Seven IFR Exercises


If you’re like many pilots, you’ve plotted some vacation time and plan to use the family flying flivver for a summer-sunshine, blue-sky getaway. Good idea—that helps keep the skills as sharp as possible—but there’s probably not much IMC you want to fly in during the summer and most of your flights will be in daytime. Remember, though, that as sure as summer follows spring, fall and winter will arrive, bringing with them fewer blue skies and shorter days. That translates into more IMC with a better chance some part of your flight will occur in nighttime conditions. What better time than summer to sharpen those least-used skills—instrument and night flying?

Summer flying rarely provides all the thrills and chills of winter. But we can still get in some valuable training over the next couple of months, prepping ourselves for what’s to come. All you really need to make this happen is the airplane and a friend to act as safety pilot or, even better, your CFII. And just to make it more interesting, why not practice some basic IFR stuff you may not have tackled lately? Here are seven basic IFR skills you can use to help knock off some rust and shine up your edge in specific areas while helping identify those most needing improvement.

Ground Rules

Before we review the list and you start planning the work you want to fly with your coach (see the sidebar on page 11) consider a basic rule common to all these exercises: make them hand magic—leave the autopilot in the “Off” position. Yes: No George, no flight management system (FMS), no flight director or any other form of mechanical flight control. We’re going to hand-fly the airplane with raw data.

You heard right. Lately, an issue gaining traction in professional-pilot circles is the detrimental effects of too much automation used too often while hand-flying too little. For reference to what precipitated this concern, look up Air France Flight 447 or Colgan Air Flight 3407. As a result of these two pilot-induced tragedies, airline pilots, corporate pilots, training companies and the NTSB are increasingly focused on the deterioration of hand-flying skills among professional pilots. Fact is, corporate and airline policies encourage—sometimes force—pilots to depend on the magic for entire flights, right through descents and touchdowns, leaving them little opportunity to, you know, actually fly the airplane.

Instead they drive it to the departure point, onto the runway, take off and, once the wheels and flaps are stowed, push a button. From there, the FMS takes over most of the work until it’s time to lower flaps and wheels and land—by hand. The obvious problem with this practice emerges when flying the airplane becomes Job One after a system failure. Then the pilots are too often learning, too late, that their abilities handling the yoke and throttle fall short of optimal, particularly when they also work to troubleshoot the problem that forced their hands back on the controls.

So for our seven exercises, let’s put George on summer vacation. And when you’ve completed this practice syllabus, consider periodically flying missions by hand—so you stay sharper longer.

Now, time to go flying.

1. Non-GPS NPAs

Let’s start by dragging out a couple of non-precision approaches. You remember them, right? Somewhere in your instrument training, your double-I exposed you to the vagaries of sundry non-precision approaches (NPAs) like NDB, VOR/DME, VOR and localizer-only procedures. They probably were presented along with a serious emphasis on GPS approaches, since that’s probably the most common NPA out there these days. You focused on flying those NPAs for which the aircraft carried the necessary equipment.

And you may have used an NPA at some time or another…maybe regularly. For many years a VOR/DME-A approach was the only procedure available to my home field. The addition of GPS and overlay approaches helped expand access, but you need an IFR GPS to use them and many aircraft in regular use today still lack one. The number of NDBs continues to decline, with new GPS-based approaches replacing most of them. But ADFs are still common equipment here in the U.S., in part because they remain SOP outside the U.S.

Regardless, you should be able to fly any approach for which your airplane is equipped. That means tracking the VOR needle, hitting intersections precisely and flying the descent properly to the MAP and then acting accordingly—going missed if no runway is visible, completing the approach if it is. The point? Well, shouldn’t you be up to speed using all the potential your airplane offers? If equipped properly, shouldn’t you be able to safely use that equipment—even if only in a pinch?

Remember, too, authorities regularly alert aviation and marine operators of GPS interference tests, which could render your position information unusable. And there’s the prospect of your GPS going down in some manner—or of sunspots drowning out the satellites’ signals, or other issues that render it unusable. Even something as simple as an expired database can prevent your GPS from delivering its normal capabilities. And, to make this exercise more interesting, don’t put any GPS procedures on your list of things to do—fly only nearby non-GPS NPAs.

2. Back-Course LOC Approach

Another NPA is the localizer back-course procedure. In one dimension, the backcourse approach is as precise as the localizer part of an ILS. In another dimension, you fly it as you would any other NPA, whether with a dive-and-drive method or a constant-angle descent. And it’s bass-ackward in execution, to top it all off.

Like many NPAs, the back-course approach is a vanishing procedure, succumbing to the sophistication of satellite-based area navigation. Other approaches have replaced them at many airports—often with a full-blown ILS—so they can be hard to find. But they are out there and, again, they work with the simple old VOR you still have in your panel. Besides, we’re talking about being able to use all your nav equipment, right? Plus, all it takes is a wind in excess of your comfort with tailwind landings to thrust a back-course approach to the forefront. Being current on the procedure is smart if you’re able to use it when needed.

That said, your installed equipment may influence how you practice these. Some of the more-modern ILS and LOC receivers employ reverse sensing—so the needle swings as it would on a normal, front-end LOC approach, but many in-use VHF nav receivers still do not. If you fly, for example, a back-course with a Bendix/King KX-155 or KX-170B, the unit shoves the needle in a direction opposite versus a normal LOC or ILS.

