Last month, we published a list of 20 tips we hoped might help keep you healthy and happy during VFR flight. VFR operation dominates much of general aviation, not because we’re not smart enough to fly IFR, but because flying surrounded by clouds is like operating inside a milk bottle.
Most of us who write about airplanes for a living are forced to fly IFR frequently in order to stay on schedule and realize maximum utility from our airplane. Those who operate in IMC long enough are bound to learn a little about it, and since I’ve probably learned as little as anyone, here’s Plane & Pilot‘s list of 20 tips for IFR flying. Some of these aren’t exactly revelationary, others are more all-encompassing. We hope you’ll find at least one that helps simplify the sometimes complicated IFR process.
1 If you’re trained, qualified and current for IFR, file it and fly it. I have many friends who work hard to earn their instrument tickets, then refuse to file because they’re afraid of the added complexity of the IFR system. Here in Southern California, we have several months in the spring and early summer when we have early morning low clouds and fog, and that’s often the limit of IFR exposure for many pilots, a quick punch through the low clouds to on top. Certainly, you shouldn’t wade into situations you can’t handle, but the IFR rating becomes little more than an expensive bragging right if you don’t use it to maximum advantage.
2 Most general aviation pilots simply don’t fly when the weather is truly adverse. Others indulge in a considerably more thorough weather briefing to determine what they’ll do if the atmospherics go downhill faster than expected. Obviously, you should inquire about your destination and your alternate, but I always like to ask, “Where is it good?” and see if I have sufficient fuel to divert to that destination as a last resort. I’ll do the same thing for my proposed route structure, sometimes planning my flight through the least inhospitable weather.
3 A clearance isn’t sacrosanct. If you file an IFR flight plan and receive a clearance you don’t like, you have two choices. Accept the clearance, depart and try to negotiate a better plan with ATC, or shut down, call flight service and find out the nature of the problem. Don’t fight it out with the guy on the other end of the radio. Remember that ground control and/or clearance delivery are merely messengers that can only communicate your displeasure to higher authority. If you insist on arguing with them, you’ll only succeed in tying up the frequency and irritating everyone else trying to use their services. Better to accept the flawed clearance, depart and work it out with someone who can actually do something about it.
4 Similarly, if you receive a directive in flight that you disagree with for safety reasons, you’re not obligated to comply. Once, many years ago, I was delivering an Aerostar from Toussus-le-Noble, France to Boston and was assigned a very low 8,000 feet over the North Sea for the first leg up to Wick, Scotland. I had filed for 20,000 feet, it was early spring and there was ice at lower levels, pretty common in the U.K. during the cold months. I suggested to the always courteous British controller that I was picking up ice and needed higher, and he gave me a series of “Standbys.” Finally, after about 15 minutes of this, I said, “London, Aerostar 3274B is requesting higher for the seventh time. We’re icing up at this altitude. If you can’t approve higher, I’ll declare an emergency and initiate climb to my original flight plan altitude of FL200.” There was a short pause followed by, “Aerostar 74B, cleared to climb and maintain FL200. Report reaching.” You may have to explain your actions later, but better that than to compromise the safety of your flight.
5 If thinking ahead of the airplane is important in VFR flight, it’s absolutely critical in IFR. For that reason, budget your time carefully, and don’t give the airplane a chance to get ahead of you. On most IFR flights, there’s just too much to do to allow daydreaming about the new Garmin 750 you’re planning to have installed next week. Have the charts laid out prior to departure, and make certain you have appropriate approach plates for your destination, alternate, and any other possible airport ready and available. If you’re flying at night, carry at least one camp light that you can strap to your forehead, so you won’t have to scramble if an instrument or an entire panel goes dark.
6 Loss of communications in IFR conditions has some rules that most pilots are familiar with. If all com is lost, ATC will expect you to do exactly what you had originally planned: fly your flight plan route, shoot the normally assigned approach and land. If you’ve lost transmit only, one trick you may not have heard is to tune in the audio of the last or the next VOR and listen for your call sign. Even if you’re flying with GPS, tune the nearest VOR to see if anyone is calling. If you hear your call sign, you may be able to respond to ATC using squawk/idents with discrete transponder codes.
7 Airline and military pilots can’t even initiate an approach unless both ceiling and visibility are at or above minimums, but general aviation pilots can “take a look.” Ceiling is always critical on every approach, as there’s obviously nothing to hit if you’re over the threshold at minimums and there’s no runway in sight, but visibility is often a judgment call. If you fly an approach to minimums, especially down to a typical DH of 250 feet on an ILS and you have the lights in sight, you have the prerogative of landing. Even if the tower is reporting less than the required visibility, the controller is usually nowhere near the runway threshold. True, he may be reporting RVR, but he’s still not in your cockpit. If you can see the lights, you’re legal to complete the approach and land. Just remember, what’s legal and what’s smart may be two very different things.
8 Fly higher on practically every IFR flight than you would on a VFR trip. It’s an intelligent hedge when you consider that everything becomes more critical in IFR conditions. No matter how low the MEA, file for 9,000 to 12,000 rather than settle for lower levels. Except in mountainous terrain, even most winter weather tops at that height or less, and IFR on top is a lot more comfortable than flying in the clouds. Also, if an engine quits, the taller altitude provides a little more time to troubleshoot and get ready for the emergency landing.
