Plane & Pilot
Tuesday, February 25, 2014

20 Tips For IFR Flying

Yes, there could have been 200, but we decided to stop at 20

16 An old, bold pilot once advised me to, "Keep your brain on a swivel and be ready to ad lib at a moment's notice." While that sounds a little nonsensical, the concept is valid. If you're flying in a non-radar environment, scudding in and out of cloud, keep your third eye on the windshield. Even if you're flying at a legal IFR altitude in the clag, there may be an idiot coming the other way who's cheating the system. It's a big sky, but that doesn't preclude the possibility of conflict with someone without a rating or the brains to use it properly.

17 Most pilots flying VFR give the vacuum system short shrift, and pay most of their attention to fuel and electrical systems. Vacuum instruments obviously take on major importance in IFR conditions. Once, on a ferry flight in a Beech Duke from Amman, Jordan, to Fargo, North Dakota (ferry pilots fly to some truly exotic places), I was crossing the Italian Alps on my way into Geneva, Switzerland, and ice began to form on the wings. I watched for a while to make certain I had built up enough of a layer to justify cycling the boots. When I did, the boots inflated perfectly—and stayed inflated. I tried cycling the switch several times, but the boots continued to drain what little pneumatic pressure I had. Deice boots demand air pressure, and I quickly began to lose the gyros. Just as I was about to ask Center for a vector to the nearest airport, I popped out into the scattered puffies with magnificent Lake Geneva just ahead. Safely on the ground at Geneva-Cointrin Airport, a mechanic determined that a valve had stuck open.

18 The FAA has long contemplated a separate rating for night flying under VFR conditions. Night IFR is even more demanding, and it introduces a whole new set of variables for an instrument pilot. If flying day VFR is perhaps the easiest and simplest form of aviating, night IFR may be one of the toughest. Organization becomes far more critical in the dark. Everything is more difficult when you reduce the light level both inside and outside the cockpit. For that reason, you may want to consider flying higher to remain above the clouds in VMC, especially on a moonless night when the airspace can resemble a black hole. You might even choose a different route to avoid weather that you'd accept as normal in daylight. Some pilots who fly regular night IFR also modify their flight plan to stay closer to airports and emergency landing sites.

19 Positional awareness becomes far more critical when you're being vectored for an approach. Too often, the tendency is to breathe a sigh of relief when the controllers says "radar contact" and begins to issue vectors. Perhaps ironically, that's exactly the time to become more vigilant. As a rule, controllers are great folks who do an excellent job of keeping pilots out of trouble, but it's important to remember that you're the captain of your airplane, whether it's a J-3, a Seneca or a King Air. Don't abrogate responsibility for the safety of your flight just because a controller has you in radar contact. If you're flying in clouds, it's imperative that you know exactly where you are at all times without relying on radar assistance. Think before you accept any radar vector.

20 Circling approaches are unusual, but try to be ready for them BEFORE you leave the ground. Any approach that's more than 30 degrees off the approach runway centerline is regarded as a circling procedure. Thirty degrees isn't much of a challenge, but sometimes the offset can be 60 or 70 degrees, and that's a little tougher. Remember that what you see when you begin the circling procedure may not be what you'll see once you turn final out of circling. In the worst case, you may have low-hanging scud on short final to the runway, but not at the initial turn point. Maintain the MDA religiously throughout the procedure. Some pilots even add a slight pad, perhaps 100 or 200 feet, to give them more time to establish the descent on short final. I once witnessed a fully dirtied-up DC-10 execute a circle-to-land at Long Beach after a straight in to runway 30 and a half-circle at 500 feet to the opposite runway 12. Watching a "heavy" execute that maneuver so perfectly at such a low altitude proved to me I still had a lot to learn.


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