Safe, Legal Or Proficient?

Recent instrument experience may allow you to be safe but not legal, or legal but not safe. Proficiency requires more work than you might expect.


Up until about 10 years ago, I was a typical private pilot. Id built up about 1000 hours over 30 years of flying and even managed to add an instrument rating after about four false starts and uncounted times passing the written. I flew as much as 150 hours a year and as little as 10 years between flights. But I kept the passion, the interest, and continued vowing that someday Id actually fly as much as I wanted. Does this story sound familiar? It probably describes a great number of us.

Stuff happens. Finances, work, family and other recreational pursuits-life-all get in the way. Yet, somehow, we find a way to keep flying, if perhaps not as much as

Aircraft Proficiency and Instrument Experience


we might like and certainly not as much as we should. This can create some interesting currency challenges.

Safe, but not Legal?

Lets start this part of the discussion off with a disclaimer: We dont advocate doing things for which youre not legal. With that said, though, we also recognize that there are situations where the safest thing to do might not necessarily be legal. Thats where judgment comes in-first the judgment to keep yourself out of those situations in the first place, then using sound judgment to decide the safest course of action if you do get yourself in a bit deep.

Consider an all-too-common scenario. A typical instrument-rated private pilot mentioned above finds theres a thin layer between cruise altitude and the destination. Our bold pilot tries to recall all his recent instrument operations and concludes that legal currency is, well, past. Continuing a bit further looking for a hole in the layer, he finally concludes there isnt one. The layer began about 50 miles back and fuel projections raise concern about making the additional 100-mile round trip to get under the layer. Now what?

Well, in defense of our friend, the forecast didnt call for the overcast, so this isnt a clear lack of planning. Its not uncommon to fly above a layer and find it has disappeared as you near your destination. Of course, the opposite is true as well. Obviously, there was an opportunity to prevent this problem by simply ducking under the layer when it appeared. But, that raises the whole specter of scud-running for 50 miles-a notorious killer of pilots and destroyer of airplanes. None of this helps the present situation, though, of being on top of a solid layer, not being instrument-current and not having enough fuel to comfortably get under it.

The safest thing to do under these circumstances might well be to simply contact ATC and ask for a clearance below the layer. Of course, accepting that IFR clearance would be illegal because youre not current. At this point, though, thats probably the least of your worries. Plus, youve always got the option of declaring an emergency to mitigate the legality issue, but be prepared to at least answer some questions.

The bottom line here is that the common mistakes of pushing your fuel too far and scud running have killed far more pilots than punching through a layer a few weeks (months, years?) beyond your legal currency. Your first responsibility as pilot-in-command is to assure the safe outcome of the flight. While legality concerns are important, nothing trumps getting there safely. As the old saying goes, “Id rather be the star witness for the defense than the guest of honor at a funeral.”

Legal, but Dont Get Cocky

Lets build on our scenario a bit. Presume youre legally current, having passed a grueling three-hour instrument proficiency check five months ago. You recall that IPC as being particularly challenging since it had been over a year since your last approach in actual conditions. Assume, also, that the weather is a bit lower, with good visibility under a 600-foot overcast and light winds. There is a localizer approach available with minimums of 600-1. No problem, right?

Well, it shouldnt be. Its certainly legal. But lets examine your level of currency more closely. Your total instrument experience in the last 18 months is that IPC, and you recall your performance on that wasnt your best effort. In fact, it was a real struggle. When the instructor signed you off, you now remember the suggestion-and your own silent vow-to get some more practice. Sure, the IPC knocked off a lot of the rust, but you still had to work at it and, well, without a lot more practice your skills probably picked up that rust again in a short time.

So, yes, youre legal but probably not the safest you could be. Since the other options are even less attractive, you conclude youve got to go for it. You hunker down, focus your concentration and commit to really staying on top of this approach. At least youve got ATC giving you vectors to final and even current charts going for you.

Still, though, you find yourself making rookie mistakes. You started to blast through the intercept to final and barely caught it before the localizer needle pegged on the other side. Then you missed the descent point, and had to hustle down at an uncomfortably high rate of descent to get to minimums by the missed approach point. Things were happening just so fast! Just as you leveled off at the MAP you got that sudden hollow feeling in your stomach as you realized you were still in the soup and had no idea what to do for the missed. All this happens, of course, while you never quite got the localizer needle under control from the botched intercept. Fortunately, in our example, you break out a moment later, having descended through the minimum descent altitude by 50 feet, and are able to land without further stress.

As you roll out, you consciously try to slow your breathing and vow to yourself to keep your skills sharper, to fly more often, and even to get an IPC more often. Uh, huh… Weve all made those promises, only to break them. If you think this is far-fetched, its not. This is common performance by an instrument pilot without much recent experience, whether theyre legally current or not.

Our fictional pilot met the legality requirement through his IPC five months prior. However, hed not had any instrument experience other than that IPC in about a year and a half. For most of us, thats simply not enough practice, not enough currency, to be able to smoothly and competently execute even a relatively simple approach in reasonable conditions. Fortunately, our pilot recognized his deficiencies and was probably a bit more careful, a bit more diligent than he otherwise might have been. If hed thought the approach would be no problem, if hed not recognized his own limitations, the outcome might have been significantly different.