9 Consider using a “cruise clearance” if conditions allow it. It’s one of the least known and most poorly understood clearances. A cruise clearance can expedite your flight and help streamline the process of cruise, descent and approach. Most cruise clearances clear you direct to the next navaid or destination, operating at any altitude from the specified height down to the MEA. You need not report leaving your altitude for descent, and you can be confident you’re the only traffic in the area. You’re automatically cleared for the approach at your destination, and your only obligation is to report “landing assured” or that you’re executing the miss and going to plan B. This is a common procedure flying into non-tower airports on many of the mid-Pacific Islands, such as Majuro in the Marshalls and Tarawa in the Kiribatis, but it can work just as well in light traffic anywhere.
10 No question about it—IFR clearances are more serious business than VFR flight. But don’t allow yourself to be cowed by the fact that you’re flying IFR. While tolerances are tighter under IFR conditions, your rights as an IFR pilot don’t change when you’re wrapped in cloud. You’re expected to operate within 200 feet of your assigned altitude and to maintain the assigned heading or course, but don’t be paranoid about the consequence of not doing so. If the air is bumpy or you’re having instrument or radio problems, tell the controller. Unless he or she believes you’re a complete idiot, you’ll almost never sustain a violation.
11 In fact, controllers can be your best friends. Flying a Cessna 340 from Pennsylvania on the last leg into Long Beach, I began to lose the HSI as I descended for the IFR approach. Uncharacteristically, the turbulence was fierce. Long Beach was reporting 300 and 1, barely above minimums, and there was a NOTAM for moderate to severe below 12,000 feet. Several pilots had already complained of the chop. I confirmed it. As I was being vectored for the ILS, the HSI finally quit completely, and things got very busy. Trying to hold a heading with the whiskey compass was almost impossible, as it was swinging 90 degrees left and right. My scan quickly deteriorated to merely trying to keep the airplane under control. I was encountering strong up- and downdrafts, trying to hold a semblance of a heading and stay within 500 feet of my assigned altitude. Several preceding pilots (who presumably had working DGs) had opted to go to their alternates. With no working DG/HSI available, I had to make do. Finally, after three tries to get on the localizer at somewhere near the proper altitude, a new controller came on the freq and asked if I’d like a no-gyro approach. I said yes, I had been there before, and he told me to concentrate on airspeed and altitude and he’d take care of heading. After a series of “start turn” and “stop turn” commands, he got me to the localizer where I could navigate with the localizer needle, and I was able to zigzag down the ILS, break out at minimums and land. To my surprise, no one gave me a phone number to call, and there was no inspector waiting to check my HSI. Three cheers for that talented controller, whoever he may be.
12 Every pilot is taught in training to familiarize himself with the missed approach procedure in case he can’t land out of the first approach. A better mind-set, however, is to assume you definitely won’t land on that first attempt. Even if the weather is well above minimums, the airplane is running perfectly and you’re feeling great, don’t fall into the trap of assuming the landing is guaranteed. Memorize as much of the missed approach procedure as you can, at least the initial heading and altitude, so you’ll actually be prepared for a miss rather than surprised by it.
13 Since we’re addressing the missed approach, consider for a moment the number of pilots who have come to grief, because they weren’t prepared for an abort. That’s not hard to understand, since real-world aborts are extremely rare. I’ve had a total of three in nearly 40 years and 3,000 hours of IFR flying. The steps are numerous and critical, and if you don’t accomplish them successfully and in the proper order, you may be in deep trouble. The first step (after you level the wings, in case you’re still maneuvering) is to power up to arrest the descent and bring the nose up to at least a level flight attitude. Then, you’ll want to reduce drag by retracting the gear. Next, most pilots will reposition the flaps to the takeoff setting to maximize lift. While you’re doing all of this, you’ll be trimming the nose up for climb to reduce the yoke/stick pressure, opening the cowl flaps, etc. If this all sounds like a three-handed process, that about sums it up. Do the best you can with only two hands.
14 Don’t automatically file for what appears to be the most direct route, especially when operating overseas. On the 650 nm leg from Reykjavik, Iceland, to Wick, U.K., there are two typical routes. The most direct and the one most pilots are encouraged to file takes the aircraft through three FIRs (Flight Information Regions): Iceland, Shanwick and Scottish. If you file that trip, you’ll save about five to seven minutes in Shanwick airspace, but you’ll spend an extra $170 in airways fees for the privilege. If you file for Reykjavik direct to 60N 10W and then direct to Wick, you’ll extend your trip by about 20 miles, but you’ll only operate in two FIRs, Iceland and Scottish, and you’ll save that $170.
15 In this age when GPS simplifies every aspect of navigation, it’s fairly easy to cross waypoints exactly on time and hit ETAs within a few minutes. Even so, consider using only two operational airspeeds during IFR, one for climb and approach and the second for cruise. When it’s time to descend, throttle back just enough to allow the airplane to maintain the same cruise speed. Most often, you can use the same number for climb and approach—Vy and normal approach speed are often the same, anyway—but consider using only one number for descent and cruise speed to keep the calculations easy. In VFR, it’s okay to come down in a penetration descent, but you can simplify the math by using the KISS principle in IFR. (This obviously won’t work when you’re operating with an approach speed based on weight.)
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.