Savvy Pilots Fly Better IFR

The dictionary defines savvy as practical, knowledgeable and perceptive. Here are some examples to help determine how you measure up.


Savvy pilots know how to get the most out of the resources at their command. They demonstrate this by having the airplane and its systems do as much of the effort as possible. In all phases of flight, their knowledge is brought to bear on each task to reduce the workload. This trait helps ensure a safer more efficient journey.

The Savvy Pilot Principle

A knowledgeable pilot does not need to experiment every time to find the right power setting say, for 90 knots low cruise or on approach. On the ILS, they set the power once and can address other concerns (unless wind requires tweaking). Even then, that’s less work than sawing back and forth with the power as each change may require re-trimming. The perceptive pilot sets the power first and then trims rather than the other way round—thus more attention to devote elsewhere.

Still on approach, a practical pilot concisely brackets a heading to find the right wind correction angle and then flies accordingly—again making the airplane do the work. The result is a stable approach with minimal effort. Once established, small heading corrections are sufficient to stay on course as the wind often shifts with altitude.

Those who have an MFD with a trend vector line can simply place the vector line over the desired course and fly whatever heading results. Knowledgable pilots can then avoid hunting, which is decidedly labor and mentally intensive.

Savvy pilots are too practical to do things twice; a little more effort the first time saves having to do it again. Rolling out precisely on headings and localizers avoids corrections. Figuring headings before entering a hold helps avoid botching it.


Autopilots are the practical pilot’s best friend, provided the savvy-pilot wannabe knows how it behaves in all modes. Some will let you pushbutton your way through most of a flight, and again the airplane is doing the work. How much work it does depends on how many axes it can manage.

Every autopilot model has an operating envelope. Flying an AP outside its envelope can cause control issues —including loss of control. Every AP user should respect its envelope, and every pilot should do a power-off autopilot stall just to see how it struggles at the low end of the speed range.

When banking, practical pilots take ten per cent of the airspeed and add five to get the approximate angle of bank that delivers standard rate at their airspeed. They don’t chase that frustrating little airplane (or needle) which is rather sensitive and in a scan-challenging corner of the panel. They just fly the bank angle to start, then set it exactly with the little airplane and maintain whatever bank is needed. Smooth as silk, and better IFR.

Perceptive pilots plan for periods of high workload by seeking ways to shift work to less-busy periods. One way is to listen to the AWOS or ATIS weather from as far out as it can be heard. It may be necessary to open the squelch if it is weak. Another way is to get it from a G1000 or equivalent. These pilots get advance notice of observed airport conditions, and can then set up the most likely approach well in advance.

Pre-departure, a practical pilot does not load a filed flight plan into the GPS navigator until reasonably certain that it’s what they will get. Those given by Clearance Delivery are a safe bet. Being given an as-filed clearance while airborne can be less certain, as has been my experience at our non-towered airport. So, savvy pilots simply load the first fix or two on the ground and then add whatever ATC actually gives them. Wasted effort is avoided and all but eliminates the need to edit the flight plan while airborne.

Get An Initial Vector

ATC clears you to VIRTO intersection. You’ve never heard of it, have no idea how to spell it, much less how to get there. But you’re a practical pilot, remember? Ask the controller to spell it phonetically, and for an initial vector. Proceed on your way and program ‘direct VIRTO’ at your leisure, basking in the warm glow of pragmatism.

Knowledgable pilots use a simple approach checklist that allows them to get everything done in the most efficient order before the approach begins. I use WRIMTM, and once it is complete, a practical pilot knows that everything is set for the approach.

Being disorganized means things can be missed and usually triggers lots of effort re-checking. A perceptive pilot flows naturally to the airplane checklists and ta-da, all housekeeping is done. Now they can be ahead of the game on the approach because they know everything is set. I find myself running and re-running WRIMTM because being a savvy pilot does not mean placing one’s mind in neutral.

In IFR, your head must be in the game all the time. If you find yourself with nothing to do, find something to do, perhaps a cockpit check every fifteen minutes. Playing the ‘What if?’ game is smart as is the running Continue/Divert/Land decision often. If circumstances mandate diversion or something goes bonkers in the airplane, you will have Plan B ready. This is practical because all you must do then is execute it.

Simple Stuff

Don’t make things hard for yourself. When changing the VOR OBS to a new radial, find the desired radial first and turn the dial that way, rather than going the long way round. For radio frequencies or transponder codes, turn the knobs right or left whichever way gets you to the new numbers fastest. Consider leaving the VOR ID filter on all the time. You save a step when identifying a new VOR, leading to many more saved steps. Push it in only if you want to hear the audio on the VOR, such as HIWAS, or talk with FSS.

Many GPS navigators require lots of knob-twisting. An empty field in the G1000 sometimes starts at K, but following letters start at A. Turn RIGHT for letters A-R. Go LEFT for numbers and letters S-Z.

When an empty field is presented in the G1000, turn the little knob left to get a dropdown box of FPL waypoints. Scroll right with the little knob (per the little green arrow) to get NRST, RECENT and USER waypoints. Turn the cursor on to scroll down through the entries. Finding one, hit enter and it’s entered, saving many twists.

Years ago, I had a near-midair with a Cessna twin driver who got so close that I could see he was reading the Wall Street Journal. He was definitely not a savvy pilot.

Fred Simonds is a savvy CFII in Florida. See his web page at

This article originally appeared in the August 2015 issue of IFR Refresher magazine.

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