The Pilot’s Lounge #33:
IFR Training in IMC – What’s the Big Deal?

Many newly-minted instrument pilots earn the rating without ever having seen the inside of a cloud or flown in


The Pilots LoungeThe other day I had a very pleasant time flying with Eric as he scoured off some of the rust and demonstrated that he had a pretty good handle on this instrument flying stuff. As forecast, the weather was deteriorating, so much of the time we were in the clouds. After we landed, we sat down in a corner of the Pilot’s Lounge here at the virtual airport and, as is my practice, individually wrote out our evaluations of the flight and then talked over the entire session. I signed off Eric’s instrument competency check and we started paying attention to what was going on around us. Because of the weather, the instructors had cancelled their VFR students and were dealing with their instrument students in different ways.

One CFI was working with a pilot who was just starting his instrument rating, so the flight portion of the lesson was cancelled, and they were discussing attitude instrument flying, how the instruments themselves worked, how to scan the instruments efficiently, and, in the wake of the Governor Carnahan accident, how to detect if an instrument or instruments have failed, or if they are working and the pilot actually has vertigo, and then what to do about the situation.

One instructor was going out with a student to fly a cross country in actual conditions. Another instructor had called two of her instrument students to come out to the airport and get some time in weather. One instructor said he wasn’t willing to fly in actual conditions with instrument students. When asked why, he said the risks were too high and there was no requirement for actual instrument time in the regulations or in the practical test guide so he would not do it. He came into the Lounge and said he was going to spend the afternoon right there rather than fly in the foul weather.

I was a little surprised by this, as I had received instrument dual in actual IFR conditions and regularly gave it. A number of the pilots in the Lounge said that they had never had any experience in clouds until after they finished up their instrument ratings.

Naturally, not having much else to do but swill coffee, the eight or so of us got into a discussion of whether it was appropriate to give instrument flight instruction in instrument meteorological conditions. Of the group, a couple pilots said that their instructors hadn’t necessarily pushed them to get through the instrument rating in the minimum time, but that when they had a lesson scheduled on a bad weather day, the instructor had cancelled it. Still other pilots reported taking dual regularly in clouds as they worked on their ratings and having had the experience of flying in fairly low IFR with their instructors in the process. One said he had taken his check ride from a designated examiner who had given it in actual instrument conditions. All of the instrument-rated pilots eventually got some time flying in clouds, whether they did it during dual for the rating, on their own afterwards, or, in one case, by hiring an instructor to go with him in the clag after he had gotten the rating because he was unwilling to do it on his own the first time.

A Reason For Not Giving Dual In The Clouds

The instructor who did not feel it was appropriate to give dual in actual weather had come to us from a program where he had gotten his ratings over a period of less than two years, commonly referred to as ab initio, and had been trained to the practical test guide standards for each rating. No more, no less. His instructors had put the appropriate checks in the correct boxes, made sure he could fly the airplane to the tolerances prescribed and thus he obtained his ratings. The program was extremely well-organized, he knew the regulations cold, and could discuss the nuances of checklists, procedure turns, holding pattern entries and aircraft performance with anyone. Many of us go to him routinely on technical items. However, when he started instructing at the virtual airport he had over 500 hours of dual given, but had never landed on a grass runway and had made only one or two flights where he filed IFR and actually entered a cloud.

His rationale for not taking his instrument students into clouds made sense on one level as he did not want to run the risk of having a student lose control of the airplane in clouds and enter a diving spiral. Further, he had a very compact syllabus with which he prided himself in getting pilots through the instrument rating as quickly as possible. He believed that taking time for doing actual instrument work would interfere with that process. He wanted to get students ready for the jobs with the airlines fast. He pointed out that the FAA would not give check rides in actual instrument weather and reiterated that there was no requirement in the FARs to get any time in the clag. Once his students got hired by the commuters they would get actual instrument experience as co-pilots and by the time they were captains would have gotten plenty of time in actual weather.

