The Lazy Pilot’s Guide To Single-Pilot IFR Success
It’s all about managing your workload
You can be proud of the hard work you’ve put into reaching pilot status—especially if you’ve gone the extra mile to become instrument rated. Our aviation culture admires and encourages people to keep busy and work hard. We have checklists for checking everything—often more than once. We’re told to tune and identify VORs along our route of flight, even if we’re navigating with GPS, just because we might need them. We’re often reluctant to use the autopilot for fear that we’ll lose our flying skills. The work ethic is alive and well in general aviation.
You’d think this emphasis on keeping busy and working hard is a good thing, but in my view, it can work against you in an airplane—especially when you’re flying single-pilot IFR. Single-pilot IFR is the toughest, and busiest, job in all of flying. You have to do everything that two pilots do in corporate and airline operations. Plus, when things get really tough, you may have to deal with the added distraction of acting as cabin flight attendant for your concerned passengers.
If you’re that busy in single-pilot IFR, shouldn’t you plan on working a lot harder? No, you should focus on working smarter—and that means avoiding unnecessary work and shifting the work you have to do from busy periods to less busy periods. In fact, one of your major goals should be to never work too hard. You want to keep an even strain. In IFR flying, being lazy can be a very good thing.
The simplest thing you can do to reduce your workload is to make full use of your autopilot. In fact, I suggest that, like airline and corporate pilots, you turn the autopilot on soon after takeoff and keep it on until short final. Like many pilots, I used to feel guilty or inadequate when I used the autopilot. Now, I assume you’re flying single-pilot IFR not as a training exercise, but to use the airplane for transportation. If that’s the case, you don’t have to hand-fly to prove your piloting skills. You should use the autopilot to prove your management skills. In fact, in airline and corporate flying, failure to use an autopilot is considered downright amateurish because it’s failing to take advantage of your resources. Last year, there were 43 fatal IFR crashes in piston airplanes, many due to loss of control by overloaded pilots in instrument meteorological conditions. Every one of the loss-of-control fatalities would have been prevented if the pilot had made proper use of the autopilot, if the plane was so equipped.
Other people make a big point of not trusting the autopilot. Of course, you don’t want to blindly trust your autopilot. Any time the autopilot isn’t doing what you expect or want, just disconnect it and hand-fly until you have the airplane under control, then turn it back on again.
The same thing applies to using a GPS. If you find the GPS is getting between you and where you want to go with the airplane, abandon the technology and do it the old-fashioned way. But if you have it set up properly, the GPS can be a really big work-saver when things get hectic.
It also pays to be picky about the type of work you do. It’s wise to spend your time doing things that have a high probability of payoff. When you’re navigating with your GPS, the time you spend tuning and identifying en route VORs (on the remote probability that your GPS might fail) is misallocated. On an IFR flight, there’s a 100% probability that you’ll have to make an approach and landing. So you should spend your time preparing for that certainty instead of keeping yourself busy guarding against an improbable failure.
Smart managers don’t allow themselves to get wrapped up in busywork. Many pilots were taught to write down every new frequency they received so that they could always go back to an old frequency in case they couldn’t make contact on a new one. This made sense before radios had standby frequency positions. With flip-flop frequency positions, the radio automatically stores the old frequency for you. Writing the frequency down just increases your workload with little benefit.
The same thing goes for writing down headings and altitudes. If you have a heading bug, you can just move it to the new heading. If you have a place to dial in the altitude on an autopilot or an altitude alerter, writing it down just increases your workload.
A big key to keeping an even strain is shifting the workload from busy times to nonbusy times. You’ll be the least busy right before takeoff. Time spent wisely then can reap big benefits in the air. So before you start up, get your clearance, mark the route on your chart, load the route into your GPS and do a predictive RAIM (receiver autonomous integrity monitoring). It will also make things easier if you organize the charts you’ll need in a single small binder. If you wait to do all of this when you’re in the run-up area with the engine running, you’ll feel pressure to hurry through the job. That rushed feeling tells you that you’re violating the principle of keeping an even strain.
Another great place to take advantage of available time is during cruise. You can use cruise time productively to reduce the workload for the rest of the flight by briefing the approach, the missed approach and the approach you think you’d most likely use at your alternate. If you think there’s a good possibility that you might use another approach at your destination, you’ll want to brief that approach too.
While you’re briefing your approach, load or set as much information as you can into your avionics. Depending on the equipment you have, you can load frequencies and courses in advance, including frequencies for the missed approach.
If you’re going to fly a nonprecision approach, you can reduce your workload during the approach and avoid unpleasant surprises if you calculate in advance the rates of descent you’ll need between fixes. Most nonprecision approaches require a descent angle of about 300 feet per nautical mile, which works out to about three degrees. At a three-degree angle, your descent rate should be about five times your groundspeed. So at 100 knots, you’d need to descend at about 500 feet per minute.
If, on the other hand, you determine that on a particular segment of the approach you have to lose 600 feet per nautical mile, then your rate of descent would have to be twice as high—10 times your groundspeed, or 1,000 feet per minute. If you haven’t figured this out in advance, it means that you’ll either have to play catch-up ball or miss the approach. On the other hand, if you know it in advance, things will be pretty leisurely.
Another thing that can reduce your workload during the approach is doing a little visual tour around the approach chart in advance. While you’re briefing the approach, check what kind of visual glideslope they have, such as a VASI or a PAPI, so you’ll know what to look for and which side of the runway it’s on. It’s also good to check the slope angle of the lights. If you don’t know in advance that the lights have a four-degree slope, it can leave you wondering what’s wrong during your descent.
You’ll also want to check out what approach lighting system and runway lights will be available to help in that transition from IMC to visual. And if you’re landing at night and there won’t be a tower in operation, you need to check out how the lights are activated. Short final after an instrument approach is no time to try and figure out how to turn on the airport lights.
Save yourself a lot of pressure after landing, especially in low visibility or at night, by figuring out in advance how you’ll exit the runway and get to the FBO.
When you enter the terminal area, you can use one last opportunity to get ahead of things. As soon as the controller takes over your navigation by giving you a vector, you should set in the final approach course in the omnibearing selector and set up your radios. And when ATC switches you over to the final approach control frequency shown on the chart, you should tune the tower frequency into the standby position.
So if you work smart instead of hard, your single-pilot instrument flight can be calm and relaxed. As you’ve seen, flying single-pilot IFR isn’t about physical skill—it’s about workload management. Workload management means using your time and energy wisely. And that’s why, when it comes to single-pilot IFR, being lazy can be a good thing.
John King, along with his wife, Martha, are the best-known aviation educators in the world. Nearly half of all private and instrument students study with King Schools educational materials. Learn more at www.kingschools.com.