Approach, could you read back the arrival waypoints…we can’t seem to find that arrival….” The request got my attention because it came from the aircraft somewhere ahead of me in the soup of a thick overcast, headed to the same airport. The controller had just warned of a pending change to my arrival plans by changing those of the flight ahead of me. Taking that change as a cue, it was easy to turn to the last plastic-protector page in my little IFR folder—where I’d already inserted the appropriate page. It was less luck than experience, which had tutored me on the likelihood of a traffic conflict with another airport’s arrivals.
A savvy CFII taught me preparation was my best hedge against unhappy surprises when flying IFR, regardless of the weather. In reality, any cross-country flying demands a level of preparation consistent with the trip ahead. The simple fact is consistency in what you do and how you do it in any flight planning effort both minimizes en route surprises and ensures you’ve covered all the bases. The trick? Each flight is different, its weather is different, and you have to be flexible enough in your planning to ensure all the bases are covered. Consistency and flexibility? Aren’t those two concepts in conflict? The quick answer is “no.” For the longer answer, read on.
Finding Your Sweet Spot
Consistent preparation doesn’t mean investing the same amount for each flight. After all, preparing for an IFR flight you know will be mostly in low IMC with thunderstorms or icing is a lot different than flying the same route in severe clear.
Further, as we stressed in these pages in July, there’s equally little benefit from spending all your IMC time letting George fly. Holding the rating and maintaining currency by the light of the sun means little when we find George just broke or the VMC forecast we were counting on just deteriorated into IMC.
There’s certainly benefit from practicing all the procedures for which your aircraft is equipped to fly on those occasions the need occurs. There’s benefit every flight, however, from fully preparing and planning for the trip ahead—VMC as well as IMC—but particularly when in the clag.
Approached as an organized mission, an IMC trip need not be stressful or surprising. Instead, it should be a series of accomplishments culminating in a safe arrival and the all-time best trip description: uneventful. Such outcomes happen by dint of effort—planning more than anything, and never solely by accident.
1. Start Early
To me, flight planning is a multi-layered, multi-tasked process, not a linear, follow-the-lines journey from Point A to whatever comes last. So I start the process with a careful examination of weather prognoses a day or two ahead of the planned trip, for the time of the trip, and the couple of days that follow.
Long-range forecasts, of course, are notoriously unreliable. In our view, taking as gospel anything beyond 48 hours is a waste of time. But within that 48 hours, it’s time to be looking at prog charts, including those projecting the position and movement of fronts and pressure systems.
Doing so gives us several clues about the conditions we’ll face. For example, if a low is projected to lie on our route, it could bring with it low ceilings and rain. High pressure usually translates into clear skies. Regardless, do you know which way around them will result in the highest groundspeed?
2. Go Beyond The TAF/METAR
Pilots often forget flight planning involves more than just the weather. We also should know about facility outages, planned TFRs, Notams on runway/taxiway closures and other details often buried well below the weather data in a computerized briefing. Such information may help you decide to make or avoid an interim stop and anticipate possible deviations from your plan.
We like to plug all the basic stuff—departure, destination and time of day—into a Duat session or similar, a couple of days ahead of our departure, then peruse the results, knowing we won’t fly that brief, but knowing also it gives us a heads-up on what to expect. During our early pre-briefs, we can ignore things like Pireps or winds aloft—they’ll definitely change by game day—which affords us more time to check the facility-related details. That way, on the day of the flight, we can spend more time considering the weather and use the knowledge we gained earlier to simply confirm our understanding of what’s open and what’s not.
3. What about the Aircraft?
Briefing for a flight also includes the aircraft—assure yourself all the necessary and available equipment functions at a level that will support the flight; en route and in the clag is no place to learn the VOR head with the ILS isn’t working or that other equipment problems plague your panel. For example, is the GPS database current? Has anyone done a VOR check lately? Is it using oil, are all the lights working or might the tires need air (or replacement)?
If it’s an airplane you regularly fly—via a club, partnership or outright ownership—there should be some kind of squawk sheet you and its other pilots use to keep track of its readiness. Go to the airport if you have to, or get on the phone and check with the other pilots, but find out what’s working, what’s broken and what’s iffy.
Finally, brief yourself. Are you rested, healthy, emotionally fit? Affirmative answers here further advance your odds of an uneventful flight.