It turned out his opinion was in the minority. Old Hack was the first to comment. He was just finishing up an instrument rating after over 40 years of VFR flying and scud running in all types of weather. He felt that it was absolutely wrong for an instructor not to teach a student what it was like in the real world. While he wasn’t a flight instructor, he said he’d been around long enough to learn that the sanitized world of the hood and simulator reflected the real world of ragged cloud bases and erroneous forecasts about as much as training private pilot students for cross countries in clear weather prepared them for trying to get home from a weekend trip as the Sunday afternoon weather went to 1,200 feet overcast and four miles visibility. He said he’d seen too many of those pilots die when they had to deal with even marginal weather for the first time.

A Moral Obligation of Instructors?

I listened as the discussion expanded into whether an instructor had a moral obligation to prepare a student for the real world. We all recognized that it is absolutely impossible for an instructor to prepare a student for everything that might happen to him or her outside the nest (and we knew that instructors agonized over that very issue). However, as was pointed out by one of the pilots, the Federal Aviation Regulations are, by law, only minimum standards. Several pilots were uncomfortable with the idea of instructors only teaching to minimum standards of the regulations, and no more: They had seen the results of the ab initio programs that only teach to the minimums. While they recognized that the ab initio training programs are under great pressure to churn out pilots as quickly and cheaply as possible, they also had some rather disparaging comments about the airmanship (and egos) of the resultant product. A number felt that some degree of seasoning should be provided to pilots who are obtaining ratings, so that they are not loosed on the aviation world capable of the monkey motion of steering the airplane and able to talk with ATC, but without any experience in making the go/no-go weather decisions.

Over about an hour a consensus was actually reached (I think that was probably a record). It was the general opinion that getting time in the clouds before getting the rating was a good thing overall. However, a new instrument student would not benefit greatly from flying in clouds during the first five hours or so of dual. That is the time the student is learning about attitude instrument flying, developing an effective instrument scan, the subtleties needed for minor corrections, how to use trim to make the airplane go where desired, how to add the clock into the scan and how to fly partial panel. That time is best spent in good weather so the student can concentrate on those basic skills without worrying about ATC or falling off the tightrope. Let’s face it; on occasion a student loses it and the instructor has to do the balancing act of letting the pilot go as far as possible in correcting the resultant upset and spiral before it becomes dangerous. In VFR conditions, or in a simulator, it’s not a major event. In actual IFR, even with a block of airspace open for maneuvering, things can go sour a little too fast for comfort. At the very least, an instructor needs some time with a student to have a chance to evaluate the level of risk the student presents before the two of them go poking into the clouds.

The “Oh, Wow” Factor

A Consensus Is Reached…

Our little group felt that once the initial point of training is passed, actual time in clouds is nothing but beneficial to the instrument student. A number of the pilots in the room recalled their sense of awe when they were first very close to clouds, of seeing their first glory (the circular rainbow around an airplane’s shadow on a cloud). One pilot admitted that intellectually he knew that the airplane would go right through the cloud, but emotionally, he half expected to bounce off the cloud when he first pointed the nose of an airplane at one.

Many expressed the small surprises they had on first flying in clouds. They spoke of the almost invariable bump experienced on entering or exiting the side of a cloud, but that entry or exit from the top or bottom of a cloud was usually smooth; or how fast they learned about how rough a ride to expect inside a cloud from its external appearance. They spoke of how much easier it seemed to be to fly the airplane in a cloud than when they were under the hood because they could look around the cockpit and not have to worry about “peeking” (yes, one peek is worth a thousand scans) outside.

Our instructor who did not give dual in actual conditions agreed, when pressed, that he was nervous about flying in actual weather by himself simply because he hadn’t done much of it. As we talked and he found himself opening up, he said his opinion regarding giving dual in actual conditions might have been influenced by his own discomfort with flying actual IFR.

