IFR Survival Tips

The finer points of IFR flying, distilled from decades of flying IFR in both GA and transport airplanes


Like lots of instrument-rated pilots, I trained for the rating at a local FBO with several different instructors. From each of them I learned the basics of instrument flying – how to fly and navigate the aircraft by instrument reference only – but I didnt learn much about the finer points of the art.

The fact is, most IFR survival tips are those learned by trial and error over years of flying. Many instructors dont have that experience and therefore cant be counted on to impart wisdom, only knowledge. Here are some tricks Ive learned over 20 years of flying, both general aviation and air transport.

Before You Fly Solo IFR
Get some cloud time with an experienced pilot or with a qualified instructor. The approach lights look a whole lot different when youre breaking out of a 200 ceiling in a half-mile visibility than they look than when you pop the hood up after flying a practice approach under clear blue skies.

The shape and view of the approach lights or runway in restricted visibility makes some pilots think theyre high, so they duck under the glideslope – sometimes badly enough to land in the approach lights or short of the runway.

Experiencing such low visibility before you see it solo the first time cuts your accident potential. Sometimes its hard to arrange such an experience, but consider it.

I was lucky. During and after completing my instrument training at Paducah, Ky., I got to ride along in a Twin Beech with a fine gentleman named Harold Howard who flew the mail from Paducah to Louisville and back every night. He left at 9 p.m. and returned at 1 a.m., which meshed perfectly with my day job at the time.

Before I got to know Harold, I noticed that, no matter what the weather, his Twin Beech was parked at the airport every morning. After meeting him, he agreed to let me ride along on his flights when the weather was lousy. I knew I would make it back in time for work the next day.

I went on trips with him when the clouds were low and visibility poor or when thunderstorms and ice were a threat. What I experienced from the right seat of Daisy forty-oh-six (Harolds flight number) was absolutely priceless when I started flying serious IFR on my own. I was completely comfortable flying in the clouds and I didnt freak out when I encountered ice for the first time.

Listen to the Pros on the Radio
Use your hand-held for something other than as a place to store batteries before they die. Tune into the local ATC facility and just eavesdrop while you work on something else.

Listen to how professional pilots and controllers say a lot with few words; how they use correct nomenclature. Try to emulate them. You might be surprised how you receive better service from busy controllers.

Use a Headset
Listening is 75 percent of communication and anything you can do to facilitate it will help. The boom microphone on a headset will also free up a hand and reduce the inevitable fumbles that come with using a handheld microphone.

Be a Good Cockpit Housekeeper
Dont let your cockpit look like the back room of a pilot shop. Keep the cockpit gadgets to a minimum. Use what works and chuck the rest. A clipboard, pen, E6B, charts, flashlight, and timer are just about the only true essentials. And really, the timer should be part of your panel clock. Check the batteries in your flashlight and headset before you leave and replace them before they go dead rather than carrying a lot of spares.

Some people swear by the backup value of a handheld GPS and comm radio, and they can add safety. But they also add frustration when they dont work and clutter even when they do. Ask yourself if you need a backup radio while flying a route with airports every 15 miles or a handheld GPS while flying a familiar route in good weather.

Have a place for everything and put everything in its place. Charts can also be a big source of clutter. Before departure, fold and arrange your charts so theyre in the order youll need them. Then find a place to stow them where theyre out of the way but where you can get at them.

Plan Your Flight and Fly Your Plan
Failing to meet planned targets, such as ETAs, is a prime indication that something has changed in the weather or with your aircraft. Either way you want to know. It can also lead to a loss of situational awareness.

A flight plan log will let you know in an instant how far behind schedule youre falling if you have to deviate from your planned route for weather or ATC. Having hard facts instead of guesses to back up that uneasy feeling about your fuel situation may help you decide whether a precautionary fuel stop is necessary.

If you think that flight logs are only for student pilots, know that every airliner you hear on the frequency has an exquisitely detailed computer-generated log in the cockpit. There are many fine computer programs today that can produce flight logs with nearly as much detail for your GA cockpit. Take advantage of them.

Carry Current Charts
Charts are cheap and things aeronautical stay in flux. Frequencies and courses are changed; fixes are created or renamed; runways and taxiways open and close; navaids are moved.

This information shuffle is constant. Find other ways to cut the cost of operating your $100,000 airplane besides scrimping on charts.

The same might also be said for GPS databases. We suspect that far more pilots are flying with expired databases than with current ones. Updating them can be an expensive hassle, and supplementing the database with information from current paper charts keeps you legal.

While we know of no accident or enforcement action that stemmed from an obsolete database alone, its your risk and your money, so your choice.

