The Nine Commandments

If you cant remember all the rules for IFR flight, at least remember these guiding principles


Every semester I teach a course called Integrated Flight Operations. This is the students introduction to instrument flying. They learn right off the bat that there is a host of new material, charts and regulations with which they will have to become intimately familiar if they are to be safe instrument pilots. A sample of the text, charts and the AIM demonstrates there is a mound of material to absorb.

After the moans quit and their eyeballs return to their sockets, I pose the question many instrument pilots have been asking themselves for years: What is the purpose for studying, learning and, in the end, presumably knowing all that stuff?

When you boil it down, all the rules, procedures and regulations exist for one very basic reason: Everything we learn about being an instrument pilot is in some way related to allowing us to accurately navigate from Point A to Point B while in the clouds without hitting the ground or another aircraft. Period.

After a few years of teaching the course I realized that no one could be expected to recall verbatim everything that was covered in the previous 15 weeks. Obviously all that data needs to be supplemented by a few basic principles that lead to a safe, logical solution to a problem for which the exact answer either could not be remembered or did not exist.

Though certainly not all inclusive, these nine rules provide a way to more effectively work with the other eight thousand four hundred and seventy-two.

I. Never Compromise Flight Safety
While it doesnt take a rocket scientist to figure that one out, sometimes its worth restating the obvious. There are countless ways in which every pilot, at one time or another, has intentionally compromised safety. It may have been a little compromise, but aviation accidents occur most often because several events create one big event. When we make that first compromise we start down the road to a potentially dangerous conclusion.

Usually the compromise entails just bending the rules a little bit. Being five pounds over gross weight doesnt affect the planes flight characteristics, does it? How about 20? 40? 100? The point is that if you arbitrarily step toward the edge, at some point youre going to step over it because thats the only way to find out precisely where it is.

II. Maintain Situational Awareness
Some pilots think situational awareness only means knowing where you are over the ground, but real situational awareness is a lot more.

Its also knowing what attitude the airplane is in, what configuration its in and if its the right one for the current phase of flight. Its knowing, to the fullest extent possible, what other aircraft and weather are close enough to be potential hazards. Its having a reasonably good idea of what comes next in the flight.

Simple mistakes are unavoidable. But sometimes a simple mistake is compounded with a particular situation to create a dangerous circumstance.

For example, an instrument student had been doing a reasonably good job of taking care of everything, planning ahead and staying within the required parameters. He was being vectored for a VOR approach to the home base and all seemed to be going well.

The last vector to the final should have been a left turn to a 260 or 270 degree heading to intercept. Evidently confusing us with another aircraft, the controller gave us a right turn to 040 and cleared us for another approach to another airport. The student began to comply with a turn that would have put the aircraft into the final approach course for an airport that had a fair amount of traffic using the ILS approach.

III. Understand All the Limits
Everything has its limitations, and each may change significantly on any given day. An airplane doesnt know if its operating in or out of the clouds, but it does know if its a 90-degree day with 80 percent humidity. If we fail to take the conditions into account, the airplane will quickly supply a reminder.

Equally true is the fact that the level to which you function as a pilot can vary just as greatly, as can the performance of an individual controller. In addition, the system itself is also subject to variation. Weather, for example, doesnt only affect individual pilots, it exerts a tremendous influence on the air traffic system and the capacity of that system to handle individual requests.

Depending upon the conditions that exist, everyone flying may want to be at the same place at the same time and the result will be that someone inevitably gets left out. Knowing when thats likely to happen can help ensure that someone isnt you.

In addition to recognizing the limitations, remind yourself that there are additional constraints in the form of inherent weaknesses of everything in our domain. Humans are going to make mistakes, equipment is going to fail and communications will be misunderstood. Instead of working from the mindset that everything will go according to plan, keep Murphys Law in mind. Bad or unexpected things dont always just happen to the other pilots.

IV. Use Pilot-In-Command Authority
The FARs allow it, experienced pilots dont hesitate to invoke it and logic implies that it must be so. Still, pilots dont always act as though the PIC is the one charged with making the final determination of what is the safest course of action for a particular flight.

