March 2018 Safety Corner

A hearty congratulations to all those pilots in our club who have received their instrument rating the last few years and a good job to those who are working on it right now. As Skyhawk members, we’re very proud of all of you because you’re furthering your skills as a pilot. The instrument rating is a milestone in your aviation pursuits and now allows you to “mix with the professionals” . . . . or does it?

Remember what your examiner and instructor told you when you got your private or any subsequent rating? They probably said, “This is just a license to LEARN.” It’s true. Getting a license, additional rating, or endorsement is just the beginning of the learning and practice process. The more repetition, the better you get. For those of you who got your instrument rating, ask yourself how much time has elapsed after your check ride before you got back in the plane to shoot approaches and work on your scan? I think everyone would admit how quickly the scan can deteriorate if not practiced. Are you now as confident as you were when you passed your IFR check ride?

The following is an excerpt from a short story on the AOPA website by Dan Namowitz. The story talks about preparation and how quickly those skills can erode if not practiced: “Prepping for a cross-country flight in a GPS-equipped flying club airplane, the pilot was pleased to learn that VFR conditions would prevail with the possible exception of a narrow band of marginal weather. Filing an instrument flight plan, direct, seemed a good hedge against that; otherwise, the trip amounted to a VFR operation with the convenience of IFR service.

A more demanding brand of IFR would have made the “go” decision far more uncertain: For one thing, the pilot had not mastered the Cessna 172’s GPS system. For another, the pilot was taking a “no approaches, no problem” view of the flight, discounting the possibility of having to really fly IFR. The trip’s unraveling began when approach control called with an amended IFR clearance, producing instant pandemonium in the complacent cockpit.

“I had been following flight progress on VFR charts, and was totally unprepared for this event,” the pilot confessed in an Aviation Safety Reporting System filing. “Confusion reigned in the cockpit as I fumbled for the correct charts and tried to
reprogram the GPS.”

The pilot sought the only logical escape from this self-inflicted crisis of command: Cancel IFR. Can you guess where this is headed? Unfortunately, efforts to contact ATC were greeted with radio silence, or a request to stand by.

ATC finally called back, apologized for being away on the phone with another facility, and restored the direct clearance. By then, the rattled instrument-rated pilot had already decided to cancel IFR and complete the cross-country VFR.”

Many flights present a decision-making quandary between simply going VFR and filing IFR . . . just in case. Is your IFR flight “in name only?” I’ve been in the above pilot’s shoes and the first time I received a clearance that was totally different from what I filed really freaked me out. Luckily it was VFR and not a cloud in the sky. However, what would have happened if the weather was actually IFR. I had done a poor job of planning and familiarizing myself with possible departure alternatives out of that airport.

Achieving your instrument rating is a privilege that allows you to fly when private pilots can’t . . . . if you are prepared and have kept up your skills. Proper preparation means being fully ready to handle either and the earlier you start planning for all possible situations, the better. That means really studying weather for your ‘outs’ and an evaluation of your own abilities and person minimums. It also means anticipating changes in clearances, choosing and reviewing alternates (and fuel requirements for those changes), studying enroute and approach charts on the ground or the night before, and visually going through the flight in your mind.

Rusty on communications? A few days before your flight, listen to air traffic control communications through online links from various airports experiencing IFR weather to get back into the ‘lingo’. That will help get your listening skills back up to par. Reset your personal minimums for IFR weather and approaches through practice and continue work on lowering them to your own comfort level.

Also, if you’re not quick and savvy with your equipment (ie. GPS) then get a tuneup. The last thing you need is to be fumbling around trying to figure out how to program your navigation at the same time controllers are squawking at you. Know your equipment. That can be hard when the equipment is new, but pick a good VFR day and a partner as a safety pilot so you can get use to your system AFTER you read the manual.

In conclusion, if you’re going to file an IFR flight plan, then plan a true IFR trip with all the responsibilities and possible surprises that come with it. If you’re not sharp on your scan or approaches, get some practice or call an instructor for a quick review session. You can be proud of the instrument rating that you have earned and will earn, but in order to utilize it effectively remember that preparation and practice is the key to enjoying the rating.

Kevin Broderick, ATP, CFII and Safety Officer