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A recipe for IFR flight

Adopt a chef’s technique to manage your workload

By Bruce Williams

Glass cockpits and electronic flight bags (EFB) have transformed IFR flying, but managing the tasks associated with an instrument flight remains a challenge. 

Illustration by John Ueland.
Illustration by John Ueland.

It’s easy to get distracted by the blinky lights and play pinball with the knobs and switches on primary flight and multifunction displays (PFD/MFD) as you run checklists and try to keep up with instructions from ATC.

To stay ahead of the airplane, like many instructors, I teach the venerable Aviate-Navigate-Communicate sequence. But pilots often find that dictum too general and difficult to implement consistently in practice.

To provide more specific guidance, I’ve adapted a practice used by professional chefs: mis en place—roughly translated as “everything in its place.” The phrase means more than collecting the ingredients listed in a recipe. To a chef, mis en place is also an orderly process—dicing an onion, smooshing cloves of garlic, and measuring out little bowls of spices before putting the pan on the heat.

In an aircraft, combining mis en place and Aviate-Navigate-Communicate results in a smooth, efficient sequence that you can complete at each key point in a flight.

For example, as I prepare to descend from cruise, first I take care of the airplane by completing cockpit and avionics flow checks, backed up by the appropriate checklists.

In my Beechcraft Bonanza A36, I begin by checking the fuel tank selector and confirming fuel quantity and flow. Next, I touch the switches for lights and other electrical equipment, such as pitot heat, stating the position of each toggle and setting items as necessary. Then I scan and verbalize the status of the engine and system gauges—temperatures and pressures, amps and volts, and so forth. Finally, I review the appropriate checklist to confirm that I didn’t overlook important items. The same basic pattern can be adapted for any aircraft.

After checking the aircraft, I follow a similar process to prepare the panel, including my EFB. This avionics flow check is an efficient, top-to-bottom review of the active and standby communications and navigation frequencies; GPS flight plan; and, if you have a PFD, the ALT and HDG bugs, CDI, and bearing pointers. A methodical but efficient path through the avionics stack ensures that you don’t overlook important details and saves time that you can devote to developing and maintaining situational awareness and scanning for traffic. (To learn more about configuring your panel and EFB displays, see “Sipping Information from the Right Glass” in the December 2023 issue of AOPA Pilot.)

You can also apply mis en place to flying instrument procedures. After taking care of the airplane, setting up the avionics, and confirming the destination ATIS or one-minute weather, I load an approach as I comply with ATC instructions. I “brief the panel” only after I think I’ve set it up correctly and to confirm that what’s in the box matches the procedure that I intend to fly. Because I confirmed chart dates, runway lengths, notams, and other details during preflight planning, the briefing focuses on the plan for flying an approach: selecting navigation sources; when to change aircraft configuration and speed; and other details, such as use of automation and activating pilot-controlled lighting. It’s not a rote reading of numbers on the chart. Taking a few minutes to annotate electronic charts during preflight planning helps immensely as you review critical details and confirm the plan when you’re in the air.

This sequence of steps may at first appear complicated and time-consuming. But visit a restaurant with an open kitchen and observe how well-organized line cooks apply mis en place to manage the apparent chaos. Practice following that example with a safety pilot in your aircraft, in an aviation training device, or with avionics simulations. You’ll find that mis en place reduces your workload and stress when you’re in the soup.

You can adapt the avionics flow check to work with any stack of radios and related equipment (left). As part of the avionics flow, systematically check the setup of a PFD (right)


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