Ready to Rumble

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Assessing your skills and your judgment are crucial, particularly when the weather refuses to cooperate. As reported recently in Aviation Safety, legal IFR currency isn't the whole story.

This article appeared in the July 2002 edition of Aviation Safety and is reprinted here by permission.

Flying the System

One of the nagging questions that plagues the pilot who doesn't fly every day is, "Am I really ready for this flight?" The problem is even more serious when contemplating an instrument flight, particularly when the weather is less than VMC.

The fact is that most instrument pilots find they only log about 10 percent of their time in actual IMC, and for the "average" pilot, this means very little time each year flying solely by reference to the instruments. Those who generally fly for pleasure will probably see even less of the inside of the clouds.

There's no question that skills not used lose their sharpness. But how do you know when the edge is no longer sharp enough to cut it? What can you do to keep that edge honed? And how do you sharpen it when it dulls?

The FAA stipulates certain minimum experience requirements in FAR 61.57: the "6 in 6" rule. Of course, since 1997, there's more to it than six approaches in the last six months. You must log holding procedures, which one assumes includes entry and a turn or two, and "intercepting and tracking courses through the use of navigation systems," which would be fulfilled through basic IFR flight and instrument approaches. But the key ingredient most people (and inspectors) look for is whether you have six approaches (or a completed Instrument Proficiency Check) in the preceding six calendar months.

However, compliance with the FAA's minimum legal standards is a far cry from keeping yourself up to speed for serious IFR operations. Everyone has heard the aviation axiom that what is safe isn't always legal, and what is legal isn't always safe. There are times when you can be both, there are times when you can be neither, and there are times when you can be one without the other. How does that apply here?

Imagine a pilot who, every New Year's Day and 4th of July, goes out with a hood and a friend to make six radar-vectored trips around the pattern (with one obligatory turn in holding at the outer marker on one pass) for a fully-coupled ILS approach. This keeps him FAR 61.57 IFR current year-round.

Other than that, all he does is puddle-jump to local airports on nice days for the $100 hamburger. However, one year in late December, a family reunion at a resort in a fairly remote area about 800 miles away entices him to make the trip in his own plane. This trip will involve operations in an unfamiliar area, outside radar coverage, and the only approach is an NDB. Further, the weather is forecast solid IMC for the entire trip. Not only that, the autopilot is temporarily "inop" awaiting parts, although it is properly 91.213(d) deactivated and placarded. Is this pilot really ready for this trip?

The skills required to be truly proficient for instrument flying depend, to a certain extent, on the nature of the IFR operations contemplated. It's long way from making an IFR flight on a day with pretty good weather in a simple plane you fly regularly to airports you know well expecting vectors for the visual, to being the captain of an airliner shooting his fourth Cat III ILS of the day.

Assessing Skills

The first questions one should ask is, "How do I know if I'm proficient?" What are the signs that you may need some work before you make the flight you intend to make? These are items which, if you find them creeping into your flying, should be considered warnings that even if you're legal, you may not be proficient.

In answering these questions, you should keep in mind that there are several basic areas in which you must maintain your proficiency in order to be a good IFR pilot.

1. Basic instrument flying skills: the ability to put the plane where you want it solely by reference to the instruments.

This includes basic flight instrument interpretation and stick-and-rudder skills -- holding altitude, heading and speed within Instrument PTS tolerances and being able to do so at any speed from Vso to Vb, any configuration from landing to cruise, despite the loss of any single flight instrument or all instruments powered by a single nonredundant system (e.g., without attitude and heading indicators that rely on a single vacuum system).

2. Basic instrument navigation and tracking skills: the ability to interpret all your navigation systems so you know where you are, where you are going, and how to get from here to there.

In particular, you need to assess your skill at using less-practiced equipment such as the ADF or, if you are particularly GPS-reliant, even the VOR. If you can't enter and fly a holding pattern at an intersection with only one VOR, you need work.

3. Familiarity with instrument charts: the ability to examine and elicit all necessary data from the charts used for IFR flying (primarily en route and approach charts) quickly and accurately.

This includes being able to pick out that which must be memorized at each stage of an approach so you don't have to include the approach chart in your scan as you approach MDA or hit the MAP.

4. Comfort operating "in the system": the ability to hear, understand and respond to ATC quickly and accurately.

Part of this requires that you be familiar enough with what to expect so you can pick things out when the frequency is crowded and the controller is talking fast. Another part is being able to get information on the first reading and respond quickly.

Becoming a Taskmaster

IFR operations are more than just controlling the aircraft or flying canned procedures. Particularly for the single-pilot operator, it is a delicate balancing act in which the pilot must also be a task manager, prioritizing the basic tasks of "aviate, navigate, and communicate." It requires the pilot to be able to take care of the fundamentals without using so much of his attention that the other tasks get shoved aside.

