Flying IFR is both easier and harder than flying VFR. A predetermined route gets you to your destination, and, as long as you follow your navigation aids correctly, you don’t have to worry about avoiding airspace, how to find the airport or how to enter the traffic pattern. There is no need to plan your arrival into the airport environment because it is determined by published instrument procedures, which generally take you straight to the runway threshold.
However, when was the last time you had a perfect IFR flight: Every radio call was spot on. Your altitude was pegged at all times. Your route of flight didn’t deviate from the planned route by more than a fraction. You didn’t miss one ATC call. You didn’t overshoot any radials or approach courses. You were right on centerline and glideslope on the approach. Your landing was as smooth as silk, right on the 1,000-foot markers.
While this type of precise flying should be what you strive for, it is unlikely that you never make any mistakes, and it is acceptable to make some slight errors in an environment that presents hundreds of opportunities to do so. However, mistakes in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) add up quickly and there are some errors that could turn your flight into a terrifying disaster. Here’s how to dodge some IFR mistakes that you should do everything in your flying power to avoid.
1. STAY CURRENT
The biggest mistake that is likely to get you into major trouble is the failure to stay current. For you to fly in the system under IFR rules, the FAA mandates that you have completed a minimum of six approaches, tracked radials and done at least one hold within the past six calendar months. These requirements can be met in actual conditions, or under the hood in simulated condition with a safety pilot or flight instructor. Once you have gone past the six-month period, you can still regain IFR currency by flying with an appropriately rated pilot as a safety pilot. However, 12 calendar months after the last date of currency you will have to go through an instrument proficiency check with a CFII.
While staying legally current is the minimum, you’re well advised to practice a lot more than that. And while it is tempting to go to the same airports and practice the same approaches every time, it is wise to practice variety. Each approach has its own uniqueness, and the likelihood of any approach at a new airport being similar to the ones at your local airport is slim. If your airplane is equipped with GPS, practice a mixture of GPS, ILS and VOR approaches to keep your skills sharp.
2. PRACTICE IN THE CLOUDS
It is hard to believe, but some instrument pilots are afraid to get into the clouds. The reluctance has good reason, though. Inside the puffy white stuff, the airplane behaves much differently from what it does out in the clear, smooth skies. As a result, your inner ear could trick you into thinking you are flying straight and level when in fact you are in a 40-degree banked descending turn. If you are a rated instrument pilot but have never had a chance to get in the soup, go up with an experienced and instrument-current instructor the next time there is an overcast layer. The experience is invaluable.
If you are an instrument student, do everything you can to gain experience in the clouds while you earn your ticket, even if it means that you have to surrender the controls to your instructor once in a while. It is also well worth it to fly along with other people when the skies are gray to get used to the real thing.
3. BE WEATHER SMART
Just because you are allowed to and should fly in the clouds as a current, instrument-rated pilot doesn’t mean you should always do so. Thunderstorms can wreak serious havoc on the functionality of your avionics and, more importantly, could affect the structural integrity of the airframe. Stay well clear!
Also, you should be afraid, very afraid, of icing conditions. Unless your airplane is FIKI equipped, stay on the ground if there is any inkling that your airplane will accumulate ice in flight.
It is also important to know your own limits when it comes to flying in IMC. You may be a perfectly safe instrument pilot, but perhaps you are not quite experienced enough to be safe all the way to the missed approach point. The margins of error get narrower and narrower the closer you get to the airport. For example, if you failed to reset your altimeter to the local setting, you may be below the decision altitude at the missed approach point on an ILS, which is often as low as 200 feet agl. Just because the DA is 200 feet doesn’t mean you should take off when the cloud ceilings are reported at 200 feet. Set a realistic minimum ceiling to keep yourself safe before you gain more experience.
4. KNOW YOUR AVIONICS
The worst time to learn how to use the avionics in your panel is when you are flying solo IFR. You need to know the systems and know them extremely well. You shouldn’t have to think about how to make an entry, whether it is something as simple as entering a frequency or something more complicated, such as loading an approach.
It is also critical to know how to verify what information the CDI is displaying. If the CDI is set on GPS but you actually want to track a VOR radial, you will most certainly get confused in a hurry.
An autopilot is a terrific tool when you are flying IFR. At the push of a few buttons, it relieves a lot of the workload and allows you to complete other tasks, such as briefing an approach plate without having to hand-fly. However, if you are wondering “What is the airplane doing now?” it’s time to take over the controls. Double-check that the autopilot’s status, whether it is an activated button or a digital indication, shows your desired settings. If you expect your autopilot to track a GPS course but have the autopilot set to heading mode, you are in for a nasty surprise.
It is also important to remember that most autopilots will not level off at the minimum descent altitude (MDA) or decision altitude (DA). They may keep you coordinated and right on the localizer, but they will fly you right into the ground if you don’t pay close attention.
