IFR and Out of Date

Returning to instrument proficiency

March 1, 2003

What do you call a pilot who flies eight instrument approaches in one day? "A commuter airline captain" would be a good guess. If you love the early days of aviation, you might guess that the pilot was Ernie Gann herding his DC-2 from city to city. Since you'll never guess, I'll tell you the answer. This overworked, but proficient, instrument pilot was finishing up his recurrent training and I was the pilot.

On that eight-approach day, Tuesday, October 15, yours truly, Pilot Associate Editor Steven Ells, was nearing the completion of his return to instrument proficiency under the guidance of Professional Instrument Courses (PIC) instructor Bill Fischer. To have gone from where I was less than two weeks earlier — extremely rusty in my instrument flying skills and unsure of my ability to safely let down through a cloud deck on instruments — to being confident of my ability to control the airplane and function with the big birds in the Los Angeles Basin seemed impossible. Yet I had just spent hours flying instruments in the Basin. I knew the PIC training was working because I was anticipating what ATC had up its sleeve, and I wasn't flustered.

Why the instrument rating?

The reasons for getting instrument current were easy — safety and utility. After I graduated from airframe and powerplant (A&P) school, I used a portion of my Veteran's Administration education money to get my pilot certification, including commercial pilot with multiengine land and instrument ratings.

And then I put those ratings on the shelf for 25 years. Although my instructor told me that I was accomplished at the stick-and-rudder business of instrument flying and I passed my instrument checkride, I never had confidence in my ability.

I returned to flying VFR five years ago after nearly a 10-year layoff. Recently I realized that my flying skills were marginal — I was getting by because I had limited myself to day-VFR flying, but I had to admit I wasn't safe. I needed to do more than get DVFR current, and I needed to sharpen my basic flying skills. My Garmin 195 handheld GPS had become my navigation aid of choice, and my VOR orientation skills had eroded to nonexistence.

Fog 9, VFR pilot 0

I also had a greater need for the increased utility that an instrument rating would bring. Trying to fly VFR from a coastal airport in California is frustrating. During much of the year the marine layer fog doesn't burn off before 10:30 a.m. A trip I took in late September is a perfect example — I wanted to depart from San Luis County Regional Airport in San Luis Obispo for a VFR flight to the McClellan-Palomar Airport in Carlsbad.

Because of marine layer fog, I had to wait until 10:40 a.m. before I departed for my two-hour, 15-minute flight. When I arrived after noon, I knew that I was going to have to spend the night because the same fog that delayed my takeoff time would creep inland over my home airport by 6:30 p.m. — leaving me only about three hours to take care of business. Both of the airports have ILS approaches. I could have made the trip in one day if I were a current instrument pilot. That's only one trip in a long list of examples — one Thanksgiving I had to delay my one-hour flight home for four days because of marginal VFR conditions.


According to the regulations I would have been legal to exercise the privileges of my instrument rating if, in the previous six months, I had completed six approaches, a hold, and showed that I could intercept and track courses through the use of the navigation systems. Perhaps legal but not competent — there was no way I would have felt comfortable launching into IFR conditions without more training. I received my instrument ticket in 1976 and I hadn't flown more than 10 hours of actual in the past 26 years. I needed to get enough experience to convince myself that I would be competent and safe. The PIC instruction was a perfect fit for my needs.

I had attempted to get instrument current a few years ago but soon got discouraged — chipping away at it with my local flight school wasn't working. There was nothing wrong with my instructor or the airplane; it's just that I had to drive 33 miles to the airport, do some ground school, fly for an hour or an hour and a half, land, go over the lesson, and drive back home. It took me four hours of clock time for an hour-and-a-half lesson.

The PIC method, which consists of 10 continuous days of flying, reviewing, and practicing procedures on a desktop simulator, has been described as slam-dunk training, but their course fit my needs perfectly. I found it much more satisfying and rewarding to work hard within the well-planned PIC curriculum than to crawl toward currency with my local FBO.

