Is it safe?
Flying in the gunk, all alone. Just you and the airplane. Is it really safe?
Oh, sure, there's ATC on the radio. You're surrounded by en route charts, approach plates, maybe a moving-map GPS display, possibly even an autopilot. But you're still alone, just you and the soft wet gunk and the roar of the engine.
Virtually no other type of flying requires more skill and concentration, imposes greater workloads and mental stress, or extracts higher penalties for mistakes. Newly rated instrument pilots completing their first actual single-pilot IFR trips often report mental-if not physical-exhaustion.
On the whole, GA pilots handle the challenges of solo IFR quite well. Weather-related accidents in fixed-wing airplanes under 12,500 pounds typically account for about 3 percent of fatal accidents. In 2001, the percentage was a little higher, at 33 out of 298 fatal accidents. But wait! On average, about 90 percent of weather involvement accidents don't happen to IFR-rated pilots on IFR flight plans; they happen to pilots who bumble into instrument meteorological conditions (IMC) while trying to maintain VFR. (A fairly high percentage of these accidents involve a pilot who has an instrument rating but hasn't opted for an IFR flight plan.)
In 2001, for example, there were only seven GA weather accidents involving IFR-rated pilots on an IFR flight plan. (Many of the statistics quoted here come from the AOPA Air Safety Foundation's Nall Report, the nation's first report each year of GA safety and accident trends for the previous year. ASF compiles the report using data-mining techniques on the foundation's renowned Accident Database, the world's largest and most comprehensive non-governmental GA safety database. Both the Nall Report and the searchable ASF database are available free at www.asf.org.)
So yes, properly flown general aviation IFR is relatively safe. But as almost any pilot who regularly flies solo IFR will attest, it's not necessarily easy.
A new online program, Single-Pilot IFR is one of ASF's free tools for instructors, instrument students, and already-rated instrument pilots to take some of the sweat out of single-pilot IFR. The program provides practical help for pilots who realize the need to balance the risk of single-pilot IFR with knowledge, skill, and equipment. For most pilots, it takes about 25 minutes, and successful completion not only results in a handsome graduation certificate, but also qualifies as the ground instruction needed for the FAA's Wings safety program.
Flying successful single-pilot IFR has many ingredients, but some of the most important are preparation, organization, cockpit resource management (CRM), avoiding distractions, and maintaining situational awareness.
Preparation. Getting a good preflight weather briefing is de rigueur, particularly when preparing to launch into IMC. Heightened awareness of security has added particular attention to notams. But what about the potential for equipment failures, such as a vacuum pump failure at a critical time? ASF recommends having appropriate back-up systems for IMC flight, but even without that we can ensure the airplane has been inspected as required, systems preflighted properly, and that our own knowledge of systems operation, failure indications, and procedures is up to date.
Organization. Keeping an organized cockpit is probably the easiest way for an otherwise competent pilot to make single-pilot IFR a simpler task. Since there isn't room in cockpits for everything, an organized pilot preselects every chart and publication needed, in order of use, and has them open, folded, or tabbed as appropriate. Then he or she will put those items away when finished with them. Other essentials include pencil and paper, flashlights, calculators, batteries, and so forth. Some pilots like to keep instrument-covering devices handy to avoid confusion if one or more instruments fails in actual IFR conditions.
Cockpit resource management. Sometimes referred to as crew resource management, this simply means using most efficiently whatever tools are available. Particularly when solo, making the best use of all cockpit resources is essential. But some pilots often forget to best utilize their unseen crewmember-ATC. Few pilots are aware of the full range of services that ATC can provide, particularly in an emergency (see "Instructor Report: The Safety Net," April AOPA Flight Training). ASF's free online program "Say Intentions" details many of those services.
Avoiding distractions. In GA flying, unlike airline flying, passengers can and do ask complicated questions, sometimes when the pilot needs to concentrate. ASF recommends that all pilots-particularly those flying single-pilot IFR-adopt the airline "sterile cockpit" rule that prohibits any extraneous cockpit conversation during times of high workload, such as departure or approach. This, of course, doesn't preclude passengers mentioning something such as another aircraft close by or an illuminated annunciator light.
Situational awareness. CFIs have long taught situational awareness, usually in the context of being able to answer burning questions like "where are we, exactly?" But part of situational awareness is thinking ahead to the next event and preparing for it. Take an instrument approach as an example. It has a series of events, in a particular order, such as arrival at an initial approach fix, interception of a glide slope, station passage, and so on. When an event occurs, do what is required, then think ahead to the next event, such as decision altitude.
Is single-pilot IFR safe? It certainly can be, contrary to an observation by aviation writer Gordon Baxter, who once observed, "instrument flying is an unnatural act, probably punishable by God." Safe instrument flying, particularly solo instrument flying, is a matter of attitude and discipline. Do you have it?
Kevin D. Murphy is vice president of safety education for the AOPA Air Safety Foundation. He has been an instructor for more than 30 years, and has logged more than 5,000 accident-free hours.
By Kevin D. Murphy