5. PREFLIGHT FOR IFR
If you are not in the habit of verifying that the pitot heat is working while preflighting your airplane, it is a must when you get ready to take off into the clouds. Even if the temperatures are way above freezing, the airflow through the tiny tube can get very cold. If ice forms in the tube it will block the path to the airspeed indicator, and without accurate indications you can easily get in serious trouble.
Checking the static ports is just as important. Make sure there is no tape or gunk obstructing the static port openings, and verify that the altitude matches the airport altitude when the local pressure is set. Having the incorrect indication on the altimeter will almost certainly lead to disaster.
6. REFER TO YOUR NOTES
The ability to use legible shorthand to write down clearances, vectors, altitudes and frequencies is critical to IFR flight. It would be virtually impossible to remember and read back everything from a full departure clearance without notes. It is also valuable to record changes in altitude, heading or other clearance parameters in flight to ensure that you have the information available should you forget the assigned numbers while you are busy climbing, descending or turning.
While it is not common to lose your radio communication, it does happen, and it is quite a relief to be able to quickly enter the frequency into your secondary radio or handheld to get back with the last controller you spoke with. The only way you will be able to do that is if you write each frequency down. Otherwise you will have to scramble around to search for what could be the right frequency on your aviation app or chart, or contact 121.5 for help.
7. ASK FOR HELP
Communication is one of the most critical components of IFR flight. When you are in the clouds, you are to a great extent relying on ATC to keep you out of harm’s way. And to the best of the controller’s ability, he or she will. However, if your flight does not proceed as expected, you should never be afraid to ask for assistance from ATC.
Asking for help is particularly important if you have an issue in the cockpit. If your airplane or navigation system is not doing what you expect it to, tell ATC. If you see what appear to be thunderstorm clouds up ahead, don’t be afraid to ask for a vector to avoid them.
One situation in which pilots seem to be particularly reluctant to ask for assistance is when they are lost or have made a mistake, but continuing on without asking for help could put you in a very compromised position. The sooner you confess your mistake, the sooner you can get back on track.
While air traffic controllers are generally on top of their game, they too make mistakes. If you feel that an assigned vector will put you in a dangerous situation, don’t be afraid to question the controller.
8. FLY THE PROCEDURES
If your instrument approach is messed up and you realize you are not going to make it safely to the airport, you may be tempted to start the missed approach procedure right away. It is important, though, to fly all the way to the missed approach point before you initiate the procedure. You could start your climb, as long as you communicate your action to ATC, but if you start the missed approach procedure early, the initial turn may put you in a position where you can’t intercept the radial you need to track. This could cause major confusion — the last thing you need when you are in the clouds.
Starting the missed approach procedure early could also potentially turn you right into obstacles or terrain. Instrument procedures will only keep you safe in the published track.
9. KNOW YOUR NUMBERS
One of the most important numbers when you are flying in IMC is the MDA for a nonprecision approach or the DA for a precision approach. Below these altitudes you are venturing into very dangerous territory since you will be very close to the ground, in some cases less than 100 feet agl.
Each step-down altitude for the approach and final altitude must be on the forefront of your mind as you are tracking inbound on the instrument approach. Using callouts such as “1,000 feet to go,” “500 feet to go” and “100 feet to go” as you descend helps prevent you from going below those critical minimum altitudes.
10. MIX UP YOUR INSTRUCTION
With flying in general, there are many ways to get from the departure point to the final destination. This is particularly true in the case of flying IFR. Some ways are more efficient, others less so. Don’t get in a rut by flying with the same instructor for each biennial flight review or instrument proficiency check.
With GPS becoming more common in small airplane panels, there are some instructors who are more knowledgeable on new systems than others. These instructors will help you get the desired entries in the most efficient way. It would be a major mistake to fly with an instructor who is not intimately familiar with the systems you fly behind.
Even if you are instrument current, take advantage of each biannual flight review to practice procedures that you may not do very often, such as holds and DME arcs. While the requirements to sign you off for a BFR or IPC are up to the instructor, you should communicate your strengths and weaknesses so the instructor can tailor the required training to your needs.
11. THINK AHEAD
When you are flying in the soup, there is one question that you should continuously ask yourself: What’s next? Whether it is tuning in the frequency for the next VOR, setting up the next radial you expect to follow, listening to the ATIS for your destination airport, studying the approach procedure or memorizing the missed approach procedure, there is almost always something that you can do to prevent getting behind the airplane. If you don’t stay ahead of the game in the clouds, it can be hard to catch up, particularly if you are flying solo.
Staying current with IFR flight requires regular practice, and with all of the possible scenarios it is easy to get confused. Unless you are getting very frequent experience in the system, with approaches in actual conditions, it is well worth giving yourself a thorough workout in a simulator with a CFII at least once a year. Simulators are less expensive to fly than airplanes, and you can shoot multiple approaches quickly without the need to fly long distances to get to the next initial approach fix. You can also practice approaches at unfamiliar airports — preparation that will make an upcoming real flight a breeze.
Simulators also offer an incredible tool that is impossible to achieve in the air. You can stop the action and talk about what went wrong — or if you’re really current, what went right!
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