PIC also has a three-day curriculum that it calls a refresher course. It's designed to bolster the confidence and sharpen the skills of current instrument pilots who have lost their edge.

This is how PIC works. They send a flight instructor to your airport. Typically, this PIC expert stays in a local motel (Fischer visited with his daughter during our time together since she lives 20 miles from San Luis Obispo). You supply an airplane and then follow instructions as the PIC instructor puts you through the paces on a simulator (the instructor brings a desktop ATC 610) and then the airplane. If you can rent an airplane with an IFR GPS, so much the better. If you haven't flown GPS approaches they make the terrors of yesteryear — holding patterns and NDB and VOR nonprecision approaches — easy and vastly more accurate. After 10 days and about 20 flight hours (I logged 25 hours) you're ready for a checkride, or in my case, an instrument proficiency check. It's worked for thousands of pilots.

The all-day instrument flight

A 250-mile cross-country instrument flight is part of the big day — my eighth continuous day of flying. There were no weekend days off and no slacking. We worked — hard — for nine days. I was actually looking forward to the checkride; it was only going to take half a day.

The eighth day started early. What's the point of living near a dependable source of fog if you don't get up early enough to fly in it? We launched from San Luis Obispo on Runway 11, flying the WYNNR2-San Marcos VOR transition that set us up for multiple instrument approaches into Santa Barbara. I started filing IFR flight plans my first day — multiple instrument approaches .as al.ways written in block 11 of the flight-plan form. While en route to San Marcos VOR, ATC amended my filed flight plan by adding the HABUT Intersection to our clearance for the ILS approach. Fischer smiled when he realized that the marine layer fog was thick enough that we could log some actual IFR on this approach. He Kiked actual, and I wanted to try instrument flying without the hood. Fischer must have telephoned Santa Barbara Approach Control while I wasn't looking because during our missed approach and climb to set up for a VOR/GPS approach to Runway 25 our assigned altitude kept us in the soup. The result was a big smile for Fischer and the bumps and dips of real IFR approaches for me. The days we had spent developing my scan techniques, and climb and descent procedures, paid off as we tracked down toward the runway.

Tower en route, or tower to tower

After our second missed approach at Santa Barbara we asked for and received a tower en route control (TEC) clearance to Santa Monica airport, where we flew the VOR-A approach using the GPS as a DME for the step-down fixes. Without the GPS we wouldn't have been able to descend below 1,120 feet and wouldn't have gotten in. With the DME step down, we were cleared to descend to 680 feet — we popped out of the bottom of the overcast into a hazy Los Angeles Basin at about 900 feet agl and landed on Runway 21. Following a radio call to the tower, we launched into the weather on another TEC clearance that took us to Long Beach for a GPS approach to Runway 25. We flew another missed approach before the first half of the day culminated with a VOR/DME-A approach into Fullerton, where a nice airport lunch awaited us.

By the time we landed at San Luis County Regional Airport after 5.9 hours in the airplane we had shot three more approaches as we made our way toward home. Was I ready to face Wanda Strassburg, one of the local designated pilot examiners, for my instrument proficiency check? Fischer thought so, and I felt pretty confident.

Progressive skills

Fischer is a patient man. As a PIC instructor, he has to be. His biggest task with me was to constantly tell me that I was doing all right. Especially in the beginning. My instrument-scanning skills were not up to the task of holding altitude within 100 feet. I fell behind the airplane time after time only to realize that I had let the airplane descend or climb through an altitude, or failed to see the To/From flag flip as I passed over a VOR. Fischer assured me, "You're going to become very proficient at flying." He was right. During my instrument proficiency check, I nailed the glideslope and localizer as I flew the ILS down to my home airport. I wasn't capable of such flying before PIC came to my aid.