Having been a controller, I know that most controllers usually try their best to provide the best and safest service for all pilots. But they arent in the cockpit, they dont always know the entire situation and most are not pilots. Controllers are a valuable resource for pilots, but they are not nor were they ever intended to be the decision-makers.

But it isnt just controllers who may inadvertently erode the pilots ultimate authority. Passengers can pose an equal hazard. Subtle coercion, to borrow a concept from Cockpit Management Resources Inc., has been the culprit in leading flights awry. The desire to show the right stuff in front of the friend or employer or to get that paying stranger to the meeting on time has led many pilots down the road to ruin.

The official rulebook is rife with caveats to discourage irresponsible behavior, but the letter and intent of the law places the final decision-making authority right where it belongs, in the hands of the pilot-in-command. Abdicate that authority to anyone else for any reason and you may compromise the success and safety of the flight.

V. Distinguish Between Wants and Needs
On the surface this too may seem like an obvious step not worthy of discussion. Yet only the right distinction leads to the correct course of action. Wants can be discussed, altered and even relinquished without a subsequent loss of safety, needs cannot. Define into which category a particular request falls and then clearly and concisely communicate whether your request is a want.

Sometimes the choice between wanting and needing something may not be clear-cut. You may want a higher altitude because the turbulence at your present altitude is uncomfortable. On the surface, discomfort caused by turbulence may indicate the desire for a change rather than the need, but thats a situation that could change over time.

Its true that light turbulence in general is not likely to cause an unsafe situation by itself. But anyone who has flown for any length of time bouncing around in a light aircraft knows that, after a while, the fatigue caused by that condition can lead to poor pilot performance. Wants and needs, like weather, need to be constantly reevaluated.

Once you make your determination, you must then get the message across effectively. Dont be like the boy who cried wolf and tell ATC that everything you would like to have is a need. After a while, some of your requests will be ignored or at least shifted down the list of priorities. On the other hand, expressing a very real need as simply a wish can be a recipe for disaster.

That doesnt mean that every need has to be summoned forth with all the bravado and authority you can muster, just make sure your message gets across.

In one instance I was flying with a friend and, as we approached our destination, the ATIS gave the wind as 170 at 17 knots gusting to 25. As Approach lined us up for runway 17 things seemed to be working out well enough.

About seven miles out the controller advised us to turn left for a base leg to runway 24. Not wanting to tackle a rather challenging crosswind if we didnt have to, I simply asked for the current winds. After a short pause the controller replied, Ah, continue inbound for runway 17 and keep your speed up as much as possible.

Could I have landed the plane on runway 24? Probably. But that doesnt mean I cared to increase the difficulty of the task when I didnt have to. I was prepared to ensure my request was understood as a need and I believe I did so in the most courteous and least disruptive way I knew.

VI. Compromise and Cooperate
My experience as a controller was that most pilots do both most of the time, and my experience as a pilot is that most controllers also do both most of the time. But often the controllers efforts to compromise and cooperate are not as easily recognizable as are pilots efforts.

One of the reasons the controllers efforts arent always noticed is because often the compromises are made without the pilots knowledge.

A faster plane is following a slower one on final. Sometimes the slower one gets moved to let the faster one go by. But just as often the faster one gets slowed to let the slower plane continue inbound. The controller decides to compromise one or the other based upon what is most efficient for every plane in the picture at the time.

Any time youre flying IFR, controllers must be working partners. Their side of the partnership provides redundancy in a variety of forms, increases the overall efficiency of the system and, as a result, increases the safety for pilots operating in the system.

It is the controller who tries to verify that an instruction has been correctly received and understood. And most often it is the controller who has the tools to determine what is most effective and efficient for all the players involved. But in the end, it is the pilots working within the system who make the controllers efforts pay off.

