew the autopilot is placarded against that maneuver, even if the person who checked you out forgot to mention it.

When you earned your private certificate, your examiner probably said you now owned a license to learn. It’s much the same thing with an instrument rating, so one final tip: If your instrument training only included a few hours of actual IFR flying, or possibly none at all, do yourself a big favor and find a good IFR safety pilot to fly along for the first 10 or 15 hours of actual instrument time, even though it’s not required. Preferably find one of those crusty men or women who earned their striped flying hard IFR in the system, people who just love clouds and hate plastic hoods. Listening and flying in the ATC system will teach you more about the practicalities of flying IFR than any book or video.