A week before I was scheduled to start flying, Tom Seymour of PIC made sure I had a manual for the Honeywell Bendix/King KLN-94 GPS and a copy of The Instrument Flight Training Manual by Peter Dogan. This, and a copy of the PIC Instrument Rating Flight Instruction Manual, was all I needed. Being a book person, I also consulted Rod Machado's Private Pilot Handbook and Rod Machado's Instrument Pilot's Survival Manual. And I spent some time with Sporty's Complete Instrument Rating Course on DVD. When I started I was a long way behind the power curve.

Since there was little time to study in the evenings, these aids, though not necessary, helped me get my mind around things, such as airspace designations, that had changed since my initial training. We spent all day every day going over charts, approach plates, regulations, flying holding patterns on the simulator and in the air, learning how to program the GPS for an approach, and experimenting with how to best organize the cockpit of the 2002 Cessna 172SP we flew. The new Cessna 172SP I was able to rent for training turned out to be a very capable airplane. Many of the departure and en route altitudes in this part of the country vary from 5,000 to 7,000 feet msl — maintaining 500-feet-per-minute climb rates at these altitudes was no problem with the SP.

The 180-horsepower fuel-injected Lycoming engine installed in our 172SP seemed like a more refined, smoother cousin of the carbureted Lycomings that I'd flown behind in the past — not only had instrument training methods progressed in 26 years, but the 172 also had improved. The Bendix/King avionics worked perfectly — and were packed full of features that helped me maintain positional awareness. For instance, the KX-155A nav/coms can continuously display the VOR radial that the airplane is crossing — this helped me know how close I was to CREPE Intersection as I flew the CREPE 3 departure. Since the intersection is located on the 196-degree radial of the Paso Robles VOR — I simply watched the radial numbers click off. With the push of a button the To bearing is displayed. This helps when ATC amends clearances with a direct routing to the VOR. Advances in avionics have made it easier and safer to fly instruments.

Positional awareness

One of my biggest fears before I started the PIC training was losing track of where I was. But soon, flying the airplane, entering holds, and intercepting and tracking radials seemed to come naturally. VOR orientation was an area where I was weak — it took a few nights of study before the edges of my mental picture began to fill in. I wanted to be able to look at the indications on the VOR head and instinctively know which quadrant I was in, and be aware of where the zone of ambiguity was.

Most likely because I grew up in the 1960s, I had always remembered the cone of confusion, but aside from rotating the omni-bearing selector knob to center the needle when the To flag was dis.played to fly directly to a station, I had lost it all. Flying the simulator, time in the airplane, and in-depth study helped.

Dogan's book spends many pages explaining what a radial is, what a course deviation indicator (CDI) tells the pilot, and what the pilot should glean from the To/From flag. As Fischer led me along, it became obvious that PIC knows what the common stumbling blocks are for instrument students and has developed common-sense solutions.

During the PIC 10-day instrument training I was exhilarated to find that I could successfully fly instruments and that instrument approaches weren't unfathomable or fraught with danger. The people of the ATC system turned out to be extremely helpful and patient. The best part was that I found I really enjoyed the challenge of making a successful instrument flight. I'll probably be spending a lot less time in motels now, too.

E-mail the author at [email protected].

PIC Courses

The Professional Instrument Courses Inc. 10-day instrument-training course costs $4,950. The three-day instrument refresher course costs $1,800. The student is required to pay for the cost of a motel room for the PIC instructor and provide a suitably equipped airplane. For more information, contact Professional Instrument Courses Inc., Aviation Center, 30 Plains Road, Essex, Connecticut 06426; telephone 800/435-9437, or visit the Web site ( www.iflyifr.com).

The AOPA Air Safety Foundation has developed an online program designed to refresh or instill IFR decision making and procedural skills. Called " IFR Adventure: Rules to Live By," the course takes you through an IFR flight with several unique characters to assist you along the way. The program qualifies you for FAA Wings credit if you score 80 percent or better on questions within the program, and you may print a completion certificate upon finishing the course. Links to additional information about instrument flight training may be found on AOPA Online ( www.aopa.org/pilot/links.shtml). Keyword search: instrument training.