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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 somewhere else."

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 Flying magazine 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."

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