I found myself thinking about my own, fairly strong opinions on the subject. Because of my profession, I’ve been involved in looking closely at far too many accidents over the years. Many occurred in instrument conditions to pilots with instrument ratings but little actual time flying in clouds. We humans evolved on the surface of this planet and have only been creatures of the sky since we started flying balloons in 1783, evolutionally a flicker of an eyelash of time. A tremendous amount of what we experience in flight is without parallel to our experiences on the ground. Our inbred, ground-based instincts and reactions get triggered by the sensations of flight, and unfortunately, they are often dead wrong when it comes to what is appropriate when moving about the sky. As a result, we have to learn nearly everything formally when we step into the third dimension; we don’t have thousands of years of innate behavior on which to rely. So, it is about as basic a rule as there is that when first flying VFR, we go with flight instructors. I feel that when we first fly inside a cloud it’s also a wise idea to do so with flight instructors who can help us through this massive new set of experiences.

…Someone To Watch Over Me

In my humble opinion, it’s not a bad idea for an instructor to be there the first time a pilot actually sees how the color of the cloud changes as one nears the top and that on an overcast day it’s very wise to have sunglasses handy for that moment. The brilliant whiteness of the tops and the intensity of the light after the darkness below make it tough to read see the instruments if one isn’t prepared for it. (It’s one thing for someone to explain to that pilot that the difficulty is due to the delay in the adjustment of the pupil of the eye for the changing light conditions, and another thing entirely to experience it the first time.) Besides, having someone to share the exuberance you feel the first time you break out of the top of a cloud deck makes the moment even more magical. It’s also a good idea for future reference for an instructor to be there to point out how much further they had to climb beyond that point when the student felt they were “almost on top.” At the other end of the flight, there is an emotional component to the descent through the clouds as one discovers the ever-increasing, almost sinister, blackness as the bases are neared on an instrument approach and the pilot feels the pressure build to keep the needles centered, knowing the cold, hard ground is close. Add to that the sometimes overpowering need to urinate as the approach nears minimums, it’s not a bad idea that a pilot do it for the first time with someone who has been there before, even if only for moral support.

Telling instrument students that the worst ice is usually near the cloud tops is no substitute for letting them discover it is true. I am of the opinion that much good comes from having an instructor along the first time the pilot watches the climb rate go to nothing over a period of a few minutes, just when that pilot firmly believes that climbing just a few hundred feet more will put them on top. At that moment some gentle comments by an experienced instructor may make a long-lasting impression on that pilot, such as pointing out that estimating where the tops are without a pilot report may not be a good idea. A good instructor will quietly pass along the phrase uttered by John Glenn during his first space flight, “just another 1,000 feet and I’ll be on top.” In the event the pilot is still tempted to linger overlong in the icebox portion of a cloud due to inexperience, optimism about climb performance and a longing for sunlight, the instructor can take action before the pilot learns that a block of ice has extremely poor aerodynamic qualities.

Judgment and Survival 501, Graduate Seminar

Prerequisite: Some Weather Experience…

Around the Pilot’s Lounge, I’ve always heard the instrument rating described as the thinking rating. Listening to others, far more competent than me, I’ve come to believe that the process of developing the appropriate level of judgment to make good weather-related go/no-go decisions comes from having some degree of experience with weather. I want my students to have flown through cloud bases that are smooth, making an approach to an MDA or DH that is a couple of hundred feet below the bases pretty much a sure thing. Then I want them to experience the ragged cloud bases that make approaches, “maybe so and maybe not.” I take them out in actual weather because I would like to be with them the first time the shoot an approach and, at minimums, find that they are in and out of tendrils hanging from the bases, due to the cooling effect of rain on the lower-level air, bringing it to its dew point unevenly. The first time they are not sure if they are going to see the runway, I want to be present, sitting quietly, just to be a safety net. When they spot the runway, make a play for it, drop the rest of the flaps, pull the power back and then lose the runway, I would like to be in the other seat, watching. I know that they are juggling the knowledge from the books and our discussions that they have to miss the approach; but I also know that they feel in their guts that they can blow through this “little” cloud and get to the runway.

