Advice to a new instrument pilot

Yes, I know you didn’t ask for it.  Sorry, it’s my job.

As the possessor of a recently-acquired instrument rating, you probably have a sense of the new possibilities available to you as well as some suspicion that you also face new hazards.  As you gain experience, you will come to better know those possibilities and those hazards and better navigate among them.  How much experience will that take?  How long should you consider yourself a new instrument pilot?  Bear with me for two paragraphs and we will have, if not a definitive answer, at least an answer supported by credible data.  Bear with me for a few more paragraphs and I will confess to you why your instruction, which I provided, was inadequate to the task.  Read with me to the end and perhaps we can give you some tools for surviving in the real world of instrument flying.

NTSB accident data is now widely available for study.  Analysis of this data for the years 1983 through 2000 has yielded sobering results.  Paul Craig, an instructor and educator known for his work on stalls and spins, has recently written a book about aviation safety based on study of this data.  The book’s title suggests his conclusion.  He called it The Killing Zone.  During these two decades, three quarters of the student and private pilots involved in fatal accidents had fewer than 500 hours.  Between 50 hours and 150 hours, the number of fatal accidents tripled and did not subside to its initial level until 350 hours and did not drop substantially below that level until 500 hours.[1]  Craig calls that period of a pilot’s flying career between 50 and 350 hours “the killing zone,” because it is here that an appalling number of fatal accidents occur.

The FAA once required pilots to log a minimum of 200 hours before obtaining an instrument rating. In the sometimes dark humor peculiar to activities that entail risk, instructors occasionally joked that the instrument rating was the reward to a pilot who survived 200 hours of unsupervised VFR flight.  In part due to an intuitive sense that these early hours were particularly dangerous, the FAA reduced in 1986 this minimum to 125 hours and later dropped it altogether in the hope that by encouraging instrument training the rate of fatal accidents might be reduced.  There is no question that an instrument rating makes flying safer.  The ability to fly in the IFR system, work with controllers, handle the airplane on instruments, and navigate using radio aids makes any given flight a safer proposition.  Those abilities, however, allow pilots to launch themselves into more challenging scenarios, ratcheting up the demands on their ability and reimposing some of the risk.  When does the safety advantage of the instrument rating begin to outweigh the additional risk of instrument flying?  Half of the fatal IFR accidents over the past two decades occurred to pilots with between 250 and 500 hours.  Until you pass the 500-hour mile marker, you would do well to consider yourself a neophyte as an instrument pilot and manage your risk accordingly.

As your instructor, I have to tell you that I have inadequately prepared you for real instrument flying. There are many ways in which instrument training does not resemble actual IFR operations.  We do our best in training to prepare pilots for actual instrument flight, but we can simulate those conditions in only limited fashion.

Perhaps the most important way in which training does not resemble actual IFR operations is the simple absence of pressure.  Here’s the analogy:  I lay a 2×12 board 20 feet long on your front lawn.  I ask you to walk from one end of it to the other.  No problem.  You could cakewalk down its length.  Now I take the same board and lay it between two buildings 20 stories in the air.  I ask you to walk it from one end to the other.  Same board.  No more narrow.   Is it a different experience?  Would be for me.  What’s different?  The consequences.  Serious consequences.  We’re not playing anymore.  That’s the difference between simulated instrument flight and actual instrument meteorological conditions (IMC).  The airplane doesn’t know the difference.  Same board.  You know the difference, though.  It’s the consequences.

If that doesn’t make one feel some pressure, one is not human.  One can’t whip off the hood and restore all to its proper place.  We’re in it for the duration.

