Get extra lift from AOPA. Start your free membership trial today! Click here

The essence of IFR

You can prepare for the transition to instrument flying

Most private pilots contemplate acquiring an instrument rating, but some are reluctant to do so after they review the required training material or hear others talk about their instrument training experiences. Don't be misled by that information.

The instrument rating is one of the most rewarding pilot endeavors that you can undertake. As with any new challenge, however, it's your perspective that counts.

You should think of instrument training as an aircraft management course where you learn to be the master of a three-ring circus--aircraft control, navigation, and communications. With one exception, the prerequisites are the same that you experienced when learning to fly: good awareness and judgment, and the ability to continually divide your attention, stay mentally ahead of the airplane, and use all available resources.

That exception is the ability to remain oriented during instrument flight. This was best described by Captain Pettybone, a fictitious safety officer in the U.S. Navy's Approach magazine. In a 1942 issue, he said, "Instrument flying is when your mind gets a grip on the fact that there's vision beyond sight." In other words, you must be able to remain oriented when outside visual references--which you rely on as a visual flight rules (VFR) pilot--do not exist.

Situational awareness is a new, frequently used expression. Before it came into being, pilots were trained to think as follows: "Where have I been?" "Where am I now?" and, "Where am I going?" That's what Captain Pettybone was getting at.

There is one physical skill that you must master before instrument training starts--flying with your hand off the control yoke. When you learn to do this, instrument flying becomes much easier.

On your next flight, trim the airplane for level flight at a specific altitude. Now take your hand off the yoke and keep it off. Apply rudder input--it doesn't take much--to keep the turn coordinator's rate of turn at zero.

If the airplane starts a slight climb or descent, make a slight, audible power adjustment in order to maintain altitude. This is called pitch trimming with power.

Now you are flying straight and level with your hand off the yoke. Yes, the airplane may be in a slight bank and the inclinometer's ball may be slightly displaced, but the airplane is flying as straight as an arrow and your hands are free to perform other tasks. All you need to do is cross-check the attitude indicator and use rudder to maintain the bank attitude that generates a zero turn rate, thus maintaining your heading. When workload returns to normal, put your hand back on the yoke and fly the airplane in the normal, coordinated manner.

You can fly hands-off in this manner whenever you are in stabilized flight and maintaining a constant heading--climbs, cruise, and descents. In fact, you can enter and terminate descents by making an appropriate power change. To descend at approximately 500 fpm, reduce power 300 rpm. To level off, smoothly increase power to the original setting when your height above the desired altitude is 10 percent of the vertical speed--for example, 50 feet above your desired altitude if you're descending at 500 fpm.

The mental procedures that you will use during instrument training are the next consideration. These must be simple, easy-to-recall procedures that guarantee your safety. Many of today's instrument training programs teach procedures that are too complicated and create an unacceptable mental workload. Most of those procedures are used by two-pilot crews and have absolutely no place in a single-pilot cockpit.

Those schools are unwittingly teaching airline (two-pilot crew) procedures to their students who are enamored by thought of airline flying. Unfortunately, these students never master the basic procedures that are required for single-pilot instrument flight. If you are headed for a two-pilot cockpit in the future, take my advice. Master your single-pilot thinking and use it religiously when you advance to a two-pilot cockpit in order to back up the other pilot when he is flying. If you assume that the other pilot will not make a mistake, you are compromising flight safety. And, believe me, that type of thinking is mandatory for captains and first officers alike.

Everyone has a finite mental capacity, and when flying instruments as a single pilot you must reserve some of that capacity to deal with distractions, irregularities, and emergencies. To honor that requirement, I teach instrument students four mental skills.

Aviate, navigate, communicate

This is the overriding rule for instrument flight. Fly the airplane, navigate, and then communicate. No one can refute that rule.

The Five-Ts mental checklist

You use the Five-Ts mental checklist whenever you pass a fix or navaid, but each item is not always applicable. Note that the last four items of this checklist follow the previous rule of aviate, navigate, and communicate.

  • Time--Note the time of station or fix passage.
  • Turn--Turn to your new heading.
  • Throttle--Start your descent.
  • Tune (today many pilots say "twist")--Reset your course indicator.
  • Talk--Make your report to air traffic control.

The Big-7 mental checklist

You start the Big-7 mental checklist just before you leave cruise altitude when approaching your destination airport.

  • Airplane ready for the descent--Fuel selector on fullest tank, fuel pump on, heading indicator aligned with the magnetic compass, circuit breakers in, safety harnesses on, carburetor heat if necessary, and the before-landing checklist complete except for the middle three elements of the GUMPS mental checklist (gas, undercarriage, mixture, propeller, and safety belts).
  • Radio set for the approach--Get the ATIS and set up the navigation and communications radios as soon as your situation permits.
  • Memorize the minimum descent altitude (MDA) or decision height (DH).
  • Memorize the time from the final approach fix to the missed approach point.
  • Memorize the initial part of the missed approach procedure.
  • Review the approach chart for notes about prohibited procedures, such as "circling south of the airport not authorized."
  • Speed. Now that you are ready for the approach, you can keep your speed up until a slower speed is necessary or requested.

The "mental conveyor belt"

When flying, there are certain elements that must be continually running through your mind in a sort of mental conveyor belt, but the amount of information that you monitor changes with your situation.

The first three elements apply to all pilots (VFR and IFR) at all times:

  • What's my location?
  • Where's the wind?
  • What will I do if the engine quits?

The next three elements apply to all instrument pilots at all times.

  • What's my next heading?
  • What's my next altitude?
  • What's my next fix or course?

The last three elements apply to instrument pilots on an instrument approach.

  • How low am I going?
  • What's my time inbound?
  • What's the initial part of the missed approach procedure?

One of the biggest instrument flying errors occurs when pilots don't think ahead of the airplane or when they think too far ahead of the airplane. They forget about the middle three steps of the conveyor belt--the "what's next" questions. You must always keep those answers foremost in your mind.

If you learn to fly hands-off and memorize these basic mental skills, you will obtain an instrument rating with a high level of self-confidence. You must also remember that high-energy weather, potential icing conditions, and widespread low visibilities are no place for a light airplane.

Ralph Butcher, a retired United Airlines captain, is the chief flight instructor at a California flight school. He has been flying since 1959 and has 25,000 hours in fixed- and rotary-wing aircraft. Visit his Web site.

Want to know more?
Links to additional resources about the topics discussed in this article are available at AOPA Flight Training Online.

Related Articles