…Your First Time…

I want to be the safety net, because I’ve looked at too many shredded airplanes and broken bodies and know that the particular decision those pilots are making right then means looking death in the face, and I want them alive. The books and lessons and lectures and hangar flying do not fully prepare a pilot for the overwhelming desire to land that comes about when a runway is glimpsed, even if only momentarily. Such an urge, if not resisted, can lead to either foolishly continuing a descent while in a “little” cloud or, perhaps even worse, trying to circle over a runway and land on it when the vertical visibility is 500 feet or so, and the horizontal visibility is about the same. Then, any turn they make will cause the runway, and all other visual references, to disappear. I’m of the opinion that seeing such situations in circumstances where an instructor can prevent a bad decision from being fatal are more likely to lead to good decision-making by pilots once they have instrument ratings and are on their own. Bad weather makes a powerful impression on a pilot. Handling it correctly once makes it more likely that it will be dealt with correctly in the future.

I want to fly in blowing snow with my students so that they can see how incredibly fast visibility can change and how a circle-to-land approach in it, or in any conditions at night, can provide food for the coffin worms.

I want to be in the right seat the first time a pilot flies into ground fog in the flare (it usually happens at night), and the world goes bright white in the reflection of the landing light. I want to be there because I’ve read the studies on what pilots do when confronted with fog, and I’ve done it and I’ve seen others do it: they shove the nose down. It’s a natural reaction. I don’t know why we do it. We just do. I just want to be there to stop it.

One in our midst said she firmly believed it was wise to fly with instrument students, in weather, at night, so that they can get a visceral understanding of the fact that it is often impossible to tell where the clouds are, something that is serious if there is ice about. She admitted that the first time she was flying along on a dark night and only realized she was in cloud when she heard a hissing noise and saw the windshield suddenly become opaque with rime ice, nearly necessitated cleaning the upholstery of the pilot’s seat. Making sure that happened to a pilot prior to acquisition of the instrument rating might just, she said, cause the newly-minted instrument pilot to make the right decision when faced with a night flight when conditions were again ripe for ice.

“…But, the Plate Says There’s Supposed to Be a Runway Here…”

More than one of the instructors said they tried to fly with instrument students when the weather was low enough to necessitate a missed approach. (They would do a little planning and scheming so that when the weather cooperated, they could provide the missed approaches by making use of a non-precision approach that had a fairly high MDA, or have the student shoot the approach to the higher, circling minimums. It would work because home plate has a precision approach for getting back in at the end of the session. They wouldn’t go unless they had minimums for the precision approach. No matter what, they also made sure they had a wide-open alternate in range if the weather went south when they were practicing.) They talked about the very interesting psychological factors they had observed in themselves and their students in every single missed approach in actual conditions. It was something they simply could not duplicate in a simulator or under the hood. It took an aircraft, clouds, uncertainty and cold sweat.

There was that awful period of time as each pilot realized that she or he wasn’t going to get in on that approach. In fact, as we discussed the reluctance a pilot always seemed to demonstrate in pitching up and initiating a missed approach in the clag, we found we were comparing the stages a pilot seemed to go through to those described by Elisabeth Kubler Ross in her magnificent study, On Death and Dying. The pilot would first deny that a missed approach would be needed; that runway was going to appear even though they were at DH, or time had run out while at the MDA, and there was not a thing to be seen. Then, at varying rates, the pilots would go through the bargaining, promises, and so forth that Ross so artfully described, before acceptance set in and the missed approach was even tentatively begun. The fact that the mental journey to acceptance and action sometimes took the pilot and the airplane well over a mile past the missed approach point was a definite cause for concern, particularly in mountainous terrain or where there were buildings or towers.

