In the moving-map, GPS-approach-certified environment of today, many new pilots are encouraged to concentrate on obtaining their instrument ticket and on maintaining proficiency in the IFR system whenever and wherever they fly. Many think this is a good thing. AVweb's Howard Fried is not among them, however. For one, VFR navigation skills — like any others — deteriorate if they're not used regularly. And what happens when the electricity driving that hyper-expensive instrument panel takes a vacation?
October 1, 2000
|About the Author ...
Howard Fried started flying with the Army Air Corps in WWII, where he
served both as a multi-engine instructor pilot and in combat piloting B-17s.
After a stint teaching sociology and on-the-air and management jobs in the
radio business after the war, he turned to teaching flying again full-time.
Over 40,000 general aviation hours later, he is still instructing
and running his own flight school. Along the way he administered over 4,000 flight tests
as a Designated Examiner until victimized by rogue FAA
He has authored two popular flying books aimed at student pilots and
instructors, Flight Test Tips and Tales and Beyond The Checkride, and a
series of audio tapes, Checkride Tips from
Flying's Eye Of The Examiner.
long ago, I was in the office of the Chief Flight Instructor at an FAA Part
141 approved flight school when a young man came in fresh from passing his
Private Pilot certification check ride. Amid all the congratulations, one of
the things the chief instructor told him was that he should start his
instrument training at once, without even slowing down. I believe this advice
to have been wrong. Here's why.
In that part of the country the weather is VFR some 350 or more days of the
year, but when it is IMC, even the birds are walking. Yet a VFR pilot is
looked down upon as something less than a complete pilot. Just as with the
freshly-minted private pilot above, the pressure on VFR-only pilots to acquire
an instrument rating is enormous. Sure, we've come a long way from the time
when even the air carriers flew VFR, but not only are flight schools and
flight instructors encouraging every single pilot to become IFR rated, but the
FAA itself seems to be pushing everyone in that direction.
this? Is it because a pilot with an instrument rating is necessarily a safer
pilot? Statistics do not bear this out. A non-current instrument-rated pilot
is not nearly as safe a pilot as the one without an instrument rating. Unless
currency is maintained, instrument skills deteriorate rapidly. Until the last
change in FAR
Part 61 (certification of Pilots and Flight Instructors), a private
applicant was required to show some instrument time on his or her application,
even though it could be as little as one tenth of an hour. Now, however, with
the recent change, the private applicant must have a minimum of three hours of
instrument training. I question whether this is a good thing. It may enable
the non-instrument-rated pilot to get out of IMC after blundering into such
conditions, but such a pilot has no business being there in the first place.
What it also does is encourage the non-instrument-rated pilot to think he or
she can get away with flying in IMC, and this is an invitation to disaster.
Not long ago I wrote an Eye of Experience column in which I pointed out
that not everyone needs or should have an instrument rating. I know that some
of the stuff I write is quite controversial, but with one exception that
column brought forth more criticism than anything else I have ever written. It
was as though I was preaching heresy. Why must the fair-weather,
Sunday-afternoon pilot feel such pressure to acquire an instrument rating that
he neither needs nor wants? I also wonder if the pressure pushing pilots
toward the instrument rating has contributed to the degradation of basic VFR
skills that we see today. I'm sure this column will also produce a bunch of
My first Eye of Experience column for AVweb
was entitled "A Lost Art?" and dealt with the fact that pilots today
are notably lacking in basic skills of pilotage and ded (deductive) reckoning.
While flying around the outback in Australia earlier
this year, it was brought forcefully to my attention just how important
ded reckoning navigation skill really is.
the availability of GPS, people are likely to forget how to navigate with a
compass and clock, but GPS is prone to occasional failure. Then what? With
miles and miles of identical terrain around, and fuel available only a great
distance away, precise navigation by ded reckoning becomes essential to
survival. VORs in Australia are few and far between, and although there are
lots of NDBs, in the event of a total electric failure, even these are
useless. Total electric failures, although not common, do happen from time to
time, and in the event of a total failure of the electric system in the
aircraft one must not only know precisely where he or she is but must be able
to hold an exact heading and fly a proper track to the destination or at least
to an airport where fuel is available, and perhaps even a maintenance
Every tuft of grass looks just like every other tuft of grass, every bush
looks just like every other bush, and every sandhill is exactly like every
other sandhill. With no obvious landmarks available, pilotage is out of the
question and navigation by time, distance, and track is the only means
available. To succeed at this, one must, of course, be aware of exactly what
the wind is doing to his or her flight path over the ground, and this requires
an intimate knowledge of basic meteorology. All it takes is just a few degrees
off course, and one becomes hopelessly lost. And being lost in a wilderness
such as Australia's outback is something less than desirable!
I was flying as part of a group of eight airplanes in the Australian outback,
one of the airplanes experienced a total electric failure (the alternator
died), and two things became immediately apparent: One, if the pilot had not
had two other airplanes in the group right there to lead her to the
destination she would have been lost in the wilderness; and, two, she was
unaware of what was happening as the alternator slowly gave up the ghost. I
attribute both of these problems to inadequate training on the part of her
instructor. This pilot had simply failed to regularly scan her instruments.
