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IFR Fix: Unknown problem, imperfect solutionIFR Fix: Unknown problem, imperfect solution

It’s a rainy, overcast morning with a gusty northeast wind for an instrument proficiency check in your new high-performance single-engine airplane. The IPC and aircraft checkout will take place on a cross-country flight that you planned yesterday.

An alternate must be filed, based on the forecast weather at the estimated arrival time of 2000Z: FM011930 06008KT 6SM -RA OVC015. So you reviewed instrument approach procedures at both points of possible landing, with an emphasis on approaches most likely to be in use based on forecast surface winds.

Cleared as filed, you take off, climb to cruise altitude, and join the airway. It’s a familiar and satisfying routine, whether flown in the old Cessna 172 instrument trainer or in this smooth new aircraft with its impressive navigation capabilities.

You are about to share that sentiment when the CFII sits up straight and says, "What was that?"

There was a bang, the instructor says, followed by a vibration in the control column. Did something on the cowling let go, striking a tail surface? Was there a collision with a bird or a drone?

The aircraft remains under control, but the uncertainty is unnerving. What to do? 

There’s an airport about 10 miles off the route, but there was a notam about its automated weather station being out of service. Another airport 15 miles further away is the next chance—and you have had your aircraft maintenance done there on occasion. (You know you shouldn’t be thinking about such convenience factors at a time like this.)

Is this an emergency? Air traffic control is bound to ask; decide then. Lots to think about, so keep the priorities straight: First, fly the aircraft, staying alert to any indications of compromised control.

Choose the destination: either the nearest airport with its unknown weather, or the more distant field with an ILS approach and eight miles visibility and 1,500-foot broken clouds. Get your new clearance (request a radar vector) and turn on course. Brief and prepare to fly an unfamiliar instrument approach.

You have practiced diverting and systems failures before. But typical training scenarios present clear choices with ready access to needed information. Solving an unknown problem with imperfect information in actual weather is a different challenge for a pilot’s decision making. 

Make the best call, and save your second guesses for tomorrow.

Dan Namowitz

Dan Namowitz

Associate Editor Web
Associate Editor Web Dan Namowitz has been writing for AOPA in a variety of capacities since 1991. He has been a flight instructor since 1990 and is a 30-year AOPA member.
Topics: IFR, Technique, Cross Country

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