The FAA’s Private Practical Test Standard (PTS) does a disservice to private pilot candidates by requiring three hours of flying solely by reference to instruments. I suspect it creates complacency in some newly minted private pilots who think, “Hey, no problem if I blunder into a cloud. I’ve had three hours of instrument instruction, so I can handle it!”
Nothing could be further from the truth. VFR-into-IMC accidents have a 90 percent fatality rate and kill both private and instrument-rated pilots.
So how can pilots enhance their safety? First, they can get thorough training on how to use the autopilot if there is one in the airplane they fly. Some CFIs feel that using the auto-pilot is “cheating” or they lack knowledge on autopilots, so you may need to read the manual if your CFI can’t or won’t give you detailed autopilot training. Use the autopilot at night when the horizon is poorly defined or any time there’s danger of entering a cloud.
Next, if there’s an instrument landing system (ILS) at a nearby airport, find its frequency and note it on a kneeboard or smartphone so you always have it. Then get a CFI to demonstrate using an ILS for a straight-in approach to the airport. Use the ILS as supplemental guidance when you fly into the airport at night to avoid the “black hole” type of accidents that occur when there are few lights on the ground as you approach an airport.
Even if you never plan to get an instrument rating, practice flying under the hood with a safety pilot (pilot with a current medical, who’s qualified in that airplane) or a CFI on board. Why? Because three hours of instrument training aren’t enough to keep you safe if you blunder into a cloud.
A flight instructor who gives basic instrument attitude training to someone who has a private pilot certificate in hand should always make it clear that this is a hazardous situation that has taken the life of more than one risk taker and that this type of training simply gives a pilot the skill to get out of a situation he or she should not have gotten into.
Instrument training should not increase your comfort level in this environment to the point of knowingly getting yourself into IMC conditions prior to acquiring your instrument rating. The purpose of this type of training is to give you the skills to regain or maintain control of the airplane in order to exit IMC conditions. This is usually accomplished through unusual attitude recovery and basic attitude flying.
The skill of maintaining control of the airplane in IMC conditions is best supported with continual training and practice flying by reference to the instruments. The next goal should be a plan of attack to exit the conditions, should you get there inadvertently.
Usually I tell my students, “If you weren’t in the soup just a minute ago, the chances are good that there is good weather just behind you.” So if you don’t have terrain on your left and right, one of the more logical decisions would be doing a left or right turn to the heading on the bottom of the heading indicator.
If you have terrain on both sides, the decision as to whether it is best to climb or descend is best made if you’ve received a good, recent weather briefing.
Knowledge of the approximate level of the tops and bases of the clouds is very helpful in this situation.
Some nonprofessional pilots seem to think they are still proficient if they practiced something last year or the year before. Nothing is a substitute for practice except perhaps the wisdom not to fly into situations in which gravity and momentum become your worst enemies.
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