We endeavor in the course of training to avail ourselves of every opportunity to experience actual IMC, but it’s always done in the course of dual instruction.  The regulations do not permit a non-instrument rated pilot to file IFR so therefore any flight into IMC requires an instrument pilot, usually an instrument instructor, aboard.  Having an instructor aboard means there is always a way out of any dilemma, whether it is merely a misunderstood clearance or an unusual attitude.  Several times on virtually every instrument training flight I find myself stepping in to clarify some issue – a missed radio call, a turn in the wrong direction, a failure to observe an altitude, a confusion about a procedure – and the moment passes almost unnoticed and hardly remembered, but I realize, although often the pilot does not, that had I not been there to clarify or correct the flight might well have spiraled into confusion and ultimately jeopardy.   Even the most confident instrument pilot in training relies, even if only subconsciously, on the instructor in the right seat to keep him or her from going over the cliff.  There will be more pressure without the instructor on board – of course, there will also be less distraction.

Perhaps there will be less distraction without the jabbering of an instructor, but perhaps not.  At least on an instrument training flight attention is focused on flight operations.  When you find yourself in the clouds for the first time with your wife asking, “Are you sure you know what you’re doing?”  Or your kids in the back seat saying, “Daddy, I’m going to be sick,” you will have to discipline yourself to focus on the task at hand.

And then there are the inevitable social pressures to make a flight or to press ahead against one’s better instincts.  Anyone who has flown for any number of years who claims that they have never been tempted by those pressures, whether to get home for work on Monday or to get the family to a long-awaited vacation or to make a business appointment, seems to me not to be credible.  We are instructed to ignore those pressures, but that is patently unrealistic.  There are simply some flights we are more motivated to make than others.  And yet we must know where to draw the line because to step over it invites dire consequences.  The accident records are replete with examples.

Some years ago, an instrument student of my acquaintance had his checkride scheduled for Sunday with the examiner we often used in those days.  On Saturday my friend received a call at home from a stranger who asked my friend if he would relinquish his date with the examiner. My friend, being a generous sort, said certainly, go ahead and take my appointment with the examiner.  The caller was a man who had once failed his instrument checkride and was very eager to complete it successfully.  My friend thought little more of it; he rescheduled his date with the examiner for the following week.  When he arrived for the checkride, the examiner handed him a business card and my friend recognized the name as that of the man who had called him and begged for that Sunday date with the examiner.  He also recognized the name from news reports.  The man had completed his instrument checkride that Sunday and on Monday morning loaded his wife, teenage daughter, his business partner, and his partner’s wife and child into a Cherokee Six and taken off early in the morning in zero-zero fog for a business and pleasure trip. He had been eager to finish his checkride so he could depart the next morning on this trip.  He made it about a mile from the end of the runway.  The fog was so thick that it took the rescue crews nearly an hour to find the wreckage.  All aboard were killed. Two hours later the fog had lifted and the sky was clear blue.  Had the pilot waited two hours he would have been departing in perfect VFR weather.  In his hurry, he killed six people, five of them probably completely unaware of the danger.

The pilot did nothing illegal.  As a Part 91 operation, he was entitled to take off on an IFR clearance without regard to ceilings or visibility.  He did, however, run afoul of several of the traps that await instrument pilots and particularly inexperienced instrument pilots.  He had relatively little actual IMC experience.  He had almost certainly never done an actual zero-zero takeoff and had no idea of its difficulty.  He was flying an airplane in which he had relatively little experience. (Time in type is a critical element of safe operation.  Airlines require pilots transitioning into a different aircraft type to observe higher IFR minimums until they acquire experience in that type, regardless of their total time or experience.  Insurance companies typically require time in type before underwriting a pilot in any aircraft more complex than a non-complex single.)  He succumbed to the social pressure to get underway on his trip despite the weather.  He had never flown actual IMC without an instructor aboard.  By departing in weather below approach minimums at his departure airport he abandoned any chance of returning should he encounter difficulty.  He simply made a bet he couldn’t cover.

As we said, the accident statistics are lousy with similar examples and I could describe several other similar tragedies at local airports.

