Eye of Experience #32:
The Importance of VFR Skills

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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?

Eye Of ExperienceNot 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.

Why is 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 negative responses.

Why Ded Reckoning Is So Important

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.

With 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 facility.

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!

Personal Experience

While 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.


I'm 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."


I 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.