Instrument Training and actual IMC
Is it time for a change?
Every new pilot remembers the first solo. It's when you first "mastered" the sky, overcame at least some trepidation, and took that leap of faith. Your CFI took the same leap as he bravely left the airplane but then watched your every move like a hawk for the next three takeoffs and landings.
It's much the same with the first real instrument flight, but with some important differences. Few new instrument pilots are fortunate enough to get really "wet" during IFR training; most new instrument pilots are instrument-qualified by certificate only. The IFR first solo comes usually much later, after the pilot's been out of training for a few weeks, or worse, maybe a few months or longer. It's different in real instrument meteorological conditions (IMC). The theory of "one peek is worth a thousand cross-checks" doesn't apply, because no peeking is possible. It all comes down to what's been learned, how it's applied, and, perhaps as important, how you feel.
This is a true story of a newly rated instrument pilot who took her boss on a short business trip. Day One was easy VFR flying for the pilot, whom we shall call Jane, with multiple stops in a Piper Archer that was well-equipped with a two-axis autopilot and the latest in GPS navigation equipment. It was general aviation transportation at its best. Day Two included a mid-day meeting, and then it was supposed to be homeward bound. But rain and fog moved in during lunch. To compound matters, the airport was in hilly terrain. An IFR departure procedure was required, even though good VFR was 50 miles east, just on the other side of the mountains.
With only one hour of actual instrument time under her belt, Jane agonized over her takeoff decision, if only because her boss would be on board. The boss understood the delay, and they stayed overnight, but he ultimately decided to take a commercial flight home. Jane would wait out the weather. As the afternoon wore on Jane asked all the inbound pilots and called flight service every few hours for updated forecasts and pilot reports. A stationary front was stalled, and aside from fog and rain, it wasn't causing any convective weather or icing. The ceiling ran from 600 feet to 1,200 feet with visibility variable between three and eight miles as light rain showers drifted through. Easy instrument weather.
A new instrument instructor and student landed earlier in the day in marginal VFR, and they too decided that this was more than they wanted to tackle. Several of the more experienced pilots in the lounge offered suggestions and advice. Jane was having severe doubts about her abilities, how to use the autopilot, managing the GPS in instrument conditions, and what would happen if ATC asked her to do something that was beyond her skill level.
It would seem that the training system sometimes leaves us less than equipped to deal with the real-world environment. We teach theory, regurgitate regulations, and can perform adequate approaches, but putting the whole enchilada together and doing it alone the first time in the almost standardized world of ATC is a tall order.
Jane's dilemma is more common than not, and rather than fuss about lemons, let's make some lemonade. I'm going to challenge CFIs to start looking for ways to bring some efficiency and reality to instrument training by suggesting that we use simulation to teach the essential building blocks of IFR flight and the aircraft for doing what it does best-taking trips.
Academic institutions and FAA studies have proven that basic instrument training can be done very well with personal computer-based aviation training devices (PCATDs), as well as more sophisticated trainers and simulators. Pilots will learn holding patterns, approaches, basic cockpit management, and even communication strategies faster and less expensively on the ground than droning around in the airplane. A good session using Microsoft Flight Simulator could really be helpful, even though there is no credit toward required hours. Some of the more sophisticated units might also introduce some basic GPS concepts -- something that is sorely needed in the new nav world.
While this may seem less than exciting to some CFIIs, an instructor's job really is to teach safe flight in the clouds, not function as a VFR safety pilot. And some flight schools forget that the product they are selling is instrument ability, not huge hours of fleet time. The two are not mutually exclusive but do require using the right tools for the job.
Once the pilot has the building blocks in place through a combination of PCATD, training device, and actual flight, it's time to get into the clouds and the system. With the hours and money saved by not flying 20 minutes to the practice area, more time and resources are available for the real thing.
Particularly in the Northeast and Midwest, winters make real IMC flights difficult, with icing that training aircraft are not prepared to handle. That's the perfect time to start the building-block phase and, when the thaw comes, move to the real world of ATC. This won't work as a mandate or regulation because there are too many variables, but it can work very well if pilots demand actual training, and CFIs start focusing on really teaching and not just producing ratings.
There will be a few schools in certain parts of the country that would need to radically change their approach to ensure good IMC training. Impractical? Some may think so, but there is nothing more impractical than a dry instrument ticket despite investing good time and money for an experience you didn't get.
Jane spent the afternoon checking weather and consulted with a veteran King Air pilot who was waiting for his passengers. She made the decision to launch after careful consideration, ATC was kind, and in 30 minutes she was in the clear and headed home. She learned that when pressured by external circumstances, relieve the pressure. Put the boss or other passengers on the Airbus -- this reduces your responsibility. Gather all the information from official and unofficial sources. Make an honest assessment of what you feel comfortable in handling, and recognize that the weather cares nothing about your schedule, convenience, or expenses incurred. This is an operational decision to be made on those facts only.
Jane resolved that before her next business trip she would learn more about the installed equipment on board the aircraft and, most important, get some real-weather time in a controlled environment.
The AOPA Air Safety Foundation would like to hear your thoughts. Is this approach to training better than what we have today, or is it impractical? E-mail your opinions or mail them to ASF, 421 Aviation Way, Frederick, Maryland 21701.
Bruce Landsberg is executive director of the AOPA Air Safety Foundation.
By Bruce Landsberg