Let’s consider some of the other ways that instrument training does not prepare one for actual IFR flight into IMC.  Flying under the hood is not at all the same as flying in the clouds.  Research clearly demonstrates that we receive a significant portion of our attitude awareness from our peripheral vision rather than our central vision – which suggests two conclusions.  First, that a three-inch instrument in the center of our field of view is the worst possible means to keep an airplane upright.  That we manage to do it is a testament to our adaptive ability.  Second, the seemingly insignificant visual clues we receive in our periphery over under and around the hood are in fact quite effective at helping us maintain our attitude.  In the clouds, with no visual cues at all, or with confusing visual clues from light and shadow or a sloping overcast or the glow of city lights illuming the clouds from below or with snow flashing in our strobes at night or with lightning glowing through the clouds, we have only the instruments with which to maintain our attitude.  When flying under the hood, you thought you were relying on the instruments; in fact, you were relying on a combination of the instruments and those powerful peripheral cues.  On the instruments alone vertigo, or the disquieting disequilibrium known to instrument pilots as “the leans,” is a real possibility.  Most instrument pilots have experienced one or the other at some time.  You cannot imagine how unnerving either can be until you have had the experience.

Reduced visibility is another characteristic of actual IMC that cannot be duplicated in training.  We make a fetish of ceilings in training.  We talk about flying approaches to “minimums” and we are talking of ceilings, when in fact it is visibility that poses the greater challenge.  Many instrument students hardly notice the visibility minimums that prevail for every approach, focusing exclusively on the MDA or DA – the ceilings.  NB that commercial operators are limited not by ceilings but by visibility.   Commercial operators, unlike Part 91 flights, may not commence an approach if the visibility is reported to be less than the approach minimums.   This recognizes that visibility is usually the most dangerous obstacle to an instrument approach.  With ceilings, one is either in the clouds or not.  (Actually, we often find ragged bases and scud beneath a ceiling, but that’s a different discussion.)  Low visibility is much less certain and therefore more seductive and therefore more dangerous.   Ask any experienced IMC pilot – ask a guy who flies night freight in little airplanes to small airports in lousy weather.  He will tell you that given the choice he will take low ceilings every time if he can have good visibility.  Given the choice he will prefer low ceilings and good visibility to higher ceilings and lousy visibility.  Many instrument pilots have come to grief, particularly on non-precision approaches, when they thought they saw the runway in low visibility and soon found themselves wandering about in the murk uncertain of their position and tempted to probe for the runway.  It’s a classic IFR accident, particularly at night.  And it’s impossible to replicate in training.  When we descend to MDA or DA on a training approach and then our instructor says, “Take off the hood,” we are simulating a low ceiling with good visibility – not the most challenging approach weather.  The first time you find yourself flying a VOR-A approach to an unfamiliar three-thousand-foot runway with low intensity runway lights and no VASI on a rainy, foggy night you will understand.  When that night comes, please remember this:  stay on the instruments and follow the approach course and abide by the MDA until the three regulatory requirements are fulfilled – you have the runway environment in sight, you have the required visibility, and you are in a position to make a normal descent to the runway – and do not descend below circling minimums until you are on final approach to the runway.

Yet another way in which IFR training often does not prepare us adequately – landing from the approach.  So often in training, and on checkrides, we fly the approach and execute the missed approach.  We fail to appreciate the difficulty of landing out of an approach.  In the old days, instrument approaches were called “let downs,” which suggests that they are intended merely to let us down out of the clouds and get us in a position from which we can proceed visually to the runway.  Often, however, that last visual segment is far more difficult than the VFR landings of which we have made so many.  Take, for instance, a circling approach. I have long been amused that a circling approach often requires us to maneuver to land on a dark, stormy night in a way that would be regarded as unwise if not downright dangerous on a bright, sunny Sunday afternoon – a steep descent, or a very tight pattern with steep banks, or a right hand pattern, or any combination of these maneuvers that would be unwelcome in a normal VFR landing pattern.  We do not get to practice these maneuvers often enough in training and so do not comprehend their challenges.

So, we have several of the ways in which I, as your instructor, have failed to prepare you for actual instrument flight.  Now you are on your own.  What should you do about it?

