Instrument Insights Part 12 of 12

Secrets for Staying Alive

December 1, 1998

Gradual immersion, common sense, and practice

For the past eleven issues "Instrument Insights" has been implying, directly or indirectly, the value of being proficient at flying on instruments or, even better, earning the instrument rating. That idea is true, as far as it goes, but there's a whole lot more to safe instrument flying than simply having a piece of paper in your wallet. Any kind of flying involves a combination of pilot knowledge, skill, and judgment; but with instrument flying, good judgment is of absolute paramount importance. You may know all about ILS approaches, for example, and be able to fly one with great precision, but if you're low on fuel, passed up an airport with better weather, and are now shooting an ILS to minimums at an airport surrounded by high terrain, you flunk the judgment test.

You have heard it before, when you passed your private pilot checkride. The examiner, after congratulating you, says something like "This certificate is permission to learn." The implication is that seasoning is the real key to becoming a safe pilot.

The same thing goes, tenfold, for the instrument rating. "Don't go shooting any approaches to minimums until you build some actual instrument time," the examiner will suggest. Once again, experience counts a great deal. Just ask the insurance companies. They'll tell you that once you've amassed more than 300 total hours and/or more than 100 hours of actual instrument time, your chances of having a weather-related accident drop way, way down.

What are the secrets to a long life of flying in and around the soup? Many of them apply only to instrument operations; some work no matter which flight rules you're flying under.

  • Gradual immersion. As a newly minted VFR-only pilot, you probably shouldn't take on huge crosswind components for your first flying hours without a flight instructor next to you. The same idea goes with instrument flying. Until you've amassed enough experience under the hood and in actual conditions, you shouldn't be intentionally shooting low approaches or taking on other high-workload weather situations.

    For your first few hours' flying in actual conditions, try limiting your flying to airports experiencing ceilings of no less than 2,000 feet and visibility of not less than three miles. This will give you an idea of what three miles' visibility looks like (it's not much), and also let you see what alternate-declaring minimums look like. The 2,000-foot ceiling gives you practice in setting up and flying the first part of an instrument approach in the clouds, but gives reasonable assurance that you'll break out in plenty of time to make a VFR landing and maybe to circle to land on a runway other than the one specified in the approach - another good bit of practice.

    When you're comfortable with those minimums, lower them gradually to 1,000 and three, then 500 and two.

    The first few times that you attempt ILS approaches to minimums (typically, a 200-foot ceiling and one-half-mile visibility), try to have an instructor on board and try to limit your approaches to airports you're already familiar with. The airlines won't let a captain new to a route shoot ILSs to minimums at airports he's not been to before, and you shouldn't either.

  • Work the system. Get frequent weather updates from flight watch. Tune in ASOSs and AWOSs as you fly over airports. Ask air traffic control for flight following on VFR cross-country flights. If instrument-rated, file and fly IFR even if the weather's good. All these measures make you smoother on the radio and therefore more likely to get your way should you request a change in your clearance.
  • Have an autopilot? Know how to use it. There's no shame in using an autopilot. They can be valuable assistants in high-workload situations, so you should know how to work all your autopilot's features. It's too bad that most instructors don't know enough about autopilots to teach the full range of their use.
  • Thunderstorms and ice? Stay visual. This is good advice for every pilot, no matter how many hours he or she may have. If you can stay out of clouds and circumnavigate thunderstorm buildups by keeping your distance, then there's little chance that you'll get into trouble. This means flying only if isolated thunderstorms are reported or forecast. If storms are in lines or clusters, it's best to stay on the ground.

    It's when you go on instruments that you can fly into embedded thunderstorms or get stuck in ice. This is an irony that you have to accept: Just because you can fly on instruments does not necessarily mean that you should. This raises questions about the sanity and utility of flying small, IFR-equipped airplanes on instruments when storms and ice are around, which brings us to the next point.
  • Different airplanes, different weather. A Learjet with gobs of power, bleed air anti-ice, and a mighty radar can safely top thunderstorms, fly in most icing conditions, and see any embedded thunderstorms. A low-powered piston single is at the other end of the spectrum. Some airplanes simply aren't meant to take on serious weather; yours may be one of them, and that's something you should understand. If your airplane has radar or ice protection equipment, make sure that you know how to use it. To properly learn how to interpret radar imagery, take a course from a reputable instructor.
  • Think carefully about the go/no-go decision. Before you commit yourself to flying in marginal or instrument conditions, think long and hard. Based on your experience and comfort level, are you concerned about any aspects of your preflight weather briefing? If so, listen to that internal voice and wait it out. That's your good judgment speaking.

    Also, don't take off in ceilings and visibilities that are below any approach minimums for your airport. If you take off and have a mechanical or other problem that requires an immediate return to the airport, you won't be able to legally descend or perform an approach.

  • Practice, practice, practice. Always good advice for every pilot. Instrument-rated pilots have special currency rules that they must observe. But in addition to meeting the regulatory currency requirements (flying six approaches, holding procedures, intercepting and tracking courses every six months), it's a good idea to fly simulated IFR, using a view-limiting device or PC-based training device on a frequent basis. You don't want to find out that you're rusty after you've flown into a bumpy cloud layer and have been told to hold for the next half hour.

There are risks in all types of flying, no matter what airplane you fly and no matter what your pilot qualifications may be. However, earning - and maintaining - the instrument rating remains the single most significant thing you can do to improve your overall flying safety. The accident statistics prove it. We hope that this year's series of "Instrument Insights" has convinced you to begin work on your rating or, if already rated, to practice and hone your skills even more.

But being good on the gauges isn't the only part of safe piloting. Knowing and coping with emergency procedures are equally important. When things fall apart, you must keep your cool and go through the necessary drills if the flight is to have the safest possible outcome. Bearing this in mind, next year's AOPA Pilot will feature monthly installments titled "In-Flight Emergencies: When Things Go Wrong," articles intended to raise pilot awareness of the many emergencies we hopefully never will face.


E-mail the author at tom.horne@aopa.org.