An occasional layoff from flying isnt that uncommon for most general aviation pilots. There are many possible reasons: weather, workload, a family or personal emergency, a job change or move from one part of the country to another, illness, or a host of other reasons beyond your control.
A layoff from VFR flying isnt the end of the world, although your skills can certainly get rusty. A layoff from flying IFR, however, can result in a fairly rapid decline in important skills youll need to stay ahead of the airplane during poor weather.
Whats most important – regardless of how you got here – is recognizing that youve been out of the IFR cockpit for too long and want to get back.If one of the following scenarios applies to you, it is a testament to your good judgment that you made the conscious decision not to fly IFR.
You live in some lovely place where the sun shines more than it doesnt – such as southern California, Arizona, Florida or Colorado. If so, the opportunity to experience actual time on the gauges can be scarce. Perhaps you live somewhere rife with icing conditions, thunderstorms and other weather complications that dont make sense for taking most GA airplanes into the clouds. Either way, the weather can conspire to keep you from remaining proficient for IFR flying.
Faced with either of these realities, flying under the hood in VMC is the next best option. But if you fly under the hood, do it with a purpose in mind. Dont just go fly. Youre paying good money for the hood time so you might as well get something out of it.
Practice some specific maneuvers designed to improve your instrument proficiency. While youre at it, strictly evaluate your performance against the instrument PTS. There is no substitute for the confidence and competence that real proficiency brings.
Sometimes personal or business workloads – and the stresses that accompany them – build to the point that something has to give. Circumstances can develop in nearly everyones life that just dont allow them to do much flying of any kind, much less practice on instruments. You may be wise to stay on the ground at times like these – but just dont stop thinking about flying while you do.
Stepping into the cockpit after a time away, have you occasionally had the feeling that you didnt even know where some of the switches were? Most pilots have. A good remedy for that is to close your eyes and think your way around the cockpit until it becomes familiar again – and do it on the ground before you even go to the airport.
Regardless of how you got where you are right now, scraping that rust off is the primary task at hand. If you need to recover from an IFR layoff, heres how to do it.
Rust Removal Checklist
The best way to recover, of course, is not to get rusty in the first place. In instrument flying, an ounce of prevention is definitely worth a pound of cure.
But staying proficient is not your current challenge if youve already lost it. In that case, there are definite steps to take to make sure you have the procedural knowledge youd need shooting a real approach in real weather.
Thinking ahead of the airplane, understanding exactly what the next move is supposed to be and being able to read an approach plate simplistically is about all the headwork there is to flying instruments. All of that is easy to do with a few simple-to-do tricks. You dont even have to go near the airplane.
The challenge, of course, is to be able to do what you know, but in instrument flying the head definitely has to lead the hands. In our view, instrument flying is 98 percent head and 2 percent hands. Actually its probably 98 percent head and 2 percent eyeballs, but well get to that in a minute.
If you find yourself in some situation that keeps you out of the instrument cockpit for any length of time – even a few weeks – consider this simple eight-step approach to improving your instrument proficiency and competence:
Think about IFR flying. Whether you fly a lot or only a little, keep your head in the game.
Make (and take) the time to physically and mentally review instrument procedures. Keep both concepts and procedures fresh in your mind.
Turn off the car radio and think about instrument flying while driving to and from work – just be sure to pay attention to the road as you do it.
Think in specifics. What pitch attitudes, configurations and power settings do you use for 500 fpm descent on a precision approach? What about for an 800 fpm descent on a non-precision approach? You can mentally run through the whole gamut of flying: missed approach procedures, instrument preflight requirements, IFR equipment checks, lost communications procedures, holding and partial panel techniques.
You will be amazed at how automatic your procedures become when you keep refreshing them over and over in your mind.
To put priorities on your efforts, think about what parts of instrument flying make you feel the most uncomfortable right now.
Pick a procedure or concept for each day and review or mentally mull it over as you engage in other activities that require little headwork. Its just one more opportunity to keep your head in the game when you cant be in the cockpit.
Heres an example that takes literally only a second to repeat. Its my personal missed approach procedure – made automatic from thinking about it many thousands of times: Max power, flaps to approach, positive rate of climb, gear up, wings level, ball centered … You get the idea. Until I had that thoroughly thought-out, written down and ingrained, I had a devil of a time recalling what to do – and night IFR with no runway in sight is not the time to search the caverns of your mind trying to remember the missed approach procedure.
Because I can spout that procedure in my sleep, an IFR missed approach is simply a matter of mechanical execution. Note that the sequence did not include making a radio call. Remember to fly the airplane first and the microphone second.