One last thought: Be extra cautious practicing these at non-towered facilities while an opposing instrument approach is used—even in practice. Nose-to-nose at 200 knots closure is not a great way to meet new people.

3. Going missed and holding

If you’re flying with a sophisticated flight-control system, particularly one taking its guidance from an IFR GPS, you’ve gotten spoiled. This exercise will help build some procedure muscle to toughen you up a bit.

Think about it: How often do you go missed? How often do you fly the full missed-approach segment? How about the hold ATC sends you into when they need to? That’s what we thought.

Well, doing this by hand is different than letting the GPS direct the autopilot, as by this point you’ve found. And the hand-flown missed-approach segment and repeated holds put into play all your flight mechanics with a single goal in mind—getting away from the ground, away from the airport, away from traffic, and preparing to try again…somewhere.

If you find yourself becoming comfortable with the hold proscribed, bail out of it and come back set up to turn the opposite direction—by coming back from the opposite side of the hold.

This exercise encourages precision airspeed and maneuvering control, allows for practicing transitions and hones your muscle memory for the day when you need to perform the maneuvering you learn here without having to really think about it.

4. Tracking radials

This exercise differentiates VOR flying en route from the approach environment and, if you’re like many pilots wedded to a GPS, it’s likely been years since the last time you navigated cross-country by tracking a VOR radial. Yes, the FAA’s requirements for an instrument proficiency check require you to intercept and track “courses through the use of navigational electronic systems,” but that rarely translates into using the VOR. And even where a GPS route overlays a Victor airway the signal you’ve been following is the GPS track line.

This exercise brings you back to the basics of radio navigation and the changing strength of the VOR signal at different altitudes and distances. You’ll become reacquainted with how the needle deviations vary as you approach, then leave a station, the flip/flop of “To” to “From” in the window, and remember how to correct for a crosswind trying to push you off the course.

Now…pick a radial to a VOR with a transition to a published arrival and fly the transition; or, conversely, if you’re flying away from the station, look for a departure you can fly to transition to the airways. Either way, you’ll hone those light-touch flying skills needed to hand-fly on long cross-country flights.

5. Published DP to Airway

This exercise flips what you just practiced, with practice hand-flying a standard departure (DP) until the procedure ends or merges you with one of the Victor airways. Then fly that airway long enough to make the return a good exercise in flying a published arrival.

You’ll get more practice with the wavering VOR needle and refresh your memories of long-lost instrument flights—just in case something takes your GPS out of the picture.

Better still, after a suitable period, transition to a new Victor airway that forces you to a new crosswind correction factor. Repeat this when time allows—varying the airports you chose as opportunities arise.

6. Rejected landings

One of my favorite weekend activities turns me into a spectator watching the sport of touch-and-go operations. Many a time, the scene made me wish for a score sign I could flash—“10!”—or more likely, “4.9.”

Watching one recent Sunday as a half-dozen practiced different touch-and-go techniques, something struck: how infrequently pilots practice rejected landings. These differ from a touch-and-go because you fly it without rubber touching runway.

You remember this training, right? Start to arrest the descent, full power as you trim pitch to a higher angle of attack, allowing you to arrest your descent and begin a normal climb away from the airport, back to pattern altitude. Then stay in the pattern for a circle-to-land practice, an approach conclusion on the outs among corporate and scheduled operators, but one compatible with the relatively low approach speeds of most of our aircraft.

Make sure your safety pilot/CFII knows to be extra vigilant during the circle-to-land for conflicting traffic (since you’re doing this in VMC). On another point, brief your safety pilot/CFII so he or she knows you intend to fly that circle-to-land as if the airport had an overcast at or just above pattern altitude. Minimum visibility, clear of clouds—that’s how to practice the aftermath of a rejected landing.

7. VOR Navigation

Our last defined exercise should prepare you to get home via VORs, on or off Victor airways, hand flying the entire trip—takeoff, climb, cruise, descent, landing. Plot and fly a pre-determined cross-country triangle of at least 50 miles per leg while alternating between navigation sources to make your turn points, then fly an approach to end the exercise.

That tactic means you may need to define turn points by way of crossed VOR radials, rather than by a VOR station passage or a DME/VOR-defined intersection. You certainly won’t get from this what you should by pressing “Direct” to your destination. Fly the triangle leg-by-leg, then end the last leg with that instrument approach. If you have options for the approach, try to pick the one you’ve practiced least—or, conversely, have the hardest time performing.

If, at the end of all this, you still hunger for more, consider reversing the route you just flew; the winds will change your cross-correction and your groundspeed—and leave you with the option to fly another needed approach at the end.

Now’s a good time

Except for the sometimes-uncomfortable heat of summer, there’s usually less IMC available this time of year, which can atrophy our skills and make the first flight or two of the coming fall and winter more exciting than they need to be. That’s because you got rusty, flying around in all the severe clear summer can offer.

Meanwhile, if you’re like most of us, you’ve become accustomed to using the autopilot/flight director for just about everything except takeoff and landing. Yes, using it frees you up to handle other cockpit chores and stay ahead of the airplane and ATC, but it’s not doing much for your motor skills or muscle memory, two characteristics pilots need in abundance when the going gets weird.

Even if you don’t need to practice some of items presented here, get yourself more accustomed to hand-flying the airplane. On that scuzzy day this winter when it fails, you’ll be glad you did.

Dave Higdon is a professional aviation writer/photographer with several thousand hours of flight time.





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