VII. Monitor the Air Traffic Controllers
The other side of the coin is that pilots also have a responsibility in the pilot/controller partnership. Remember that controllers make mistakes and most often it is the pilot who has to catch the error. But to do that effectively, the pilot has to already have a good idea what the right instruction should be if he or she is ever going to be able to correct the wrong one.

In the earlier example of the student who was given a turn and an approach clearance for the wrong airport, he clearly should have known that something was wrong. All he was listening for was the call sign and the turn and, even though it didnt make sense, he began to comply.

Had he better understood the situation and evaluated the implications of following the given instructions, he would have concluded that it didnt add up. Still, the first step was to have been aware of where he was and where he needed to go before the instructions were ever given.

VIII. Be Predictable
If we go back to the belief that all the rules and procedures have been designed to keep pilots safe on any given trip from Point A to Point B, then common sense and predictability should play an important part in contributing to that safety.

While devising your own plan is not a substitute for knowing the necessary regulations and procedures, when caught between a rock and a hard place, having a predictable path to follow beats wandering around aimlessly hoping the best results will find you.

Take the example for what altitude to fly in the event of lost communications. The regs say to fly the highest of: the last assigned altitude, the expect further clearance altitude or the minimum appropriate IFR altitude. If operating on a published route the confusion isnt so great because your charts will give some guidance. But if you are being vectored or flying direct and you cant remember the exact regulation, its easy to start grabbing at straws in an effort to do the right thing.

Fortunately low altitude enroute charts now provide a Minimum Off Route Altitude that assures you of 1,000 or 2,000 feet of terrain and obstruction clearance, depending upon whether you are flying in mountainous terrain. Caught in such a situation, you could find that altitude for your location and then climb to the closest appropriate IFR altitude above the MORA. You may not have total confidence that you applied the right regulation to the right situation, but you can be reasonably sure you wont run into anything more solid than a cloud.

Make the guessing game as logical as possible. That way you give the people on the ground guessing a fighting chance. The truth is that most controllers dont know the FARs that pertain to pilot responsibilities. Instead they will watch you carefully and move airplanes according to the actions they anticipate as well as the actions they see. So, whatever the particular situation you find yourself in, try to think of what will be the safest course of action to follow, what will be the most logical action to follow and then act accordingly.

In spite of what you may believe about the complexity of the FARs, they were developed to provide a logical sequence of events for pilots, especially those flying IFR. Try to use an equal amount of common sense and predictability when faced with an uncommon event.

IX. Always Leave Yourself an Out
If you remember only one thing about rules and procedures, remember to always leave yourself an out. If you ever find yourself traveling down a path that leaves you no alternatives, its time to come up with a new plan.

Flying IFR in a radar environment affords pilots significantly more flexibility than operating in a non-radar world could accommodate, but almost every alteration to a flight requires some negotiation before the change can be made. You cant just do a 180, change your altitude or change your destination on a whim. You must first coordinate with ATC to make sure its okay to go elsewhere.

Except in an emergency situation, where you can throw out just about all the rules, making a change to the normal routine takes some planning and forethought – and the best time for that is before the flight ever starts.

Develop as many outs as you can think of when the sense of immediacy wont affect your judgment. Then make sure those planned alternatives are options you are actually willing and able to use.

You may decide that the way to avoid the building thunderstorms is to climb above them, but it isnt a strategy most pilots would be able to really use. Make your choices real ones that you will be willing to use any time the need arises, not just when youre standing on deaths doorstep.

Finally, try to envision the additional workload youll create when you exercise that out. If youll be overloaded when that workload is added to the existing load, some things simply wont get done. An out is only an out if you are continuously ready, willing and able to use it. If not, its nothing more than a crutch that will inevitably break under the pressure of the very moment it was developed to salvage.

As long as we exercise our ability to analyze a situation and, from that analysis, develop a working solution, we will be able to use all our resources in a way that will keep us coming back to the sky for another shot at it.

-by Milovan S. Brenlove

Milovan S. Brenlove is an assistant professor of aviation at Daniel Webster College and a former air traffic controller.


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