Achieve Higher IFR Proficiency

Flying instruments can be more enjoyable and less stressful if you renew some basic skills.

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The instrument rating is probably the most challenging step-up in aviation—and this is coming from an ATP with a couple of jet type ratings. With the rating in your pocket, how can you make flying easier and more satisfying? How to stay proficient? Chances are your CFII started you out with most of the following recommendations but they may have become a bit hazy over the years—so let’s refresh.

An important skill in a pilot’s repertoire is a thorough understanding of the Pitch + Power = Performance equation for each aircraft type. Pilots must know the power setting and configuration (pitch/flaps/gear) needed to achieve a desired airspeed for level flight as well as climbs or descents.

For example, establish the preferred airspeed for the initial phase of an instrument approach in level flight and verify the selected flap setting. For most single-engine airplanes, 90 KIAS is a good target. Note the power and pitch setting required.

Next, reduce power until the airplane settles into a 500 FPM descent. Since you are already trimmed for 90 KIAS (airplanes are trimmed to maintain an airspeed, right?) this should be a simple transition. Note the new power and pitch setting required. When flying a retractable gear aircraft, you will define a low cruise descent (gear-up) and the glideslope intercept descent (gear-down). If it is the latter you will probably extend the gear before reducing the power. Gear extension may be all that is required to settle into the 500 FPM descent with little adjustment of power.

Perform a similar exercise with a power addition for a 500 FPM climb (or the max achievable under current conditions at Vy). Record the numbers and keep them handy.

Although this may seem overly complicated in single-engine, fixed-pitch, fixed gear airplanes, it becomes critical when flying more powerful and complex airplanes. With jet aircraft, because of engine lag, and greater momentum to manage, it is critical to know the target power setting since there won’t be an immediate effect when the throttles are moved.

Practice this until the throttle settings and pitch values become second nature—perhaps the most helpful skill you can cultivate. It will make flying easier and more fun and may even be a lifesaver one day—as discovered. I was giving instrument dual when the weather deteriorated far more that forecast.

We were level on-top at 4000 feet when I noticed that, no matter what the student did with the controls, there didn’t seem to be any reaction on the airspeed, altimeter or VSI. Sure enough, we had lost the pitot-static system. The closest airport was just above ILS minimums and deteriorating rapidly. Since I knew this airplane required 2100 RPM to fly at 90 knots in level flight and 1700 RPM to descend at 500 FPM at 90 KIAS, we asked for vectors to the localizer about four miles outside the final approach fix and conducted a successful ILS to minimums.

Precision Flying Exercises

Perform these basic Pitch + Power exercises under VFR conditions until you are comfortable with them—it shouldn’t take too long. Then practice under the hood with a safety pilot to put the finishing touches on them—and on you. The stick-and-rudder aspect of these exercises is at least as important as other instrument flying tasks. Learn to control the airplane without using a large number of brain cells (the subconscious airplane handling tasks) so you can devote your cranial activity to more demanding skills.

For the first exercise, set up at your approach speed and trim for level flight. When hands-off flying is established, set up a standard rate turn in either direction. Add any power necessary to maintain altitude at the trimmed airspeed and then announce your airspeed, altitude, and heading every 45 degrees for a full 180-degree turn. Reverse direction and complete the next 180-degree turn in the same manner.

When you are satisfied that you can complete this maneuver with little effort, add another degree of difficulty. For the next set of turns descend at 500 FPM at your selected airspeed for the first 180 degrees of turn and climb at 500 FPM (or Vy—the best rate under the conditions) for the following 180 degrees of turn (known as the Vertical-S). As an added element of difficulty, announce your rate of climb/descent every 45 degrees of turn in addition to the items previously listed.

For the next degree of difficulty—when flying a retractable gear airplane—extend/retract the landing gear with each 180 degrees of turn. For the final exercise of this series, shorten the interval to announce flight parameters from every 45 degrees of turn, to each 30 degrees of turn.

These exercises may be frustrating at first, but it is essential that aircraft handling skills be second nature—controlled by the unconscious rather than the conscious mind—because if you have to think about the elements of these tasks, you will be perpetually behind the airplane.

PC Simulators

If a flight training device or simulator is available you can save expensive airplane time by practicing these maneuvers to hone your scan, but it is critical that you become proficient in the airplane.

MS Flight Simulator, while not realistic enough to build muscle memory skills, it can certainly help with scan and instrument nav tasks.

Before any instrument trip, fly the approaches with MS Flight Sim—both with projected radar vectors to the Final Approach Course and as non-radar approaches. That’s right—go back to the way things were before radar covered virtually the whole country. Fly to the initial approach fix, accomplish any course reversal, and execute the approach, being mindful of altitude changes required. This exercise will make the flight more relaxed when you execute the approach at your destination.

Without question, obtain the PC simulator for any electronic navigation packages in the airplanes you fly. One of the greatest producers of stress is the “buttonology” required during approach phases. Practice approaches with these simulators—until the proper sequence of buttons become a matter of subconscious control.

I will never forget the day I stood helplessly on the ground at the Long Beach, California airport (KLGB) watching one of my students do multiple missed approaches in his Cessna 421. When he finally landed and deplaned—looking stressed—I asked why he appeared so stressed? He told me that he could not figure out the proper button to push to put the navigation system into approach mode. Good thing it was VFR.

Yes, the owner’s manual for some of these systems can be almost an inch thick, but it is vital that you become as familiar with these systems as with good old VORs, and the simulators available are best help you can have.

ATC Mumbo Jumbo

Sometimes it seems that ATC speaks a language other than English and radio traffic reinforces this feeling when you fly into Class B airspace. Recall that ATC messages all come in the same format: Called Party (i.e. 500LE), Calling Party (Chicago Center), and Request/Command/Question (Say airspeed). Listen for your call sign and the rest can usually be ignored—although as you gain experience with congested terminal areas it is good to listen to all radio calls and get the big picture for what’s going on in the airspace.

The best way to get comfortable with extensive radio traffic is to listen often. File often, and get a scanner (or LiveATC.net on the computer) to receive transmissions in busy terminal areas—the more you experience it, the more comfortable it will feel.

Practice, Practice, Practice

As with any complex skill, mastery requires rehearsal, repetition, and exercise. A confidence and comfort level is needed. Many people speak of forming “muscle memory” through repetition—rehearsing a skill long enough for your subconscious mind to be able to control your physical responses without having to think about it.

The conscious mind is slow and the frustration felt in the early days of acquiring a new skill comes from having to deliberately think about every step and can quickly get behind the task. The more you practice, the more you can accomplish the tasks without thinking about them. When this happens, flying gets more enjoyable.

Linda D. Pendleton is an ATP ASMEL with type ratings for the Cessna CE-500 and LRJET.

This article orginally appeared in the June 2015 issue ofIFR Refreshermagazine.

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