These include keeping track of fuel, looking ahead down the route, keeping up on weather along the route and at the destination and alternate, refolding and reading en route charts, monitoring radio chatter for information that may be of significance, and staying far enough ahead of the airplane that you plan your descent properly and arrive in the terminal area ready to commence the approach.

If you find that you have trouble staying ahead of the plane, or that you are regularly wandering off altitude or heading when you try to juggle charts or set up radios, this is a major warning sign. No one can look away from the gauges for more than a brief period before the airplane starts to wander. Yet, there are many other issues to deal with in the instrument cockpit. That's why you have to keep your attention moving between the basic task of flying the plane and other major tasks (navigation and communication).

As a rule, you should not look away from the basic flight instruments for more than five or 10 seconds at a time -- less on the approach. If you find that when you look away to other tasks, the airplane has drifted outside PTS standards (100 feet of altitude or 10 degrees of heading), then you have looked away too long. If that happens often, it's a sign that you are not able to pick up and process the other information quickly enough.

Some pilots try to fix this problem by using the autopilot. While an autopilot can be a valuable tool, it should never be a crutch. If you find you can't hold airspeed/altitude and keep the needles centered by hand, particularly during approaches, you have a serious problem.

Some pilots may find they can fly the plane just fine by hand when nothing else needs doing, but they need to "give it to George" to complete such tasks as copying clearances, checking charts or filling out logs. This is a sign that either you are not able to interpret the flight instruments quickly enough, or you are having problems shifting your attention from task to task.

If you find that you need the autopilot to fly the plane while you see to those other tasks, even during cruise legs, then you are relying on the autopilot too much.

Safe and Legal

It is interesting to note the divergence between the issues discussed above and the FAA requirements for IFR currency. There is nothing in FAR 61.57(c) about dealing with en route operations, clearances, flight planning or weather. You can become legally current without even talking on the radio! Simply going up on a nice VFR day with a safety pilot and making an approach several times at a nontowered airport will fill the square whether you talk to ATC or not. The problem is that safe instrument flying involves a lot more than just being able to fly a single well-practiced instrument approach.

In examining all of this, one point should come through -- simple compliance with the instrument experience requirements of the regulation is not enough to maintain instrument proficiency. Proficiency comes from using your instrument skills on a routine basis, and those skills encompass a much larger spectrum than that covered in FAR 61.57. The two questions that follow are how do you keep your proficiency up and how do you regain lost proficiency?

The maintenance of proficiency is really very simple -- exercise. The key is making sure you exercise all the areas of skill required. It's sort of like a physical fitness program -- if all you do is arm curls, your lower back will never gain the strength it needs.

It's not necessary to exercise every skill on every flight, but make sure that in the flying you do, you find ways to exercise them all at various times on various flights. Further, if you find there are areas you are not exercising, it's important to see that you exercise them some other way.

When Routine Isn't

Sometimes VMC still requires flying on instruments.

As noted above, there are four basic areas in which you need proficiency: basic instrument flying, instrument navigation and tracking, familiarity with charts, and comfort operating "in the system." You can exercise each on routine flights.

If you fly IFR a lot, you'll probably get a good bit of basic instrument flying on a regular basis. The key for those who do not is both practice and using good basic flying technique.

The modern integrated approach to aircraft control provides guidelines by which you can use basic instrument techniques even when flying visually. The fundamentals of attitude and power control to produce desired performance do not change when one transitions from the real horizon outside to the artificial horizon inside. By striving for precise control of airspeed, heading, altitude, and other performance parameters during every flight, the basic techniques are exercised. Just because you're flying VFR in good weather doesn't mean you can't nail a precise 500 fpm descent to the traffic pattern, arriving at the proper speed when you hit the 45 to downwind.

For most pilots, getting practice at radio navigation interception and tracking doesn't seem to be a problem. In fact, it sometimes seems that the problem is that too many pilots overuse their VORs and GPS on clear days, when they should be practicing basic visual navigation techniques.

The problem is more that pilots tend to use the most advanced gear in their panel and lose proficiency on the other equipment. If you have a GPS, try using the old VOR now and then. No matter what, if you have an ADF, practice with it occasionally. If there's an AM radio station along your route, try using it to track your way from as far away as you can receive it from time to time. And don't settle for "homing" on the station. Exercise the techniques such as "double the error" to create as straight a track as possible from where you were when you picked up the station all the way in.

Another thing you can do to practice is to keep a hood or Foggles handy. Then whenever you happen to find your right seat occupied by someone with the appropriate ratings and a current medical, you can slap it on and get some simulated instrument work.

You don't have to make the flight a dedicated instrument training sortie -- just do whatever you were going to do anyway, only do it with the hood on. Just 10 or 15 minutes of practice during an otherwise routine flight every few weeks can make a world of difference.

