IFR risks

Congratulations to Hamish, who has just earned his instrument rating down in California. Hamish wisely reflects that he wants to ease into IFR flying — no low approaches, etc., until he has a lot of experience.

I’m going to be contrarian and suggest the opposite — get out there and experience as much as you can. Deliberately shoot approaches that are below minima. Fly in cumulous cloud and even in some (lowish) towering cumulus. To understand why, consider two scenarios.

Scenario 1

A year from now, you’re at the end of a three-hour flight, all in cumulus, with light-to-moderate turbulence the whole way. You’re frazzled and queasy yourself: one of your passengers has already thrown up twice and is begging you to land, and the whole plane stinks. The rental-car place at the airport closes in an hour. With the headwind, you’re not sure you actually have the full IFR reserve you planned on. You start the non-precision approach, expecting a much higher ceiling and an easy landing, but at MDA you’re just getting glimpses of the ground. You’re drifting around on the approach because you’re worrying about getting your pax on the ground. It looks like you’re right at the cloud base — just another 50 feet lower would have you clear, and you could switch to VFR (well, SVFR) almost immediately and finish the landing. Or, alternatively, you hit the MAP, and just as you’re starting to go missed, you can suddenly see the airport — almost right below you — through a break in the clouds.

Scenario 2

You’re at exactly the same airport, with exactly the same weather conditions. However, you’re alone in the plane (or with a flying buddy). You started out at an airport an hour away, where conditions are MVFR or VFR, assuring you of an easy return when you’re done practising here. You shoot the same non-precision approach, but this time, you have no intention of landing. You notice how you can see straight down at MDA, but you have no forward visibility. You drift slightly, but correct immediately because you’re not worried about whether you’ll be able to land. As you hit the MAP and start the missed approach (which was your plan all along), you notice the airport right below, and remind yourself to remember how it would not be possible to land safely at this point even though you saw the airport.

Are they both dangerous?

There’s no question that Scenario 1 reads like the beginning of an NTSB crash report (in fact, it has enough risk factors to make up several NTSB reports). But what’s the real risk here? Is it that the pilot is not skilled enough to handle the plane in IMC? The pilot and passengers in the first scenario are at an enormous risk of dying, not because of the pilot’s ability or inability to manipulate the controls and scan the instruments, but because of the pilot’s ability or inability to make difficult decisions. That’s the biggest problem with IFR training in both Canada and the US — 90% of IFR training focusses on how to handle the plane and follow finicky hold and approach procedures within tolerances, but 90% of real IFR flying is making complicated decisions like the one in scenario 1. You do not learn much useful about IFR flying by going round and round your local training area planning hold or approach entries, either under the hood or in actual IMC. Nobody does anything stupid IFR until they actually have to get somewhere.

I’d suggest that, even though the approach is below minima, Scenario 2 is not unacceptably dangerous (since there’s no temptation to try to land); in fact, scenario 2 is the kind of thing that IFR pilots should get out and do as often as possible. The more a pilot practises shooting low approaches that he or she has no intention of landing, the less likely a pilot is going to be fooled by the temptation to duck and dive under minima because of a glimpse of the ground or the airport — the pilot learns what conditions for a missed approach really look like (i.e. not necessarily white outside the windshield), and will be more confident about the choice to go missed in Scenario 1. I did a whole bunch of non-precision approaches like these one day last fall, and it was a great experience; I’m hoping to do the same thing again in a week or so, now that the freezing level is lifting.

Despite all the practice I’ve had, I’m not much better at the mechanical parts of IFR flying than I was in summer 2003 when I got my instrument rating (I’ll be repeating the IFR flight test this summer — in Canada, we have to retake it every two years). I hold altitude and heading a bit better that I did then, but it’s nothing like the improvement in airmanship that you get from two years of VFR flying. The big difference between then and now is what I’ve learned about (a) weather and (b) the ATC system. I did well on my written IFR test, but I cannot believe how little practical knowledge I had of weather then, not to mention of how ATC really worked. It takes only a few bad encounters with weather phenomena to teach you to pay a lot more attention to meteorology, and to realize that reading the TAFs, FDs, and (G)FAs is only a tiny first step to planning a flight: if you cannot explain why a TAF or (G)FA is forecasting the weather it is, you’re not ready to take off yet. And it takes only one long vector on a dark, rainy night to teach you how to learn about traffic flow near big airports and how to plan around it.

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1 Response to IFR risks

  1. Hamish Reid says:

    Dave — thanks for the comments! I’ll probably respond in length on my own blog over the next few days when I have some spare time, but I’d actually agree with what you’re saying. I particularly agree that we don’t get a lot of instruction or experience in real-world decision making, and that (e.g.) stressing graceful hold entries at the expense of such decision making is probably ludicrous at best. In short, though, I’m still nervous of small plane single-pilot IFR in IMC — but with another experienced IFR pilot along, I think your second scenario is an excellent idea, and I’ll probably try it. But hey, we’re just starting the Northern California non-winter, which means it may be 6-9 months before I see any real actual here beyond a few small layers of coastal stratus…

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