For these reasons, IFR students should decide early on what kind of training best suits their goals.
Students who intend to become airline or corporate jet pilots, or fly advanced piston aircraft like a Cirrus, can get relevant experience right away if they seek out schools that emphasize glass-panel avionics. They’ll learn the logic of those boxes, the ways they’re meant to communicate with each other, and how to manage them.
Students who expect to fly legacy IFR airplanes should find schools that use grassroots aircraft with analog instrumentation. They’ll quickly become adept at scanning multiple gauges and interpreting and prioritizing information.
Flight schools with their own flight simulators are particularly desirable for IFR training—but only if the simulators accurately reflect and reinforce the lessons students learn during the flying portions of their IFR training. A simulator with analog instruments is no help to a student learning in glass-panel aircraft, and vice versa.
Recently, I’ve been flying a 32-year-old Beechcraft Bonanza A36 that has undergone a radical avionics transformation. The formerly analog airplane relied on VORs as a primary navigation source, and pilots controlled the airplane in the clouds by interpreting an attitude indicator (powered by dual vacuum systems) and an electric turn coordinator. Now the panel has a 10-inch touchscreen primary flight display/multifunction display, a pair of highly precise WAAS GPS nav/coms, and a digital standby instrument.
The vacuum systems, old gyros, and obsolete electronics are gone—along with so much associated plumbing that the airplane is 125 pounds lighter than it used to be. The persnickety old autopilot has been replaced with a far more reliable digital model that’s always on—even when it’s not engaged—and the new unit has a blue Level button designed to put the airplane on the straight and narrow at a single touch.
The Bonanza flies the same as ever. But operating it in the IFR system is wildly different, and the amount and quality of information graphically presented to the pilot is vastly superior.
Traffic, weather, and terrain are colorfully depicted at all times, and engine health is easy to assess with color-coded bars showing cylinder head and exhaust gas temperatures as well as fuel quantity, fuel flow, range, and endurance.
Learning the nuances of a system like this takes time, effort, lots of study, and practice. And even when you think you’ve mastered the system it can surprise you.
During a familiarization flight with a pilot new to the airplane, I asked him to perform a series of steep turns. He obediently rolled into a 60-degree bank and then, as soon as he passed 180 degrees of heading change, the autopilot engaged by itself and leveled the wings. That was odd, but it turned out the autopilot had a preprogrammed setting designed to avoid graveyard spirals (think John F. Kennedy Jr. and spatial disorientation) and did what its designers meant for it to do when it perceived something was amiss.
Mostly, however, the new avionics allow pilots to fly with far greater precision and less workload than ever before. And the current air traffic control system depends on it. For example, IFR pilots with GPS are commonly cleared “direct destination” from hundreds of miles away. That’s an instruction that simply wouldn’t be possible using VOR.
IFR pilots regularly are directed to fly straight to certain intersections. Yet it would be impossible to identify and find them without a GPS database containing their coordinates.
IFR pilots are often told to cross navigational points at particular altitudes, or even given crossing altitudes that are certain distances from those points (for example, “Cross 15 miles west of the Martinsburg VOR at 8,000 feet”). That would have been possible with the Bonanza’s old distance measuring equipment (DME) but it wouldn’t have been very precise. Now, such instructions can be followed with ease.
IFR pilots entering holding patterns are commonly told to fly specific segments (“Hold east of the Westminster VOR at 3,000 feet, 5-mile legs”). That instruction is possible without a GPS navigator—but it involves intuition and guesswork. With the Bonanza’s new equipment, it’s almost automatic.
IFR pilots are sometimes vectored onto final approach at sharp intercept angles. Timing the turn onto final during an approach in cloudy, windy conditions would be highly problematic for any pilot flying by hand—but a digital autopilot following a highly accurate WAAS GPS rolls in and out exactly on course. It’s so uncannily smooth and precise that it feels like magic.
IFR pilots must learn to fly arcing approaches at set distances from navigational aids. That’s a complex task that requires compensating for wind drift and constantly monitoring and recentering the course deviation indicator, directional gyro, and compass. (The old mantra: “Turn 10 degrees, twist 10 degrees.”) Now, the pilot simply follows the predrawn arc on the moving map to the final approach course and tracks it to the runway. It’s like playing a video game. (And if you don’t like video games, the autopilot will fly the entire procedure for you.)
The Bonanza autopilot can fly both precision and nonprecision approaches, and when the airplane arrives at the published minimum descent altitude, the pilot must either continue the descent and land or execute the missed approach. A missed approach with old-school avionics can be a stressful and busy time. Pilots must establish a climb, configure the airplane, level off at a certain altitude, navigate to a fix, and likely enter a holding pattern where they’ll have to decide whether to attempt a second approach or divert to another airport.
Now, the Bonanza pilot simply presses the “Takeoff/Go Around” button, advances the throttle, and engages the autopilot. The GPS does the navigation and the autopilot levels off at a preset altitude. When the airplane arrives at the holding fix, it enters the holding pattern automatically. There, the pilot gets a big-picture view of the weather throughout the region and can tell at a glance if other airports have higher ceilings.
Avionics technology also blurs the distinction between precision and nonprecision approaches. For decades, only ILS approaches contained vertical guidance—and they were the gold standard for instrument approaches with the lowest decision heights.
Now, modern WAAS GPS navigators are capable of providing vertical guidance in the form of an “advisory” glideslope that looks and acts much like an ILS for nonprecision approaches. The pilot simply follows the lateral and vertical guidance down to the published minimum descent altitude.
Instrument checkrides are governed by the FAA airman certification standards (ACS), which give examiners the flexibility to evaluate pilots using a broad range of avionics. The ACS gives a list of topics to cover, tasks to accomplish, standards to meet, and—by design—no distinctions between glass-panel and analog instruments.
The ACS requires applicants to discuss gyroscopic instruments such as gimballed attitude indicators, heading indicators, and the vacuum instrument system—even if no such instruments exist in the airplane flown on test day. The same is true for VOR and DME. The ACS has a provision to talk about common failure modes of vacuum instruments even though such instruments are sure to become increasingly rare as they get replaced with far more reliable avionics.
A decade ago, the conventional wisdom was that pilots should learn IFR flying the old-school way. They’d master the fundamentals the same way pilots have for decades, and they’d be capable of confidently flying in the clouds in a wide array of airplanes. They could add new technology after they’d learned the instrument scan and partial-panel approaches just like their parents (and maybe grandparents).
But glass panels are becoming so prevalent—and they’re so much better and safer—that the conventional wisdom is changing. Now, the best advice for IFR students is to learn the way you intend to fly.