Start by consciously and systematically thinking about how you fly instruments and what procedures you use to do various things. Put the basics in some practical context. Establish a framework you can routinely use to stay sharp. Make sure you understand what you need to do in every phase of instrument flight and why you do it. If you detect any soft spots in your knowledge, hit the books and get up to speed. All it costs is time.
Think about basic instrument flying. When you first started learning to fly instruments, you probably thought a lot about it. How much have you thought lately about instruments – more specifically, about how you fly basic instruments? How do you control such simple essentials as heading, altitude (or prescribed climb and/or descent rate) and airspeed?
It helps to think about things like that because, when you get right down to it, thats all there is to instrument flying: the heading, altitude and airspeed you want to fly at a given time. If you fly the required heading, altitude and airspeed, youll be able to shoot the lights out of any instrument approach published. So start with how you intend to do that.
You need to be able to make accurate, controlled standard rate turns, climbs and descents – and combine them. You need to track courses and intercept bearings, avoid unusual attitudes, use a stopwatch and understand how to transition from one flight regime to another.
Keep it simple. Basic instruments involve three elements: a good scan, proper instrument interpretation, and precise aircraft control. Remember that the way to achieve good aircraft control is with proper application of pitch, bank and power.
Make procedural checklists. Now that youre back into the IFR big picture and have mentally sharpened up your basics, think about how youre going to use them in real life.
Now is the time to tighten your focus on 1-2-3 procedures. With the basics down pat, you can afford more complicated thinking. Take, for example, crossing a holding fix. In step #2, youve doubtless worked on the four-Ts: Turn, throttle, time and talk.
Turn to the appropriate heading; check holding speed and set power to maintain it, start your watch so you can see how long youve been flying outbound and report entering the hold, if necessary.
My procedure arriving over a fix or at some other significant juncture involves not four, but 10 Ts: Turn, throttle, time, talk, twist (the heading bug, HSI knob or VOR course deviation indicator) to the appropriate course. Then come the rest: track the outbound course; trim; tune to other frequencies, think and teach. Turn, throttle, time, talk, twist, track, trim, tune, think and teach. Simple.
Everything you do on instruments involves some sort of a procedure. Researching the procedure helps clarify your thoughts on how to do it right. Once you have a procedure in your mind, write it down and edit it so it becomes your own.
Youll soon find that you have all of your procedures actually written down. They are instrument procedures that youve researched, checked out, written down, thought about and used to fly – at least mentally.
Make audio tapes you can listen to in your car. Life is full of choices. You can do nothing when you drive your car. You can listen to some loquacious DJs on the radio. You can talk to a passenger or to a friend on your cell phone. However, you can also listen to your instrument procedures.
Once youve written your procedures down, its simple to read them onto an audio tape you can play in your car. Youll be amazed at how quickly you can come back after a layoff. Unless the procedures change, you can use the tape over and over, year after year.
Mentally practice instrument flying. At some time or another, youve got to internalize basic maneuvers, procedures, courses, tracks, profiles and the other things that make up instrument flying.
A typical practice instrument flight out of Colorado Springs in an airplane will usually involve flying about 15 minutes to Pueblo, as many as 6 different approaches, arc tracking, holding, intersection direct legs and more in a two-hour period.
On my 45-minute drive to the airport, I can think through the entire practice flight I intend to fly with my student. You can do the same thing. The important things are to understand what your flight entails, know what you have to do, and think it through ahead of time. Armed with that knowledge and backed up by knowledge of your airplane and the standard procedures you use, you can mentally fly the entire flight from preflight to shutdown.
Use a PC flight simulator, if you can, when weather or other circumstances wont permit you to fly. But dont make the mistake of going straight to instrument approaches. Start with basic instruments: straight and level with changes of airspeed and attitude, descents at specific rates, climbs, turns, A and B patterns, and whatever other patterns you find helpful to keep individual components of your instrument flying sharp. PC flying is a natural extension of your thinking, with the added bonus that you get some feedback when you take action.
Get a good instrument proficiency check, only this time, tell your CFI what you want to do. Once you know how to do this stuff – because youve studied it, written it down, listened to it, thought about it, flown it on the simulator and paid money to practice in the airplane – have the confidence that youre back up to speed. Then stay ahead of the power curve as best you can.
Once youve recovered, dont let it happen again. But if it does, at least you have a blueprint for recovering your instrument flying health.
Also With This Article
Click here to view “Honing the Edge.”
-by Wally Miller
Wally Miller is a CFII and Gold Seal CFI with more than 7,000 hours.