I live in the Seattle area, where we have so much moisture the AIRMET for mountain obscuration is as common as a Starbucks on every corner. For this reason, when I pursued my instrument rating all those years ago I insisted on having at least 15 hours of actual IFR logged before I would take the check ride. I pursued the IFR rating as an exercise in risk management, and it didn’t make sense to me to get the ticket without ever going into the clouds.
Logging time in actual conditions isn’t a requirement for the certificate. Nowhere in FAR 61.65 does it say that the applicant is required to register time in real instrument meteorological conditions—it can be either IMC or simulated IFR under a view-limiting device—but I wanted the experience of actual IFR without a view-limiting device. Most people don’t fly that way, except within the training environment.
For this reason, you may want to invest in a view-limiting device that is easy on, easy off—the type that flips up to allow you to see outside as well as the panel without removing your headset are best.
The Disorientation Factor
The first time you fly into a cloud, there is a bump— you are going from an area of relatively warmer air into cooler air. It sort of feels like tripping when going up a flight of stairs. Then the cockpit gets darker, and the horizon disappears.
Focus on shifting your gaze—not turning your head from outside to inside—and focus on the flight instruments. Aircraft loss of control often happens in those first few seconds when outside visual references are stripped away, and the pilot falls prey to spatial disorientation and inflight illusions.
The Pilot’s Handbook of Aeronautical Knowledge has details on these illusions. Some may overlap or feel similar—all can lead to serious spatial disorientation.
The leans—the most common illusion during flight— is caused by a sudden return to level flight following a gradual and prolonged turn. Leveling the wings can create an illusion that the aircraft is banking in the opposite direction than the original turn. The pilot tries to correct for this by leaning in the direction of the original turn. You may have to remind yourself to sit up straight.
The somatogravic illusion happens during rapid acceleration, such as during takeoff, where the disoriented pilot thinks the airplane is in a nose-up attitude and pushes the airplane into a dive, or pulls back on the throttle to stop the acceleration. Don’t do this.
The Coriolis illusion occurs when the pilot has been in a turn long enough for the fluid in the ear canal to move. When the turn is stopped, the fluid continues to move, creating the illusion of turning or accelerating on a different axis. Trying to correct this illusion, the pilot may apply a correction that is the opposite of what should be done. For example, the airplane is in straight and level flight, but the pilot thinks it is in a banked turn and when they ‘straighten the airplane out,’ they put it into a bank. The Coriolis illusion may happen when the pilot reaches down in the cockpit for a dropped item.
The graveyard spiral happens when the pilot is flying in a prolonged, coordinated, constant-rate turn and begins to feel that the aircraft has stopped turning. When the pilot stops the turn, there is a sensation that the airplane is turning in the opposite direction.
The inversion illusion begins during an abrupt change from climb to straight-and-level flight, which can create the sensation of tumbling backwards, causing the pilot to push the nose of the aircraft down.
The elevator illusion happens during abrupt vertical acceleration, such as when the aircraft encounters an updraft, creating the illusion the aircraft is in a climb. The pilot may push the nose down.
As the PHAK notes, “A pilot can reduce susceptibility to disorienting illusions through training and awareness and learning to rely totally on flight instruments.” In short, learn to read those instruments, know what they are telling you, and act accordingly.
Learning how to properly scan and interpret the instruments is a skill. To be able to do it without the benefit of a view-limiting device is a discipline. Practice this by getting a CFII, opening an IFR flight plan, and going in and out of the clouds sans the view-limiting device. It will be disorienting (at first), but it will do wonders for your confidence.
One of the maneuvers to practice in the clouds is the 180-degree turn. At the appropriate altitude, trim the airplane for level flight, then—using your feet only—make a left turn (obstacle permitting) at half standard rate using rudder only. Begin by noting the aircraft’s heading, then start the turn. Focus on maintaining half standard rate all the way around. The turn will happen faster at full standard rate, but it can also lead to over-controlling as the bank angle increases, then there is a loss of lift, and the aircraft begins an uncom- manded descent.
The Challenge for CFIs/CFIIs
Although possessing an instrument rating is a requirement to be a flight instructor under FAA regs, some CFIs have logged very little actual instrument time. This is particularly true if they were trained in accelerated programs geared toward taking several check rides in a short time—or they fly in an area where actual IMC is a rarity.
The first time they take a learner into the clouds, it can be a wake-up call for the instructor to be in the right seat, sans view limiting device, focusing on the instruments and the learner at the same time. Also, CFIs may find it challenging to maintain their IFR proficiency because most of their flying is done with learners in VFR conditions.
Some schools recognize this and do not charge their CFIs for the rental for currency and proficiency.
It is often said that the instrument rating is the most challenging to get but also the most useful. Make the most of yours.
This column originally appeared in the May 2023 Issue 937 print edition of FLYING.