First and foremost, recognize it.  By acquiring the instrument rating you have demonstrated that you can bash your way through three familiar approaches in local airspace in VFR conditions and quite likely without the distraction of an actual IFR clearance.  That is well shy of the ability to set off on your own across country on an IFR flight plan into the vagaries of changing weather and to cope with any procedure that ATC can conjure.  When one files an IFR flight plan and picks up that clearance, one is signing a contract that obligates ATC to provide certain services and obligates one as a pilot to be able to handle any procedure in the IFR arsenal.

I am frankly amazed that we, as amateur pilots, are allowed to file and fly in the IFR system, talking to the same controllers and receiving the same service, as professional pilots flying airliners with hundreds of paying customers aboard.  This to me is akin to my wandering down to the medical school and saying, “I’ve been reading up on this brain surgery business and I think I’d like to give it a try.”  It is an awesome responsibility and our obligation is to handle ourselves professionally and competently.  To do otherwise is not only embarrassing but it imperils everyone else, pilots and passengers, in the system.

How do we acquire the necessary experience?  Cautiously.  I once had a conversation with a pilot who, newly certified and new to the Piper Warrior, had flown it across country, through a cold front, and attempted to land it at night in gusty conditions.  He bent it rather badly and later said to me in defense, “But how will I get better if I don’t tackle greater challenges?”  I tried to explain to him that we find ways to tackle those challenges the first time (and maybe the first fifteen times) without burning our bridges.  If you are not fully comfortable landing at night in gusty winds, take an instructor with you.  He can bail you out if it gets to be too difficult – and if the worst happens it’s his fault.

How can we do this with instrument flight?  Seek opportunities to get actual IMC experience and don’t hesitate to invite an instructor along the first few times, even after you’ve acquired the rating.

When venturing into IMC alone, seek a gradual introduction.  I recommend a splendid, and very wise, book about instrument flying, Weather Flying, by a veteran airline pilot named Buck.  In it, he suggests looking for ways to get one’s gradual indoctrination in flying actual weather.  For the first few flights, look for an opportunity to depart in VFR conditions, fly in visual conditions, and land in visual conditions – but file IFR and develop confidence operating in the system.  Request an instrument approach at your destination and fly it for practice.  (An instrument approach can also be an excellent way to find and orient oneself  to an unfamiliar airport, particularly at night.)  For the next few flights seek opportunities to take off in visual conditions, climb into en route IMC, and descend visually to land.  You may get hours of en route IMC but will always have the option of descending into VFR if you need relief from the demands of IMC.  For the next few flights, seek opportunities to take off in instrument conditions, although avoiding low IFR, fly in en route IMC, and descend and land visually. And finally, after some experience, tackle a flight with a takeoff into IMC, enroute IMC, and an instrument approach in IMC at the destination.   (Please, however, not a zero-zero takeoff.  Many instrument pilots consider it imprudent to depart an airport in conditions any less than the minimums for an approach back into that departure airport.  It’s a good rule of thumb.)

Alas, life and weather are not a simulation.  We cannot invoke just the sort of weather we want in order to fulfill Captain Buck’s orderly initiation into IMC.  We can, however, understand the wisdom of such a gradual indoctrination, seek it to the extent possible, and appreciate the hierarchy of difficulty he describes.

We are talking here about the proven concept of personal minimums.  Airlines restrict new pilots, pilots transitioning to different aircraft, and newly-promoted captains, to higher instrument approach minimums.  We should do the same.  Our abilities will improve with experience, erode with disuse, and be affected by a long list of events and conditions.  If we are rusty on instruments, are distracted by personal or professional problems, haven’t eaten or slept sufficiently or are in an unfamiliar airplane we should raise our personal minimums.  If we have vast experience, have recent experience, are flying a familiar aircraft, are well-rested and focused we might lower our personal minimums.    By minimums, we mean more than simply jacking the MDA up or down.  It may mean that we forego night instrument flight and limit ourselves to day operations.  Statistically, night instrument flight is vastly more dangerous than day.  Raising our personal minimums may mean that we take another instrument pilot along in the right seat to help with the workload and avoid single-pilot IFR.  Adjusting our personal minimums means understanding the elements that increase risk in instrument flight and reducing them as necessary.