If you aren't getting enough basic practice in your routine flying, the modern PC flight simulation programs provide a good bit of instrument interpretation practice even if you can't log the time. If you have access to a certified PC-ATD, FTD or simulator, you can get practice on your own even without an instructor present -- you just can't log it. The objective in these sessions should be to try to fly precise patterns -- making your track look like it was drawn with drafting instruments.

Work on the four fundamentals as well as VOR/ADF navigation and tracking. Holding patterns in particular can be exercised with simulation systems, giving you the opportunity to look at your track and see if it's a nice racetrack or a wobbly egg shape.

Approach charts in particular are an area where a lot of people lose proficiency. We know so well the approaches to our home fields and the others we frequent that we need little more than a brief review to bring all the numbers back to mind.

One trick that works very well to help brush up on your chart study skills is to pick out an approach at random from your book, and try to learn it accurately with only a few minutes of study. Practice learning the important items in chunks (i.e., IAF to FAF, FAF to MAP, MAP to missed approach fix), as that's the way you'll use them in flight.

Flying "in the system" also requires practice. One way to get that is to file IFR even when the weather is good. But even if you're going VFR, you can still practice working with the controllers. If you live inside Class B or C airspace, you get plenty of that on a routine basis. For the rest of the world, most ATC facilities are happy to provide radar service to VFR aircraft. While receiving this service, you're doing just about everything in the way of communication and the receipt and execution of ATC instructions short of receiving hard clearances.

Become P-Brained

But what happens if you find you aren't up to where you should be? The most important thing to remember is that even a properly administered IPC will not by itself bring you up to speed. An IPC is just that -- a check of your ability to perform a selection of tasks from the instrument practical test. Typically, this will be more of an evaluation than a training session.

At the end, the instructor will sit down and decide if your performance was up to where it should be. If it is, congratulations, and the endorsement goes in the logbook. If not, you and your instructor need to identify and discuss the areas needing more work and plan the training needed to fix it.

One of the big issues about regaining proficiency is that most pilots are not well-equipped to fairly and dispassionately evaluate their own performance. While going out with a peer safety pilot is fine for practicing, few of us have the ability to see what we're doing wrong as we do it, and then recognize the specific ways to fix what we're doing wrong. That's why it's important that any time your proficiency is in question, you get with an instrument instructor to work it out.

This is a very important point -- you do not regain lost proficiency simply by flying a canned IPC profile over and over until you can nail it. The real world for most GA pilots means going different places all the time -- often places you've never seen before. Being able to handle new approaches, different routings and strange procedures is part and parcel of the GA pilot.

For those reasons, a proficient IFR pilot must go beyond the mechanics of instrument flying, and develop ways to manage each flight as it progresses. The keys to this are my three P's of aviation: Planning, Procedures and Pacing.

Planning means to approach each flight as though it were an instrument check ride. Dig into the books to find the preferred routes that you can expect from ATC. After all, if you spend time working out a nice flight plan and log (or download it from a computerized flight planning system), your time is better used if the route you plan is the route you are actually going to get -- or at least close to it.

Take the time to examine each approach at the destination and alternate. Get a good idea of the vertical profile you want to fly from FAF to the runway so that you are in a good position to land rather than finding yourself just reaching MDA and breaking out 500 feet over the approach end of the runway. Familiarize yourself with the terminal area, so you can keep a mental picture going as you are being vectored around. Identify the points at which you want to go off to get weather updates, or the ATIS for your destination.

Procedures means to break the flight down into segments -- departure, climb, level-off, cruise, descent, arrival and approach. Have checklists to execute at each transition. Use those procedures on every flight until they are ingrained habits. Know what you should be doing at each step along the way.

Pacing means to execute the plan you developed. Use your procedures to stay ahead of the game. The better your planning and procedures, the easier it will be to pace yourself during the flight.

The nice thing about the three P's is that, while they are essential to being a proficient IFR pilot, they are not exclusive to instrument flying. By making them part of what you do on every flight, you help practice the skills not tested in an IPC or demanded by FAR 61.57 that you still need to keep yourself out of trouble when your airplane is in the soup.

What Counts for Currency

One question that comes up a lot is how to decide if an approach counts for currency. FAR 61.57 says the approach must be conducted under actual or simulated instrument conditions. However, the question is often raised as to how much of the approach must be under those conditions.

It's pretty easy if you're flying under the hood, since most folks put the hood on early and leave it there until DH/MDA when the safety pilot or instructor says, "OK, you just broke out" -- it counts, without question. It is more of a problem when one is flying a routine hop under IFR but unhooded. How do you decide if the approach you shot counts?

Clearly, very few actual approaches are flown all the way to DH/MDA in actual instrument conditions. If they were, you'd miss the approach most times, and those conditions really are quite rare. While the regulations have a good bit to say about what constitutes "actual instrument conditions," they are strangely silent about what conditions are required for an approach to count.