4. Take Time to Plan for Real
When you know likely conditions, airport and airspace status, lay in your Plan A and organize your trip paperwork around it. Make sure you have the appropriate en route charts—current ones, of course—and pull any approach plates, DPs or arrivals applicable to your departure and arrival airports.
Once finished with Plan A, look at some Plan B scenarios—maybe alternate airports, an alternate route for weather and develop en route options in case of fuel problems or any other plan-disrupting event. For example, do you know where the cheapest fuel is along your route? Is it available 24/7, or only during daylight hours?
By detailed planning—putting together Plans A and B, plus whatever other alternate plans you think you might need—you’re already thinking ahead. The beauty of having backup plans means when the time comes—and it will—you’ve already made the decision on what to do and where to go. All you have to do is punch in the identifier and tell ATC.
Meanwhile, executing your Plan B can also mean additional changes to your ETA, your rental car or the reason for the trip. Knowing in advance what you’ll do and when you’ll do it helps reduce your stress and fatigue while instilling confidence.
5. Plan Each Phase
While it’s easy to envision a flight as one long, unbroken event, in reality many different phases come together to make a complete trip: pre-departure, departure, transition to en route, en route, transition, arrival/approach. Fly each phase as they come, as individual segments tied together producing a single trip. Dealing with each phase or segment as a standalone event helps break up any possible monotony and provides a natural decision point on the next phase.
What does this mean? It’s rather simple, actually: As you depart and start an en route climb, take time to check conditions for the next phase—and then decide to either continue and fly it, or make a new decision. As you level at altitude, you should already know whether conditions ahead remain conducive to continuing your trip.
If they don’t, that’s why we have the backup plans identified above, right?
6. Update your Plans
Once the trip begins, tap all available resources as often as you need—Flight Service, Pireps, any in-flight weather data you may use, even ATC. You can’t have too much information or too many eyes and ears working for you—and remember to listen to all the voices, not just the ones in your head.
Resist complicating things, whether it’s your idea or ATC’s—the simpler a solution, the better. If that means declining a change—or requesting something different—when that alteration complicates your job just so it’s easier on the controller, so be it. And remember: As long as the weather’s decent, using the phrase ”cancel IFR” opens up a whole range of opportunities when ATC won’t cooperate.
We won’t hesitate to question a change we don’t like. But our ideal is also to offer the controller an alternative idea—a different altitude, for example, or a diversion in a different direction that also boosts our groundspeed thanks to a tailwind. Of course, it helps to tell ATC why yours is a better approach. And if we’ve done a proper job with our planning, we’ll have a home-run-quality response ready when ATC throws us a curve.
7. Stay Alert And Engaged
On longer trips, away from busy airspace, we usually get a direct routing. The word “boring” pretty much was defined to include two- or three-hour legs on the same heading and at the same altitude without any weather challenges to keep us interested and engaged. That’s when we can forget things, like changing tanks, or checking in on a new frequency.
One way we combat boredom is with a portable music player, hooked up to our audio panel and playing our favorite tunes through the headset. You may have your own routine or solution.
Fatigue can be another issue, especially at altitude in an unpressurized cabin. That’s when the oxygen bottle comes out—we’re noticeably perkier at the end of a long flight when we’ve used the O2 bottle. That’s important when getting on the ground at the end of a long flight means a complicated arrival, to-minimums approach or busy airspace. Or all three.
Monitor Flight Watch whenever possible; you may just hear useful information about conditions ahead—and more quickly than waiting on the system to route a Pirep to a controller. Similarly, whenever you know the next ATC frequency, monitor it, if possible, well ahead of the handoff, to give yourself a leg up on conditions and processes ahead.
In particular, monitor a non-towered destination’s CTAF well in advance. While ATC may be able to tell you there’s observed traffic in the pattern, that’s not as helpful as listening in yourself. You’ll confirm the runway used, learn whether others are flying practice approaches, even get an idea of how many aircraft are ahead of you.
If you’re like most of us, you’ll fly a 9.5 score some days, a 5.9 others—but striving for a solid 10 every time is the only way to go. Once safe and sound and on the ground, score your performance and make a note in a logbook or other record. List any areas of weakness or poorer performance to work on in the near future. And give yourself an arm-breaking back-pat on those days when your best description of the flight is our favorite: “Uneventful.”