Undertrained Instrument Rated Pilots

Reliably using a fresh instrument rating means we need to fly in the clouds during our training.


Its relatively commonplace to earn the instrument rating without ever having flown in a cloud. Thankfully, our double-I welcomed our wish for training in as much IMC as we could find. We were fortunate: Other instrument instructors with whom we were familiar at the time refused to provide any training in IMC.

The point is a new instrument pilot has no idea what he might be getting himself into in those first few unsupervised hours after earning the rating unless hes seen some IMC and can reliably translate a weather report of 400 overcast and a couple miles visibility into what hell see on the approach.

The phrase “license to learn” is one often heard in the training environment, and usually applies to either the private certificate or the instrument rating. The reasons are obvious to the wizened, experienced pilots and older CFIs hanging out in the FBOs lounge; less so to the eager student. But the phrase is accurate and, if the experienced CFIs and gray-haired pilots were asked to reflect on what they learned once obtaining their ratings, the answer might be “everything.”

Last month, we looked at what happened when the VFR-only pilot of a high-performance single attempted a cross-country flight into worsening weather as darkness approached. The results, according to the NTSB, included inadvertent flight into IMC and spatial disorientation. To which we added the pilots failure to obtain/maintain an instrument rating. But, as we shall see, the mere fact of becoming instrument-rated doesnt guarantee a pilot is ready to deal with instrument conditions.


On January 1, 2006, at 2007 Eastern standard time, a Piper PA-28-180 Cherokee 180 owned by its pilot collided with trees during an approach into Falcon Field, Peachtree City, Ga. Instrument conditions prevailed; an IFR flight plan was filed. The airplane was destroyed and the private pilot was fatally injured. The flight originated from Craig Municipal Airport, Jacksonville, Fla., on January 1, 2006, at 1536.

Slightly more than 1.5 hours after takeoff, at 1708, the pilot checked in with Atlanta Approach Control, requesting the LOC RWY 10 approach to the Macon Downtown Airport, Macon, Ga. The pilot was vectored to the localizer and cleared for the approach. At 1745, the pilot advised he had flown through the localizer. Atlanta Approach issued vectors back to the localizer and cleared him for another approach. At 1756, the pilot advised ATC he was having trouble staying on the localizer and requested to go to the nearby Middle Georgia Airport (MCN). He was issued vectors and at 1819 was cleared for the ILS RWY 5 approach to MCN.

At 1830, the pilot reported he had flown through the localizer, requesting vectors to try the approach again. Again, he was issued vectors for the ILS RWY 5 approach. At 1844, the pilot requested to come around for another approach after drifting off course.

At 1859, ATC cleared the pilot for another approach and gave him instructions to keep him from drifting off course. At 1903, the MCN tower had the airplane in sight over the runway, and reported that he was climbing back out. The pilot advised Atlanta Approach that he needed to try it again because he had totally missed it. The pilot again was issued vectors for the ILS approach. Then, at 1922 after another missed approach, ATC issued a climb to 2000 feet and requested the airplanes fuel status. The pilot reported the right tank was getting low and left tank was half full.

The decision was made to go to another airport where the weather was better and the flight was vectored to the Peachtree City (Ga.) Airport-Falcon Field (FFC) LOC RWY 31 approach. At 2004, ATC cleared the pilot for the approach. At 2007, the controller lost radar and radio contact with the flight.


Review of the pilots records revealed he was issued an instrument rating less than six months earlier, on June 10, 2005. At the time of the accident, he had a total flight time of 437.8 flight hours, having logged only 17.1 actual instrument hours but a whopping 133 hours of simulated instrument time. Records indicate the required altimeter, static and transponder system checks of the airplane were completed on August 23, 2005.

Weather in the area was at or above the 200-foot ILS RWY 5 approach minima at MCN: At 1753, the facility reported calm winds, two miles visibility in mist and an overcast ceiling at 600 feet, variable between 200 and 700 feet. The FFC weather at 1953 included a three-knot wind, four miles visibility and an overcast ceiling at 800 feet. The ceiling was reported variable from 500 feet to 1100 feet. The LOC RWY 31 approach minimums are 432 feet.

The airplane wreckage was located one mile from the approach end of FFCs Runway 31. All major aircraft components were present at the accident site. Damage to the propeller revealed the engine was under power at the time of impact, although theres no information on how much fuel, if any, was found.

Probable Cause

The NTSB determined the probable cause of this accident to include: “The pilots failure to maintain sufficient altitude while performing an instrument approach in instrument meteorological conditions, which resulted in an in-flight collision with trees and terrain.”

The NTSB took a “Just the facts, Maam,” attitude to this investigation and apparently didnt ask some hard questions. For example, theres no record of an interview with either the pilots instrument instructor or his rating examiner. Theres no information on why ATC waited until after the sixth missed approach-almost two hours after the first attempt-before suggesting a diversion to better weather (admittedly, the NTSB doesnt report on the inflection in controllers voices). And the weather to which the pilot was diverted wasnt that much better than what hed been looking at all afternoon. Is that really the best ATC could do?

At then end of the day, however, this accident is almost a poster-child argument for better instrument training. Theres simply no excuse for a pilot to be turned loose in the IFR environment, miss six instrument approaches and wind up in the weeds short of the runway on the seventh. The NTSB doesnt tell us if the pilot had any recent instrument experience. The NTSB also doesnt say, but wed bet all of the pilots 17.1 hours of IMC occurred in the en route environment after he became rated, and not while shooting approaches.


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