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).

In cruise (not on approach) is the time to consider the consequences of things that could change. Do “what if” scenarios.

What if that front moves quicker or slower?

What if I miss the approach?

Anticipate changes and figure out the consequences so that if they do happen, you will be ready.

The time available in cruise flight is also your best opportunity to thoroughly brief and prepare for your descent and approach into your destination. If the wind and weather don’t favor any particular runway, self-brief approaches to several runways, just in case. Listen to the ATIS as far out as you can receive it to get the official word about which approach is in use. Or ask the ATC center that serves your destination which approach the airport is using. All of this lets you brief the approach in the calm of cruise flight, rather than when things get hectic on the arrival.

Another item that should be in your attention scan is ATC. Be alert to what clearances, holds, etc. other pilots are receiving. Get ahead on planning for those same clearances, or come up with an alternate plan if the clearances are not acceptable to you.

Depending on the equipment you have, you can load in frequencies and courses for your expected approach in advance — including frequencies for the missed approach. For example, if you are navigating en route using GPS, you can set in your ILS frequency and the frequency of the VOR you would use for the missed approach.

As soon as a controller gives you a vector in the terminal area, he is taking charge of your navigation. You should then set in the final approach course and tune the radios, unless you’re flying with a system like the Garmin G1000, which does it automatically for you.

The frequency for approach control shown on the approach chart is for the final approach controller. When you are given that frequency, tune the tower frequency into the standby position. That way you can switch easily to the tower, even when you’re in the middle of a busy approach.

When you make all of these things a habit, you will begin to think that IFR flying is all of a sudden easier — so much so that you will indeed become confident that you will always arrive at the airport at the same time your airplane does.

_Martha King has helped make aviation knowledge more accessible to pilots worldwide by combining elegant technology with fun teaching. In 1994, she became the first woman to hold every category and class of FAA rating on her pilot certificate as well as every flight and ground instructor certificate. Her company, King Schools, also provides the curricula for the Cessna Pilot Centers. _

Martha King and John King take turns writing Sky Kings. They have shared flying and teaching aviation for more than 50 years.

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