IFR En Route Blues?—Hardly

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Bored and restless in your seat as you wile away the hours on the en route phase of a long trip? Consider the following to keep you alert.

The IFR environment is different from most any other human experience—voluntarily strapped into a seat, within a cocoon of aluminum and a maze of wires, flying miles above the Earth. Without any visual reference, this event can be both stimulating and stressful.

Of the three phases of IFR flight; departure, en route and approach, we normally consider the last as the most challenging. But consider the en route phase and its period of relative calm-before-the-storm as an opportunity to take much of the hassle out of the critical arrival stage—and more.

Time To Sit Back And Relax?

Early after earning the IFR ticket, I looked forward to the en route phase for several reasons. With no instructor in the right seat to make my life hectic, I often appreciated the relative ease of flying on-top with a bed of cloud stretched out beneath me. Perhaps too relaxed—was I setting a precarious path?

A series of incidents started a revision to my behavior; following an alarming run-in with ice, I began monitoring the OAT with more respect, especially in the spring and fall, and started playing the what-if game.

It doesn’t take but a few seconds of hail to appreciate its impact on the airframe. That 20-mile buffer between you and the red portions of Nexrad is not just a suggestion.

The foggy missed approach can teach a pilot the true importance of temperature/dew point separation—and lack of attention to the ATIS numbers. I learned, from experience, to listen to what other pilots ahead of me are discussing with the controllers.

Having endured those lessons (and others), I came to the realization that I should use the straight-and-level en route phase of flight as an important time for information gathering, maintaining situational awareness, and to plan for the approach phase.

There are many techniques that can help you. Rod Machado noted in his IFR Survival Guide… what’s the next two things you have to do? A reader recently sent me these vital three questions; Where am I? Where am I going next? And, what’s below me?

In a previous article I presented my personal mantra that I developed and share with my students—the concept of the event trigger. It requires you to ask yourself, what/when is the next event in this flight, and what am I going to do when I get there. The proverbial five-T’s can be inserted at that point (time, turn, tune, tuck, talk)

Using the relative calm of the en route phase of IFR flight to answer these questions throughout your trip can make the outcome of any IFR flight successful.

What Is Beneath You?

One of the inherent problems with flying IFR—encased in cloud and staring at the en route chart—is that sometimes you haven’t the foggiest notion of what the terrain is like beneath you. That is where the new tablet apps (ForeFlight, Garmin Pilot et al) are really helpful. With the swipe of a finger and touch of a digit you can transpose your route from a set of anonymous lines to an overlay of the route, and your current position, on the topography of a sectional.

Practice this process a few times so that it becomes second nature. Because when problems occur, such as engine failure, you really do want to know what is beneath the aircraft when you poke out of the clouds.

What will you see when you break out of the cloud layer immediately below you?

I also learned that there was no substitute for being set-up for the approach well before the hand-off. I tune the ATIS/AWOS prior to the controller prompt and have the altimeter setting. All of the possible IAPs are on the clip board (the tablet has eased that aspect).

I review the options that I have already considered during the preflight as to the best procedure for my incoming direction. I occasionally “help” the controller find me the quickest path to the Final Approach Course.

If the weather is reasonably good I might keep my speed up and suggest a tight turn-in when radar is available, but if I have been busy and feel a bit behind, I’ll slow to approach speed early and ask for a longer intercept.

On the rare occasions where I may be challenged with low ceilings and visibilities, I generally know that well ahead of time, have reviewed the missed approach, and have my first and second options ready.

Of course most of us have some acronym that we use to make sure we have covered all the bases—and reciting these gems while en route can put you ahead (and keep you ahead) of the game.

Technology Changes Perspective

As most of my flight-time over the past nine years has been with the Garmin G1000 and the Aspen EFD1000, I have become a bit spoiled. Much of my en route time has been spent learning (and using) the intricacies of the various displays, knobs and buttons. The three- and four-hour cross-country flights go by faster when you have all of these modern tools and can see the weather unfolding up front—and behind you.

While I do feel some nostalgia for the “old days” and occasionally enjoy the simplicity of flying with just a VOR on Victor airways, my new-found weather awareness has made me a digital convert.

The ability to literally see the winds aloft changing direction and intensity as I cover hundreds of miles gives me greater insight into the validity of the pre-flight briefing. I can watch that little wind vector swing around as I fly through a frontal zone or across mountainous terrain.

Getting a block altitude assignment may let you practice flying in IMC.

One aspect of the en route phase is the opportunity to fly at altitudes that allow you to spend time on the instruments—but Mother Nature doesn’t always cooperate. Cruising along at 10,000 feet with an overcast just a few hundred feet above, I wanted to get some time in the clouds. But I didn’t want to go another 2000 feet up to do it. So, I simply asked ATC for a block from 10,000 to 12,000 feet and climbed the 500 into IMC. Now pilots who operate in high-density areas like SOCAL are saying that would never be approved—and you are probably correct. But in much of the country you can request those kinds of perks and be rewarded.

In a similar vein, I was en route one day when I heard over the Center frequency that there was some low IFR at Las Vegas, New Mexico (LVS) due to an upslope condition. Although this was not my destination, I requested a clearance to LVS for an RNAV (GPS) RWY 20 approach. Coming in from the north on V263 the procedure is a NoPT, so we just descended per the IAP altitudes, completed the approach and were back onto V263 within a few minutes—logging an unexpected approach in IMC which is hard to find for us folks in the southwest.

Being Part Of The Solution

The en route phase also provides the pilot with the opportunity to observe the current conditions and compare them to the forecast. Reporting this information back to Flight Service allows those who will shortly fly through your area to get a heads-up. This is important even when the conditions are better than forecast, as we both know it eases the mind to know what was forecast, is what is being encountered. The information is critical if the report is worse than forecast.

When I make a Pilot Report, I take the time to analyze what conditions I am going to describe and how to convey that information in the least number of words that have the most impact. I also consider the route that I have just flown (probably back about 30 minutes).

Of course when on the receiving end of a PIREP you have to understand that weather is a dynamic process that is in a constant state of change. Weather is also in the eye of the beholder. An inexperienced Cessna pilot may exaggerate weather while a biz-jet might not consider some flight conditions hazardous.

Use Time Productively

What else can I learn about the glass panel as I'm motoring along at altitude that might help me in the future?

Now you see some of my thoughts on how important it is to use that long en route time to evaluate your flight, the weather, and to establish a situational awareness profile. Each flight seems to take on its own personality. For those of us whose personal minimums have some flexibility, this is also a good time to weigh all the factors for this particular flight, and establish some firm numbers for the expected approach.

Yes, I appreciate sitting back and enjoying the sights and sounds of flight—in IMC or VMC. So while I encourage you to smell the roses, use the solitude of the en route phase to hone your skills of observing, planning and decision making.

Ted Spitzmiller is a CFII who is always open to learning and communicating to others, new aspects of the IFR environment.

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

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