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All Alone

Preparing Students For Single-Pilot IFR

One of the most popular Safety Seminars the AOPA Air Safety Foundation conducts is Single-Pilot IFR. We really pack the room with this one. Following are some of the highlights from the seminar that you can pass on to your students to help them cope with the challenges of flying IFR by themselves.

A flight in solid IMC is not the safest place to be, but it is probably safer than your local interstate on a dark, rainy night. Weather is responsible for more than 25 percent of general aviation accidents, and 30 percent of these accidents are fatal. Forty-three percent of pilots involved in weather accidents are instrument-rated. How safe it is depends on how well your students are trained to cope with the workload they will face.

Let's look at the difference between GA and the airlines. In the airlines, dispatchers make go/no-go decisions, although the captain can override the decision if warranted. Flight crews don't have to worry about developing flight plans - this is done by someone else. In the airlines, two or more pilots share the workload, and they usually have state-of-the-art equipment. The GA pilot gets to do all of these things by him- or herself. It's a real juggling act. Not only is the pilot the PIC, navigator, and communicator, but he or she sometimes gets to be a cabin attendant and tour guide as well. It's important to teach instrument students to set priorities. When things get tense, flying the airplane is at the top of the list.

We like to say that GA is on the cutting edge of low technology. Equipment is getting better for GA aircraft, especially in the area of panel-mounted IFR GPS units and other enhancements such as the FAA Capstone concept, which employs avionics from UPS Aviation Technologies. Equipment promises to get even better as envisioned by NASA's AGATE and SATS programs. But make certain that students understand that more and better equipment alone will not necessarily make them safer. If they are not proficient with the new whiz-bang avionics boxes, they would be better off without them. A pilot still needs to still have basic "stick and rudder" flying skills.

Successful single-pilot IFR begins on the ground before the flight. Five major areas are addressed in the seminar to prepare for these flights. Basically, the pilot must be well-trained, proficient, healthy, happy, and organized. Let's take these one at a time:

1. Well-trained: Whether or not these pilots are well-trained is up to us as flight instructors. All of us want to provide the best instrument training possible, so we need to make an inventory of which special skills we can offer the student. First of all, we should be an experienced IFR pilot with substantial time flying in actual conditions. We should be a dedicated educator who likes to teach and impart knowledge to others. But being a proficient IFR pilot is not enough. We should be willing to train in instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) during part of the training. We should use an organized syllabus and have access to a simulator to integrate with the training. If we offer all of these elements, chances are our students will become outstanding IFR pilots.

2. Proficient: Students should be taught that they must fly IFR regularly, particularly in actual IMC, to maintain their skills. I worry about IFR pilots who never fly IFR except during their instrument proficiency checks. The IPC tests basic skills, but it is no substitute for flying IFR regularly. Staying proficient is hard. An instrument pilot must budget both the time and resources to guarantee regular IFR flying.

3. Healthy: We should make our students aware that single-pilot IFR is physically demanding. Maintaining our health is important to safe flying, particularly as we get older. Illness or fatigue must raise a flag not to fly. We should emphasize the need for proper rest and suggest a regular exercise program.

4. Happy: Pilots who take their personal problems with them to the cockpit are not going to be able to concentrate completely on flying. Personal problems such as debt, domestic issues, and other weighty concerns compromise our ability to think. We should convince our students that if they are suffering this type of stress, they should postpone their flying or take another qualified pilot with them.

5. Organized: One of the most effective things that a pilot can do to make an IFR flight trouble-free is to be organized in the cockpit. Being organized reduces the workload and the stress of challenging IFR flying. We should make our students aware of the many helpful devices available to help pilots with cockpit organization. Chart folders, approach chart holders, kneeboards, reliable timers, and other convenience devices make IFR flying easier. A headset with a mike boom is essential.

Other items that will provide a further margin of safety are suction cups to cover the attitude and heading indicators in the event of a vacuum failure, a handheld transceiver and GPS, a cell phone, a couple of flashlights, and an E6B flight computer.

Another way to reduce the workload in IFR flying is to learn to work effectively with ATC. New instrument-rated pilots are often intimidated by the radio, and they accept without question anything they hear from ATC. Working with ATC is a two-way street, and the controllers can provide a lot of information if you know which questions to ask. If you ask, ATC can give you information about precipitation levels ahead of you, where aircraft are successfully deviating, and degrees of turbulence experienced by other pilots. Pilots are often able to negotiate route and altitude changes and pick up a lot of valuable information simply by actively listening to the frequency.

We should stress to students that they should never be afraid to declare an emergency if the situation warrants. That gives ATC a lot of leeway in helping the pilot get safely on the ground. About the worst that can happen is that the pilot will have to answer some questions and complete some paperwork. Not much of a penalty when you consider the alternative.

We find that one of the greatest challenges in teaching IFR flying is getting the student to think ahead - to stay ahead of the airplane. I have achieved some success by continually asking the student, "What are the two most important things in instrument flying?" The answer, "The next two things that are going to happen." The two things could be going to the VOR and flying outbound on the 293-degree radial, or flying to the IAF and intercepting the localizer. Having this question continually in their mind forces the students to think ahead of the airplane. Another part of this technique is to convince students that they must be in a constant state of inquiry during the flight - always thinking about what's going to happen next and be ready for change. If their mind begins to wander toward that next business meeting or whether rental cars will be available at the destination, one of the links in the famous accident chain is beginning to develop.

Much of the information presented here is contained in the Air Safety Foundation's Single-Pilot IFR Safety Advisor, available online ( publications/sa05.pdf ). The live seminar and a "do it yourself" Seminar-in-a-Box will be offered again in early 2002.

By Richard Hiner

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