In an earlier issue of Flight School Business, we noted that in recent years, instructional accidents in actual instrument conditions have been very rare—so rare that they can’t really be analyzed. Much of that, of course, is due to the fact that relatively little training is carried out in actual instrument conditions, but the highly structured training environment, the extra-careful scrutiny suspicious CFIIs give the weather, and the presumed advantage of having two certificated pilots on board probably come into play as well.
Unfortunately—although perhaps inevitably—things don’t play out as well in the real world. In a typical year, about 50 fixed-wing pilots come to grief on active instrument flight plans in actual instrument conditions. Nearly two-thirds of those accidents are fatal (317 of 495 between 2001 and 2010), which shouldn’t come as a surprise: It’s hard to mitigate the impact if you can’t see what you’re about to hit.
Almost all of these pilots were instrument-rated, and the great majority were also current. (A handful of VFR-only pilots do make the mistake of filing an instrument flight plan and accepting a clearance they prove unable to execute; the results are almost always catastrophic.) Of course, the pilots’ instrument-flying skills are not always to blame; engines aren’t any less likely to quit when they’re churning through the clouds. But mechanical failures account for less than 7 percent of all IFR-in-IMC accidents. Sure enough, erosion of skills once demonstrated on a checkride is far and away the predominant cause, accounting for more than a third of these accidents and nearly half the fatalities.
About two-thirds of the time, the pilot’s weaknesses don’t turn around and bite until he or she attempts to fly the approach. The single most common error is descending below the minimum descent altitude or decision height before seeing anything resembling a runway, but there’s plenty of room for creativity. Some pilots simply blow through step-down altitudes and crash into hillsides or the trees growing on them. Some track the wrong navaid, or neglect to toggle the course deviation indicator from VOR to GPS or vice versa. Errors in sequencing GPS waypoints are becoming more common as those units become more complicated; so are mistakes programming autopilots. Then again, some pilots who’ve managed to keep the aircraft in the right neighborhood long enough to get an approach clearance simply fall apart when it counts, proving unable to intercept localizers or stay on the final approach course. Too often, they also fail to admit their failings in time to get help from ATC—say, a no-gyros approach into a field with good radar coverage.
Pilots whose instrument skills are too weak to make it to the approach generally end in flight into terrain, either controlled or otherwise. Both are equally lethal. Of 65 accidents blamed on poor instrument flying en route, 60 were fatal, including all eight where instrument-rated pilots lost control of fully functional aircraft after succumbing to spatial disorientation.
What else goes wrong? Well, nonprofessional pilots are notoriously bad at landings, which are probably no easier after an instrument flight. More than 10 percent of accidents on instrument flights through IMC came after the pilots had regained visual contact with the runway and were just trying to set the airplane down. None of those were fatal. The prospect of an instrument flight does seem to sharpen attention to fuel planning; the past decade saw only 22 fuel-management accidents flying IFR in IMC.
Of course, weather flying necessarily involves weather, and 65 accidents, 51 of them fatal, were blamed on weather beyond the airplane’s (or pilot’s) capabilities. These included 31 accidents due to airframe or induction icing, 23 in thunderstorm encounters, and 14 due to non-convective turbulence. Icing encounters were actually the most survivable, since “only” two-thirds were fatal. Since many accidents from thunderstorm or turbulence encounters involve in-flight break-ups, this also isn’t hard to understand.
At some point, your former students stop being your responsibility. Still, we’d like to see some way to help carry the safety record of instrument training into real-life instrument flying. The present regulations’ currency requirements may bear part of the blame; pilots who stay nominally current, even if only by having a friend watch them fly six coupled approaches every six months, may never have their skills re-evaluated by a professional. Of course, we don’t advocate stricter regulations, but is there some way to help licensed pilots see an instrument proficiency check as an opportunity rather than an obligation? Would a discounted rate on IPCs—perhaps as part of a subscription plan, pay for three and get the fourth one free—help bring them back in and maybe also keep them in closer contact with the school? It could be worth a try.