Single-Pilot IFR Made Easier
by Robert P. Mark, Corporate Pilot
and Author of McGraw-Hill's "Professional Pilot Career Guide"
The only thing I recall being more exhausting than the weeks and
weeks of simulated IFR (Instrument Flight Rules) flight training I
sweated through on the road to my instrument rating, was the tension I
felt the first time I flew an airplane in the clouds alone. Sure I'd
watched all the navigation instruments sway when they were supposed to
during training and no doubt my instructor would never have considered
signing me off for the test if I wasn't ready, but let's face it, most
of that was pretend IFR with the instructor sitting right next to me.
I realize now there were a number of things I could have done to
better prepare myself for those first flights into the clouds. Here
are a few tips I wish someone had offered me then.
Get Organized - New instrument pilots often make flying IFR
alone more difficult because they don't have a cockpit organization
system, such as a kneeboard to write down altitude and heading
changes, or clearance updates. Take out and fold all enroute and
approach charts before takeoff. There is often no time to dig for new
charts if you get a last minute approach change.
Buy a Headset - Nothing is tougher than trying to keep an
airplane upright in the clouds and respond to a clearance change while
holding a hand microphone. Headsets will also save your hearing.
Know Your Aircraft - Inexperienced IFR pilots often spend more
time trying to find the right power setting than it takes to actually
fly the approach. This wastes time. It's also a huge distraction. On a
nice VFR day, go out and learn what power settings are correct for
cruise, descent and climb. Then simply set the throttle at slow flight
or descent power and forget it. Trim for level flight and add or
subtract a hundred rpm to hold the attitude you want once the airplane
settles down. Don't forget to chart out power settings both with and
without flaps to learn what you need for the approach as well.
Make sure you're familiar enough with the avionics in your airplane
to quickly make updates on the GPS without struggling when ATC
dictates. Making a turn in the clouds when you're on approach is not
the place for on-the-job computer training.
Autopilot or Not - If you have an autopilot on board, pilot
Marc Wolf suggests, "Use it. If there is no autopilot, trim for hands
off level flight, especially before your attention makes you look
Take it Step by Step - Don't make your first flight alone in
the clouds a business trip where the pressure to complete the flight
is high. Pilot Dan Weiss suggests, "Start your single-pilot IFR life
with ceilings at 5000 feet or better all along the way, then gradually
fly into weather with lower and lower ceilings and visibilities once
you've confirmed it all works fine for you."
Read the Pros - Weiss also suggests "Read aviation authors like
Bob Buck "Weather Flying," Richard Collins from
and Barry Schiff "Proficient Pilot." They've all written extensively
about IFR flying techniques based upon their own experiences."
Personal Limits - No matter how much experience you have,
develop a set of limits for IFR flight. What is the worst weather
you'll fly into? When will you turn around? How will you define
fatigue and how will you deal with it?
Practice - No pilot ever becomes a great IFR pilot unless they
practice their skills regularly. Especially during the first year
after you've won your instrument rating, fly often to anchor the
skills you've learned.
And from pilot Don Benson, "Don't let the boss [or anyone else]
push you into flying into bad weather situations. Know your airplane
and your own limits and don't exceed them ... ever."