Our little group thought it a good idea to do our best to let our instrument students see this whole process of denial through acceptance and starting the missed approach, for the first time with an instructor. As the subject was discussed, I thought of the number of instrument-rated pilots I’ve met who told me they have never had an actual missed approach. I worry a little for them, for I have been fortunate enough to learn about the dangerous mind-set that develops when making instrument approaches in actual conditions – that each will result in a landing.

Old Hack mentioned that on his first actual missed approach, in clouds, with his instructor, he had gone to full power but had not started to climb. The acceleration of the airplane convinced him that he was going up. It was only when his instructor briefly pointed at the altimeter did Hack, with a horrified start, realize what was going on. I thought about that, because the effect is very real. Due to the way our inner ears are designed, we tend to sense acceleration as a climb when we are restricted to seeing only the instruments. As Hack spoke, I recalled a nasty fatal accident of a Cessna P210 near my house years ago where the conclusion was that the pilot did precisely as did Hack, but without someone to point at the altimeter before he flew the airplane into slowly rising terrain.

…Real Life Alternate Airport Considerations…

The instructors said that another reason they liked to have a session with their instrument students shooting approaches when the weather was below the non-precision MDA, and a precision approach was available, was because the students were introduced to that wonderful feeling of shooting an ILS to near minimums and getting in when the weather was crummy. Such sessions also tended to made the relatively abstract notion of an alternate airport take on new meaning, for the ceiling or visibility would only have to drop a bit to make a diversion necessary, especially because they were usually in an instrument trainer that didn’t have particularly long legs. Therefore, better weather had to be relatively close by.

Practicing in actual instrument conditions made the process of selecting an alternate something that sank into the instrument student’s consciousness and become more than an exercise of just complying with a simplistic regulation. A pilot taking off into weather learns quickly that an alternate selected only because of the needs of the destination may be whistling in the dark if problems occur shortly after takeoff and the weather is below minimums for the departure airport. The group believed that a pilot who had trained having to face reality would be more likely to have considered alternates for all stages of the flight being considered. It seemed to us that such a pilot would probably do well in the real world after jumping through the check ride hoop.

…And Transitioning to Visual References

Old Hack mentioned an area we had neglected in our discussion. He was able to wander down the approach path reasonably well, he said, but the transition to visual references was sometimes difficult. Pulling off a hood was no big deal, but on the first flight where he shot a non-precision approach in weather, he discovered that at the MDA he had to split his attention between the gauges due to poor visibility, and looking outside as he tried to find the runway. He had his hands absolutely full. He said it had caused him to do some research and learn that a number of airlines had a policy of having one pilot shoot the approach and stay on the gauges, while the other pilot, upon spotting the runway, took over and made the visual portion of the landing. The first pilot remained on the gauges through touchdown in case a missed approach became necessary at any time. It’s a great idea, but for the instrument rating the one pilot has to do it all, and it’s not easy. The FAA doesn’t require a demonstration of the ability to handle this transition in weather, but, we felt, a good instructor will do the best he or she can to teach it to an instrument student.

Please, Not In Boomers

While I am a big supporter of giving instrument students as much experience in actual weather as possible, I absolutely don’t advocate taking a student into a thunderstorm. That’s about the most foolhardy exercise in the aeronautical version of practice bleeding I can imagine. A session in moderate turbulence (as defined in the A.I.M.) combined with a comment that it is about a fifth of the challenge of flying in a thunderstorm, along with some further discussion, should be adequate to keep all but the most idiotic out of those monsters.

It’s Up To You

As the discussion spooled down and folks started to depart the Lounge, I thought over some of the comments that had been made. Overall, I came away even more convinced that instructors can do a great deal for their instrument students by introducing them to flying in the clouds. While the FAA doesn’t require such activity, I believe that an instructor should offer it to his or her students and an instrument student should demand it of an instructor.

See you next month.