I would suggest some other considerations while acquiring initial instrument experience.  Fly an airplane with a good autopilot and know how to use it.  We don’t need a two-axis autopilot capable of coupled approaches; an autopilot that can simply maintain the wings level and track a heading provides most of the critical function of an autopilot – to relieve the workload in normal IFR flight and to keep the wings level should the pilot become unable.   If the wings remain level, the airplane will remain under control.  Coupled approaches, nav tracking, and GPS steering are all very nice but only marginally advance the safety advantage of an autopilot; in fact, those more complex autopilots often figure in accidents when in the hands of pilots who do not understand their nuances.

Understand the instruments and their failure modes.  Understand the electrical system of your airplane.  I know these systems are part of the training curriculum but they are more serious than you probably realized at the time.  In IMC your life depends on these systems and your understanding of them.  Fly with a backup vacuum source or a backup electric attitude indicator or both standby vacuum and a second vacuum-driven attitude indicator.  Understand how the backup vacuum system works.

Remember pitot heat.  Most training is done in VFR conditions.  What little IMC you encountered in your training was almost certainly in temperatures well above freezing.  You may have never employed pitot heat.  Do what is necessary to remind yourself to use it when necessary.  Different pilots use pitot heat differently.  Talk to someone with experience and decide how you will use it.  Also remind yourself periodically how to recognize and deal with pitot and static icing.

Avoid ILS approaches in weather, and particularly visibility, at minimums. Although I submit that ILS approaches are both easier and safer than non-precision approaches, particularly non-precision approaches to remote airfields, low ILS approaches are a specialized undertaking.  If and when you want to become competent in their use, study approach lighting systems and learn their types, dimensions, and coloring.  Study runway lighting.  Fly the first few with an instructor or someone experienced in these operations.  The transition to visual at two hundred feet in low visibility happens very suddenly and can be disorienting.  It’s a specialized skill.

Learn how to communicate with controllers and how to elicit information about precipitation and thunderstorms.  Learn the peculiarities of approach radar and center radar and the limitations of both.  Consider avoiding IMC with thunderstorms in the forecast unless you have spherics or radar aboard.  If so fortunate, learn how to use your equipment.

Learn more about structural icing than you probably learned in the course of your instrument training.  Many of us, including quite possibly your instructor, know very little about icing because we have always flown aircraft without anti-icing or de-icing equipment and have assiduously avoided icing conditions.  Relatively few pilots can speak from experience about icing.  Drivers of typical general aviation airplanes without icing capability have spent their flying careers avoiding any chance of ice; jet jockeys transition through the icing levels so quickly and are so well-armed against structural icing as to render it inconsequential.  (Icing on takeoff excepted.)  Only those few general aviation pilots flying aircraft certified for known icing are likely to have had more than the occasional encounter with structural icing.  The forecasting of icing is notoriously unreliable and the science of moisture particles and ice accretion  is only now becoming well understood.  Entire books have been written about structural icing, but icing is nothing if not idiosyncratic.  Learn everything you can about structural icing and then avoid it.

In sum, gather experience in a controlled fashion.  Limit the pressure.  Limit the exposure.  Do not fly in thunderstorm weather or icing weather without someone experienced in the other seat.  File IFR on every trip, regardless of the weather, to gain experience operating in the system.  Try to learn something from every flight.  Ask questions of an instructor or experienced instrument pilot.  Read.  IFR magazine and IFR Refresher magazine are the best periodicals specifically for the instrument pilot.  Subscribe to both.  Stay current.  Purchase a serious IFR PC simulation program and use it regularly. Jeppesen Flite-Pro is no more than a hundred dollars.

An instrument rating is not so much an achievement as a commitment and an obligation.  Nothing else will so enhance the utility of your airplane as an instrument rating, but nothing else will, if misused, expose you and your passengers to so much risk.  It’s serious business.

[1] Students of statistics will note that we are speaking of absolute numbers, not percentages, so the number of pilots at each of these levels of experience will influence the statistics.  In other words, the low accident total for pilots with 1000 hours is partly a product of the relatively fewer pilots with that level of experience.

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