This scenario probably describes more than half of the instrument-rated private pilots who are flying today. Perhaps you fall into this category of being legally current, but not necessarily highly proficient. If so, hopefully you recognize you need to be more careful and give yourself higher limitations than if you were more proficient.

Ready for Anything?

Lets ratchet up the scenario to the next level. Say you had that IPC just last month as part of a program of continuous proficiency in which you take an IPC every six months. On top of that, you fly regularly, always file IFR and log an approach, at least under the hood, at least once a month. You feel pretty good; youre convinced youre proficient and ready to fly in the soup. You know youre legal and you feel safe in actual IMC.

Youre flying on an IFR flight plan above that layer described earlier. The weather at your destination is worse than forecast. In fact, its down to 500-1, with a steady 15-knot crosswind. The localizer approach requires 600-1. Your alternate is lower than expected, too, but still above minimums, so you confidently decide to give the approach a try. Youre flying Part 91, so theres nothing wrong with this choice.

Youre on vectors to final. You anticipate the localizer needle swinging in and begin a normal intercept. However, you forget to take the wind into account and by the time youve stopped the needles progress, its halfway to the other side of the instrument. You settle yourself down and begin to correct. However, your concentration on localizer precision slows your scan and causes you to miss the descent point by a few seconds. No big deal; you just increase your rate of descent a hundred feet per minute or so. Since you never quite got that localizer under control, while you concentrate on establishing a proper descent rate, the localizer drifts off almost half-scale again.

You start to squirm a bit and really try to focus your concentration. Just as you get your descent rate properly stabilized and the localizer back to the center, you

Aircraft Proficiency and Instrument Experience


see theres only about 100 feet until your MDA. You hastily begin your level off and just make it, but that pesky localizers a dot off again. You struggle to get the right power set for level, maintain altitude right at MDA and get back to the center of the localizer. Things start to come together but you havent seen the runway yet. Then you mutter an expletive as you notice youre a bit past the MAP. You jam the throttle in and begin the missed, glancing at the chart because you forgot what to do.

This little episode ends well, with a reasonably well-executed missed approach procedure followed by a successful approach into your alternate. On the ground with the plane secured, humbled, you seek out a cup of coffee (or a glass of whiskey!) to review your performance. What went wrong?

Well, not much, really. You did a passable job on that approach. Sure, your performance wasnt up to your expectations, but it remained under control, you recognized your mistakes and quickly corrected them. Yes, you should be humbled because you werent as sharp as you thought under these less-than-ideal conditions, but if you treat this as a learning experience, it will help improve your skill for next time. Enjoy your coffee (whiskey?) and shrug it off with a new appreciation for the level of proficiency and skill necessary in real-world conditions. Vow to keep or even increase your proficiency activities and to be a bit more realistically ready for imperfect conditions and performance next time.

Completely Proficient?

The final chapter of our little story ends with a pilot who flies professionally, logging over 300 hours a year and an instrument approach to actual at least once a month, often much more often. The weather at the destination is right at ILS minimums of 200-, with the wind gusting to 25 knots 45 degrees to the runway. Oh, and there was a windshear report just a few minutes ago. (Remember during your instrument training you were told that with really low IMC the winds were usually calm? The operative word there is “usually.” The person who wrote that never flew in the mountains! The conditions described are real, reasonably common conditions in certain mountainous areas.)

The pro takes the wind into account on the intercept and only gets it a dot off. However, he still struggles to get the localizer centered and keep it there before the glideslope comes in. Once the glideslope enters the picture and he gets closer to the runway, things get dicey. That gusty crosswind is really wreaking havoc with the “stabilized approach” concept and our pro bounces around more than a dot in every direction. Jockeying the power to maintain speed, working the elevators to maintain glideslope and constantly fighting the gusts to stay on heading: Its a real workout. By the time the runway is in sight at the last possible instant, the pro has worked up quite a sweat and is relieved to pound it on the runway without adding a serious windshear encounter to the mix. Welcome home.

In the pilot lounge, like any good pro, our friend relives that approach, analyzing his performance. Hes been here before and he knows its not easy. Nonetheless, he concludes that he should have taken a bigger cut at the intercept with that gnarly crosswind. Its much easier to allow yourself to be blown onto the localizer than to fight to get back to it after youve been blown through. Further introspection tells him he was constantly overcontrolling on the approach-yes, even the pros fall prey to this temptation. He tells himself next time it would be better to ride it out a bit more rather than to fight it so aggressively. As he replays his performance down the localizer, he also realizes he let his speed get a bit low. Sure, he was only a couple knots below his normal ILS ref speed, but with the gusts and the windshear reports, he should have added at 5-10 knots to that normal ref. Then the landing! He realizes that he was so relieved to actually get to the runway, that he just about gave up and allowed the runway to “take” the plane rather than to properly land it. Being the pro, though, he files all this away as lessons learned and commits to recall them on the next one.

Moral of the Stories

The point of all this is that proficiency is relative to your own overall skill level and the operation being attempted. Safety and true proficiency are moving targets, with legality added somewhere in the mix. No matter how good and proficient a pilot you are, there are always conditions that, while legal, may truly tax your ability to achieve a safe outcome. The challenge to each of us is to understand this, realistically identify where we are in the mix, balance all the variables and assure that the outcome of everything we attempt is at least safe. Legal is good, too.


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