Had she been doing so she would have noted the fact that the battery was
slowly draining down and she could have turned everything off via the master
switch, from time to time turning on the GPS only to check her course and
track. And had she been properly trained in the techniques of ded reckoning,
it wouldn't have mattered. She would have been capable of simply proceeding on
her way to the destination. By knowing precisely where she was, the distance
to the destination, and the heading required to fly a direct course to that
destination, she could have timed the flight from where she was to the
destination, and when the time en route had elapsed, she could have looked out
and seen an airport. Of course, you can't get from here to there unless you
know where "here" is, so precise knowledge of one's present position
at all times is very important, and many pilots are careless in this regard.
Even more recently I found myself flying a cabin-class twin en route from
Las Vegas, Nev., to Albuquerque, N.M., when the avionics all died and the wet
compass lost its fluid. It was 60 degrees off on some headings and 30 degrees
on others. Fortunately the weather was CAVU with over 50 miles of visibility
and we were able to navigate by pilotage by climbing to a higher altitude
we could see a few cities and make our way to the destination.
On another occasion, not too many years ago, I took off from Honolulu
International Airport in Hawaii in a Skyhawk and flew all around the islands,
landing for lunch at Maui with a former student (now retired and living
there), and overnighting on the big island of Hawaii. Because of the
mountainous terrain on the islands, I was out of radio communication and
navigation range and out of sight of land over the Pacific Ocean for
quite a while. All I could do was hold a heading and hope some land showed up
in the distance. Somehow it always did. However, had I not applied the
rudiments of ded reckoning, the result could have been disastrous.
not sure that the introduction by the FAA in 1967 of a smattering of
instrument training in the primary curriculum was such a great idea. Its
purpose was to prepare a VFR-only pilot to keep the airplane upright while
executing a 180-degree turn back out of IMC into which he/she had
inadvertently blundered a noble purpose indeed. However, what that change
has done, among other things, is encourage foolhardy pilots to attempt to
tackle weather and conditions for which they are not adequately prepared,
often with disastrous results. Perhaps we were better off back in the days
when we scared our students by telling them, "See that cloud over there
in the sky? Go into that cloud and you're gonna die!" That system worked
pretty well except for the foolhardy individual who failed to heed the warning
very few VFR-only pilots inadvertently blundered into clouds.
Practicing with a view-limiting device (a hood, foggles, or whatever) is
far different from experiencing the real thing. I'll never forget what a shock
it was the first time I flew in hard IMC, solid on the gages, and I'm
virtually certain everyone else can remember that shock just as vividly as he
or she remembers his/her first solo flight when the instructor got out and
said, "Take it around by yourself." In fact, it sometimes happens
that when a newly-rated instrument pilot experiences IMC for the first time,
he or she has to put on a hood or other view-limiting device to keep the
airplane upright they feel more comfortable with it on.
The old training saw that maintains that "One peek is worth ten hours
of dual" although true creates a situation in which the student is
cheating him/herself. I remember one occasion when I was administering an
instrument certification check ride when the applicant on the ILS approach had
the localizer wired with the needles right in the center of the donut. I
glanced over and he seemed to be peering over the glareshield. I covered the
windscreen with a chart and the airplane immediately went into a dance. The
localizer needle went to full-scale deflection and the applicant ripped off
the hood and said, "Let's go back. I can't do this."
remember reading, back in the 1950s, an article in Leighton Collins' great
little magazine, Air Facts, about an instructor at Teterboro, N.J., who saw a
former student of his with a yardstick in hand and charts spread over the wing
of his airplane down on the ramp. The instructor asked what he was doing and
the former student replied that he was planning a trip to Florida. The
instructor folded up all the charts, handed them to the pilot and told him,
"Take off, fly east, and when you come to the first ocean turn right.
After while you'll come to Florida!" That would be pilotage following
the shoreline all the way.
The basic means of VFR navigation is, of course, pilotage. Back in the days
when the Cub and the Champ were the primary trainers, we taught out students
to hold a steady course by the magnetic compass (while it was actively
bobbling around), pick out a landmark along the courseline ahead and fly
toward it. As we neared that landmark, we picked out another farther along and
by flying from one landmark to the next and so on it was possible to cross the
entire country. If a pilot could successfully make a 100-mile cross-country
he/she could make one of a thousand or more miles.
Now, with all the wonderful avionic navigation aids, that kind of flying is
indeed a lost art. And in many ways that's too bad because a portion of the
fun and the challenge has gone out of the game.
Today's pilots are moving farther and farther away from being airmen and
closer and closer to becoming what I am pleased to call "equipment
managers" and it is a whole lot less fun!
Usual Boilerplate: If you have a comment regarding this
column, please post it here rather than sending it to me by direct email. That
way others may benefit from your input.