IFR Strategy

Making all the right moves

November 1, 1992

Where VFR flying is a wonderful celebration of aeronautical freedom, IFR flying is a carefully structured operation. VFR, most things are up to the pilot. IFR, the pilot's job is to fit the airplane into the systems we deal with — weather and air traffic control. VFR goes by its first name, visual — what you see is what you get. In IFR flying, we sit and look at the gauges and indications and act accordingly, often flying into the unknown. Even though the same airplane might be used for VFR or IFR, the differences in the two activities call for an entirely different approach to the planning and the strategy of the flight.

Because we can't see when flying in instrument meteorological conditions, a big part of the strategy relates to weather. No doubt letters will arrive saying that the statement about flying into the unknown is preposterous, but that is exactly what we do. When we take off IFR, we know what the weather is at a few airports along the way, and we know where precipitation is falling, and that is about all. The rest we discover as we fly along. The forecasts, including the winds aloft forecasts, are guesses that are right some of the time and wrong some of the time. At times, the weather is better than forecast; at other times, it is worse. The preflight strategy has to be to learn as much as possible about the weather. If all the forecasts are about to be proven wrong, there is usually at least a glimmer of a hint in the information available before flying. Once enroute, the pilot's job becomes one of managing any risk created by an inaccurate forecast.

Another big key to planning is the examination of all the options. Consider, if you will, that we are taking off on a grungy day for a long cross-country trip. Then consider that, right after takeoff and entry into the clouds, the baggage door comes open and the old underwear gets tangled in the tail. Ouch. If the weather is questionable for a return and landing at the departure airport, where is the weather at or above minimums, and where is the approach chart for that airport? It is not a question we should be asking after the fact — it is an answer we should have before takeoff. Having what is called a "takeoff" alternate for every IFR departure is good strategy.

On a day with weather about, launching IFR means committing to a series of events that must be done properly and that are affected by both weather and the constraints of the ATC system. Think, for example, about the 707 that crashed out of fuel near John F. Kennedy International Airport in New York. Regardless of how all the investigations and litigation come out, the fact remains that there was no fuel in the airplane when it crashed. You can back up in that flight and find many times where, one, it was obvious the risk was increasing, and two, only a change in plan would save the bacon. It might even have been prevented before takeoff by a consideration of what happens in the New York area when the weather is lousy. Dispatch services and computerized flight planning are wonderful, but the pilot to bet on is the one who adds a little extra fuel because he has an instinct for what happens when things go awry.

Perhaps that is Monday-morning (or Tuesday-morning) quarterbacking, but the best thing we can do for ourselves is to quarterback the flight before it is flown. Even doing that, we can often fly up on conditions or situations that require a new plan. The pilot flying IFR in weather has to continuously question the current plan to make certain it continues to be viable.

If one virtue can be singled out as important for the IFR pilot after a flight begins, it has to be awareness. The pilot who flies along keeping a close tab on all the things that affect the flight is the one least likely to bump against a spike in the risk factor.

Looking first at the external items, weather is the one that needs the most thought. Considering IFR flying as procedural covers the ATC system. The weather in which we fly is an individual judgment. Nobody regulates the weather in which we fly. It's ours to pick, and ideally, we all like to fly in smooth air from start to finish on every flight. Anyone who has always managed to do that hasn't flown much, though, so one challenge becomes avoiding turbulence that can cause structural or control problems with the airplane.

Fronts, for example, will likely result in some turbulence, especially at lower levels. How does a pilot plan to deal with this turbulence, and how much is acceptable? Dealing with it involves avoiding convective activity. The simple fact is that you can indeed fly through some thunderstorms successfully, but there are also some out there that will pull your feathers out three at a time. Unfortunately, there is no way to tell the difference. Every time there is a major airline disaster in a thunderstorm, some airplanes flew through the area before and perhaps after the airplane that was bested. The Eastern 727 at JFK, the Pan Am 727 at New Orleans International (Moisant Field), and the Delta L-1011 at Dallas-Fort Worth International were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time. Other airplanes made it. A Beech 99 at Birmingham (Alabama) Municipal flew into what was apparently an impossible situation soon after the pilot of an Aerostar reported that the ride down the ILS wasn't bad.

To knowingly fly into a thunderstorm is bad strategy, a true crapshoot. Airline pilots do it all the time; most get away with it, some don't. How the ones that fly into thunderstorms justify the risk they assume for the passengers, I know not. The best choice is to try to avoid them all. That way, if you do wind up exploring the inside of one, perhaps it won't be the bad one with your tail number on it.

How much turbulence is acceptable? That is an individual choice. If you stay out of convective activity, rotors downwind of mountains, and extreme winds anywhere, airplanes tend to be controllable, though performance may be seriously affected by downdrafts on the lee side of mountains. Pilots tend to overestimate the severity of turbulence, too. Not long ago, I had what I thought was a rough ride through the tail end of a cold front. I apologized to the passenger in the back seat, who remarked that it wasn't that rough because none of the loose gear moved at all. That meant it could only be called "light" turbulence. It was caused by wind shear, and there weren't a lot of sharp ups and downs.