Keep Track of Your Position
With a long-range nav system now in just about every cockpit, a lot of pilots can tell you that theyre exactly 181.3 NM from their active waypoint, but they dont have a clue of their position over the earth right at the moment. In these days of constantly changing special use airspace, domestic AWACS patrol and fighter cover its not only a good idea to know where you are, its essential.

Keep a chart in your lap (or at least handy), follow your progress and stay apprised of restricted airspace and available divert airfields.

Most electronic navigators have an emergency airport search function but the airport it selects may not be the most suitable. Certainly make use of its guidance concerning the closest airfield but dont let it make the decision for you. With a strong headwind, the quickest runway may well be behind you.

Tune and Identify Approach Navaids
In GA cockpits, identifying navaids seems to be a procedure most pilots dump after the instrument checkride. Identifying enroute navaids may not be that important to a pilot flying at low altitude, but identifying approach navaids is a must.

Heres one reason its a good idea. Its not unusual for airports to have ILS approaches serving opposite ends of the same runway. At times these approaches will share the same localizer frequency, but they will have different idents. An interlock system prevents ATC from having both localizers broadcasting at the same time.

Twice in my career, Ive been radar vectored for an approach to a runway with a shared frequency where the localizer was being broadcast for the opposite runway. The first time, I discovered ATCs mistake through the localizer identification procedure- the ident being broadcast simply was not the one for our runway. The second time my co-pilot let me down when he heard an ident being broadcast, but did not check if it was the correct one. We only discovered ATCs error through reversed course deviation sensing.

ATCs reaction was the same on both occasions: Oops, we turned the airport around and youre the first one in.

Learn to Operate Your Autopilot
Then use it. Flying with the autopilot is not a sign of weakness, especially on an instrument approach. Think of it as a tool to safely complete your flight, just like the ILS receiver youre using to find the runway.

Learning to use the autopilot is sometimes easier said than done, and you may be on your own. Many instructors dont bother to become skilled at how to use autopilots effectively or they may not be familiar with your particular installation. Some early autopilots are terrible in that the controls and indicators are not intuitive and theyre scattered all over the cockpit.

Get in the manual, learn the fundamental goal of each operating mode and then go out and practice how to fly your airplane precisely with it. Then when youre out in the soup youll know exactly how to use it and what to expect from it.

Having said that, its also important to be proficient at hand-flying. Youll have to show off your skills during your recurrent training regimen when you nail that ILS to minimums without the autopilot, but you will need the proficiency if the autopilot decides to take the day off when the chips are down.

If You Miss an Approach
Dont fly multiple attempts at the same approach. After the first missed, take a minute or two and assess your situation. What is your fuel state? Do you have enough to fly another approach or do you need to divert to your alternate? If you elect to hold, how long can you hold before your fuel situation will force you to divert? Review the approach chart. Did you fly it exactly as published? Were you on course and at the DA/MDA and missed approach point? What is the weather trend? Is it stable or changing? What is it forecast to do?

If you flew the first approach correctly and there is no indication that the weather has improved, multiple approaches only invite descent below minimums in an attempt to find the runway. NTSB files are stuffed full with descriptions of crashes that occurred on the second or third approach attempt.

If theres no reason to believe another attempt at the approach will be more successful than the last, dont do it.

Ask the Locals
Ask about IFR departure procedures when youre departing an unfamiliar small airport, especially in hilly terrain. They might only be able to give you the best way to pick up your IFR clearance, but they may also relate to you crucial information that will help you decipher cryptically written departure procedures or local customs that will enable a departure with safe clearance margins from terrain or obstructions.

Take Snacks and Drinks
A little hydration and blood sugar boost 30 minutes before a busy arrival can help your concentration and attention span. I take a six-pack cooler with a couple of soft drinks, ice and a baggie of snacks on most flights over two hours.

Be mindful that an uncomfortably full bladder can also be a distraction on approach. Wait to dig into your goodies until your trip is two-thirds complete or take some kind of in-flight relief device.

Be a Pirep Weenie
Even when Im flying a 767, I take a few moments to call FSS out of 10,000 feet if there is worthwhile weather to report. The specialists I talk with really seem to appreciate the effort.

If you know what the bases, tops, layers or icing conditions are why keep it to yourself? Nothing rounds out the weather brief for most pilots like a good set of pilot reports. Do your part.

Augmenting your aviation experience with these tidbits of wisdom wont bring you a life of eternal happiness or even flawless ILS approaches, but they may help you be a better instrument pilot.

Say hallelujah.

Also With This Article
Click here to view “Devilish Details.”

-by Bill Kight

Bill Kight owns a Mooney and is a captain and simulator instructor for a major air carrier.


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