Where are you?
Basics for beginning instrument instruction and good situational awareness
A wise man once told me, "In order to end up where you want to be, you need to know where you are starting from." It's a very basic concept, but when my father gave me that advice, I had little idea it would become one of my main principles for teaching beginning instrument students.
The instrument rating on my flight instructor ticket was barely dry when I started with my first instrument student. I had around 150 hours of dual given, I had completed training three primary students (all passed their checkride on the first time, thank you very much), and I was feeling my oats as an instructor. My first instrument student was one of my previous private students - a smart, responsible, motivated young man who was an instructor's dream. It was a perfect setup, or so I thought.
We started training on the essentials - basic attitude, instrument scan, understanding the IFR system, etc. All was going well until we started to dig into IFR navigation. On the ground, my student could tell me every detail of navigation using a VOR, but it was a different story once we got in the airplane. The actual flying of the aircraft wasn't the problem; he could track a radial perfectly, but applying what he knew on the ground when he was in the air was another matter. For example, when I asked him to intercept and track a different radial than the one he was on, we were all over the sky. Conceptually, my student understood it - once on the ground with a piece of chalk in hand he could draw the scenario to perfection. The problems started when he had to translate the concept into action.
It was at this point I remembered what my father had told me. My student and I were out practicing VOR orientation when I decided to ask a very simple question, "Where are we right now?" My student's face was blank. He fumbled with the chart, started to get out the plotter, and never once looked at the VOR. I realized that we had been focusing so much on where we wanted to go; he'd never learned how to find the starting point. After that realization, the training got much easier for both of us.
A new instrument student is not only learning to fly in an entirely new environment, but is also learning situational awareness critical for IFR operations. An instructor can help to develop situational awareness building blocks in beginning instrument students by repeatedly asking three very basic questions: Where are we right now? Where are we going? How are we going to get there? Yes, these questions are obvious and elementary, but for a new IFR student they are the first basic steps toward successful IFR navigation. Let's look at each question applied to a practical example.
Say you are practicing holding and give your student a holding clearance. First step: Ask, where am I right now? Have your student actually point to his position on the chart. As your student progresses, this step will become more and more intuitive, and it is a key building block of good situational awareness.
Second step: Ask, where am I going? Identifying the destination - in this example a holding fix - might be the easiest of the three steps, but it is of obvious importance.
Third step: Ask, how am I going to get there? The actual navigational steps stem from this question, such as a right or left turn or no turn at all. Since the goal in this example is to arrive at the holding fix and enter the hold, this is also the step that involves decisions on the type of entry, whether it be teardrop, parallel, or direct.
With all three questions answered your student has completed a detailed plan of action for traveling to the fix and successfully entering the hold. After practicing other scenarios similar to this, these questions will become intuitive for your student and integrated as a basic navigational tool.
We all remember how daunting it felt when we entered the IFR system for the first time and actually tried to get from point A to point B without seeing anything outside the windshield (not to mention keeping the aircraft upright). These three basic questions will help your student make that transition a bit less intimidating while at the same time instilling the core of good situational awareness. To this day there are times in the aircraft that I need to think of my dad and ask myself "OK...where am I?"
David Wright is director of training for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. A former pilot for US Airways Express, he is a CFI with more than 2,000 hours.
By David Wright