Strategy becomes all-important when the weather is low. Try this scenario. There is no weather reporting at the destination airport, and the reported weather around the area is hovering at minimums for nonprecision approaches. That means being aware that the approach might be missed, and one might have to be conducted elsewhere. IFR pilots get caught short in two areas here. There is a strong tendency to go lower than minimums. That has proven lethal over the years — it is as big a crapshoot as flying into a thunderstorm. Likewise, pilots do a poor job on missed approaches. Probably the highest work load to be found in normal single-pilot IFR flying is a missed approach at night in a retractable or light twin. This comes both from experience and from study of the accident statistics; the strategy is to practice the event under the hood.

How can we plan our way through a missed approach and switch to an alternate airfield? The best way is to become a slave to the procedure. Follow the altitudes on the chart and the bearings to the absolute letter. Begin the miss at the precise missed approach point. Unless it is precluded by the procedure, transition the airplane from the approach to the climb configuration, and fly wings level in the new configuration for a moment before turning. Don't do anything with charts while turning — save that for level flight. If the strategy was good, the approach chart for the next approach was made ready before the first approach was flown.

Missing an approach and going somewhere else always brings up the subject of fuel, a critical item on any flight, especially so on an IFR flight because of the interaction between weather and fuel.

IFR flights are fuel-critical simply because you can't always land when and where you want to land. The good plan on fuel is one that never allows it to become a question. This often means making an extra fuel stop, but that is a small price to pay to avoid the extreme stress that precedes flying instruments in a glider. The best way to manage fuel is to make a firm rule and never break it. Mine is to never land with less than one hour of fuel at a normal cruise power setting. In 6,000 hours of flying my current airplane, I have had to use reserve fuel only once. The airplane ahead on the ILS approach had a landing-gear problem, and the runway was closed just as I was about to use it. I circled the field for about 15 or 20 minutes while they tidied up and prepared the runway for normal operations. That is what reserve fuel is for — something that happens once in a blue moon. If my calculations show that I will arrive with 59 minutes reserve instead of 60, bang — fuel stop.

The other big external factor is air traffic control. The good strategy here is to plan flights that will work, using preferred routes, and being ready for most any change. There is a fuel interface here, too. If flying to a major area, be assured that you probably won't be able to fly an optimum altitude into the area or fly a direct route — no more than you can always go through the Lincoln Tunnel without a delay. Where there is a lot of traffic, they have to line it up and feed it to the runway.

The biggest ATC problems arise when a pilot flies with a chip on his shoulder. Smile when you talk to those controllers, and everything will work a lot better. If you have some question about handling, make a note of the time and the frequency in use, and call on the telephone after landing. Be honest with the controller, too. If something on the airplane breaks, tell him. If you need to do something different, describe your desires clearly. If normal procedures or handling will endanger your flight, declare that emergency.

Inside the airplane, the management of resources is important. If a pilot gets bored on an IFR flight, the work probably isn't being done. There is weather to check, bearings to check and double-check, precise flying to be done, charts to manage, fuel to manage, and communications responsibility.

Everything on an airplane (and everything else for that matter) is subject to failure. When something does go wrong, there is an increase in both the stress level and the requirement for clear thinking. Hopefully, every possible scenario has been considered in calmer times, and the appropriate action has been reviewed.

What if the alternator drops off line? There is usually a procedure to get it back on. If that fails, load shedding is the next order, to make the battery last as long as possible. Turn off everything that you don't absolutely have to have. Few of us know the exact time a battery will last given a certain load — it might depend a little on things like the age of the battery — but we know they will last long enough to get us down if action is taken immediately. Any failure of a key system or instrument means a call to arrange for a landing as soon as possible.

Which brings us to the most important thing to manage, the cornerstone of the strategy. It's the person in the mirror. Even though we have a partner in IFR, the air traffic controller, the pilot's role in the airplane is absolute. One moment's inattention and the airplane might be out of control and screaming toward the ground at rates of descent in the 15,000-foot-per-minute range. Nobody can help you with that. It's why the captain must be awake and aware at all times.

Occasionally when flying IFR, any pilot will be struck with that old "big mean sky, little airplane" feeling. There can be intense moments of loneliness in solo IFR flying — times when the pilot almost feels like this is too much for one person to manage. That comes when the pilot fixates on a problem, be it weather or mechanical, and forgets what a wonderful challenge is at hand and how the pilot is totally in control of the outcome. The reward is arriving safely at an airport — the destination or an alternate — as well as the satisfaction that comes from planning and flying a flight with good strategy and a high level of precision.