The folks at AFS-600 in their Part 61 FAQ file make it clear that you do NOT have to be in FAR 91.155 IMC to be in "actual instrument conditions" -- a dark, overcast night over unlit terrain, or an extremely hazy summer day with no visible horizon and little ground view, are examples of conditions in which you might be in legal VMC but flying the aircraft solely by reference to the instruments and relying on visual lookout only for traffic avoidance. In such conditions, you can legally log instrument time even if you aren't in what the regs define as IMC.

When one talks to FAA inspectors, one finds that the lack of standardization endemic to the Flight Standards Division is as evident in this area as in many others. Some inspectors will tell you that unless the entire approach is in IMC from the IAF to the MAP, it does not count for currency. At the other extreme, others will say that if you're in IMC at any time between IAF and MAP, it counts. And there are plenty of answers in between. What's a pilot to do?

My personal standard is as follows: If any of the following three conditions occurs, I log the approach as "actual":

  • I'm in actual IMC at any time from FAF to MAP.
  • The airport to which the approach is being flown is reporting weather below 91.155 VMC.
  • I'm flying the aircraft solely by reference to the instruments, and logging actual instrument time, regardless of the reported weather.

My justification for this is that in all three situations, I'm really flying the approach solely by reference to the instruments -- and that, as I see it, is the true test of whether my instrument skills are necessary to successfully complete the approach and whether my instrument skills are being exercised enough to sustain my instrument flying proficiency.

Just How Current is "Current"?

FAR 61.57 requires that, in order to act as PIC under IFR, you must have made six approaches in the preceding six calendar months. It also allows you to regain currency for a limited period after running out, after which an Instrument Proficiency Check (formerly "Instrument Competency Check") is required to regain IFR currency. And it also confuses a lot of pilots as to how to determine if they're current or not.

The problem is that a lot of pilots look at it as a currency, like a BFR or medical certificate that runs out on a certain date. Since IFR currency is a rolling date, it is much easier to consider it a "lookback" problem rather than an "expiration" issue. And keep in mind that the first calendar month preceding this month is last month, i.e., if this is July, the first preceding month is June.

In order to find your "drop dead" date, start looking backwards in your logbook from today until you find a total of six instrument approaches, holding procedures, and nav tracking. Note the month in which the earliest of those six approaches occurred. That month becomes the sixth previous calendar month for your computations, and you are good for the next six succeeding calendar months.

Let's say this is July, and in looking back, you find one approach in June, two in May, and three approaches in April. You are good for the six months succeeding April (i.e., May, June, July, August, September, and October). If you do not fly another approach before then, October 31st is the last date on which you will have IFR currency. In other words, on October 31, you still had six approaches logged in the preceding six calendar months (September, August, July, June, May, and April). Keep this date in mind, because it will become important if you don't shoot another approach all summer.

As the summer progresses, you can update your "drop dead" date as you fly additional approaches. If you shoot three more approaches in August, you can do another "lookback" check, and you find that the month in which your sixth approach counting backwards is now May (3 in August, none in July, 1 in June, and 2 in May). That means your new "drop dead" date is the end of November (the sixth month after May).

But let's say that due to the beautiful weather, you do not fly another approach before October 31. On November 1, your lookback is dead, as the preceding six calendar months (May, June, July, August, September, and October) only contain three approaches, leaving you three short and non-current. How do you regain legal currency?

Simple -- go out with a buddy and shoot three approaches under the hood. Now you have three in November, one in June, and two in May for a total of six, and you're good to go (at least until the end of November, when May falls out the back of the lookback window and you need two more approaches to replace the two from May and get back up to six).

The FAA, however, feels that if you go too long without maintaining instrument currency, you are going to be so short on proficiency that they want someone with the proper qualifications to be sure you've still got the right stuff. Therefore, if you fall out of currency for more than six months, you must take an Instrument Proficiency Check from an instrument instructor or other authorized individual (see FAR 61.57(d)(2) for the full list). How do you know if you're in this situation?

You must look back to find the last date you were instrument current, and see if that date was within the preceding six calendar months. If not, you are IPC-bait. In the example above, our pilot originally ran out of instrument currency on October 31. If he does not regain instrument currency within the next six calendar months (i.e., by April 30), he will need an IPC to regain currency no matter how many approaches he and his safety pilot buddy fly on May 1.

Also, although it is not clearly stated in FAR 61.57, according to Allen Pinkston at AFS-600, a satisfactory IPC makes you current no matter how many approaches you've flown in the last six months. This counts both for currency to fly as PIC under IFR (the six-month clock) and as the last date you were IFR-current for the out-of-currency lookback. The last part means that if you had an IPC within the preceding 12 calendar months, and haven't flown an approach since, you can still get recurrent by going out with a safety pilot and a hood and doing your six approaches, holding, and intercept/tracking.