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News Category : Student Help & Advice

News Tag : Student Help & Advice

21st, August 2022

Instrument Flying & Aviation Decision-Making

Antonie Gouws

When you start flying, you are as safe as you will be as a pilot. You have an instructor on hand, clear skies, and a healthy fear of things going wrong. You also take checklists seriously and generally do things “by the book”. As your experience grows, you will encounter situations where you will find that certain things in flying are not covered in “the book”. This can result in potentially dangerous situations. I want to discuss this occurrence as encountered during IFR flying.  

In this article I will discuss the Instrument Rating, IFR flying pilotage, the contents of an IFR course, and decision-making.   

IFR flying pilotage

There are many components to being called a pilot – there is the flying side of things. “Stick and rudder” skills, like a human imitating a bird. You need clear skies and these skills that are often relived by fighter, aerobatics, and weekend-warrior pilots through elaborate hand gestures at the bar. The second major component of flying is the “piloting” skills. These include checklist, procedures, standardized radio calls, your controlled, almost boring flight paths, and your passenger comfort considerations. These aspects form the basis of IFR flying, and many solely VFR pilots will not understand the allure of IFR flying, mostly on the basis that it does not require “flying” skills. Many IFR aircraft these days have a three-axis autopilot that does the flying for you.  

The ability that IFR flying gives a pilot is empowering. Most pilots received a big confidence boost in knowing that bad weather will not prevent the safe landing of an aeroplane. The doing of checks and following of procedures whilst executing timed, rate-one turns in a complicated sequence with no visibility, and then to suddenly break through a cloud layer with the runway on your descent path is as exhilarating as a high-G loop, barrel-roll, or reverse Cuban-eight.  

The basis of IFR flying is founded in the trusting of instruments and procedures, you should value these above things that you “feel”. Do you feel like you are straight and level, but the Artificial Horizon (AH) is indicating a turn? Do you feel like you are climbing, but the Vertical Speed Indicator (VSI) is showing no change?  This sifting of relevant information and using the correct information to make the best possible decision is one of the skills of IFR flying and was given the name of Aviation Decision making (ADM).  

As an IFR pilot, I have been taught about ADM since my initial training in the South African Air Force. It was re-iterated during my CPL + IFR training, and the same lessons were repeated when I started flying in Australia. I have been trained how to fly IFR on an aircraft with an old NDB and RMI, which is hard work, and maintaining situational awareness is all but impossible. (It is in any case way more difficult than when flying with a GPS on board). I have flown aircraft with ILS and VOR, but no GPS, and aircraft with GPS and ILS, but no VOR or NDB’s and always the concept of good ADM formed the basis of training.  

Contents of IFR course

The teaching methodology in general aviation with regard to IFR is to teach based on the ANC principle – i.e. Aviate (flying skills), Navigate (have a plan), Communicate (make sure everyone knows what you are doing). These skills are taught on the principle of “simple to complex” and the IFR course is divided into sections. The sections are roughly divided into rules and law, IFR flying, Homing, and Approaches. 

For IFR flying, the focus is on controlling the aeroplane solely by reference to instruments – i.e., can the pilot fly straight and level, climb and turn using only instruments. The ability to recover to normal flight when things go wrong forms an important component of training, and thus unusual attitude recovery by referencing only instruments are included. The “Aviate” component of the ANC principle is covered. The next logical training will be to navigate.  

Thus, the next step of training centres around getting the aeroplane to a suitable airport. The simplest form of direction in an aeroplane is beacon homing. A pointer/arrow indicating where to fly to. This indicates some sort of “pointing” to an appropriately tuned navigation aid – NDB/VOR beacon, GPS point, etc. To “home a beacon” can be as easy as selecting “goTo” on GPS, or in the worst-case scenario, trying to remember the QDR/QDM calculations of an NDB. With modern GPS systems and many NDBs and VORs being decommissioned, this form of navigation probably will not survive another decade, and it is with a bit of sadness that “Push the head, pull the tail” will become obsolete. At this point in IFR training, the pilot has mastered IFR flying and homing and will move on to approaches.

An aircraft that is overhead an airfield is in a much better position than one that is simply in a cloud somewhere unknown. However, even with just a beacon and some smart timing and turns, a pilot could descend and line up with a runway. This is the approach phase of training. Approaches tend to be the bulk of the training, as getting down below the clouds and landing is a very important part of having a successful flight. There are many types of approaches, NDB/VOR approaches, VOR approaches, ILS, RNAV (with many iterations), and radar-guided approaches. These approach procedures become easier the better equipped your aircraft is. The easiest approach I have flown is the RNAV approach (GPS), and the most difficult is the NDB approach.

During an approach procedure, the designers of the procedure guarantee that an aircraft will be safe if flown according to the tolerances of the approach – i.e. the approach will bring you safely to a position from where you can land the aircraft, most often visually. Approaches also have different levels of accuracy, and the higher the accuracy, the closer to the ground an aircraft can get before the approach becomes unsafe. For example, an RNAV approach can get an aircraft down to about 400ft above ground, whereas most NDB approaches have 800ft limits. Cloud base limitations become important when planning an approach, as a cloud base of 600ft AGL will be problematic for an NDB, but no issue at all for an ILS. This is just one of the myriad rules that form part of the IFR course.  

Training for IFR flying has a major “rules” section. Hundreds of stipulations exist on the aircraft, pilot, operation, weather, and many others. To further my point, I want to list a few factors that I will check before flying IFR – does the aircraft meet instrumentation and radio redundancy, transponder requirements, and lights? Am I as the pilot – licensed, current and recent? Are there appropriate approaches for my destination and alternate aerodrome? When looking at the weather, is the departure airport above minima, is the en-route section safe and within the limits of the aircraft, is the destination airport above minima in terms of clouds, visibility, crosswind, and storms? As a part of the IFR course, you will also have meteorology and aircraft technical lessons.  


Decision Making

IFR flight training is a lot of information to process. Training someone to be proficient in flying under IFR conditions takes years. There is a lot to be considered. And ADM surfaces again and again.  

Most of my IFR flying was done on a Cirrus SR22T with FIKI (anti-ice) in a single-pilot IFR private operation. The Cirrus has two GPS systems and VOR/ILS, coupled with an excellent Autopilot. I had to fly the executives of a construction company between towns. The important thing for executives is the outcome. If they need to be somewhere, and you as a pilot cannot deliver, a good reason will need to be provided. Thus, I encountered the following situations and had to decide go-no go.  

  • Cloud base of 800ft at the destination  
  • Freezing level at 4500ft and overcast stratus 
  • Widespread rain with TCU’s (towering cumulus clouds) and potential Embed CBs   

I opted to fly in every one of those situations. A Cirrus is not a big airplane, it does not have weather radar. I did not “know” where the bad weather was. I could make a relatively accurate guestimate based on the datalink, but the information was potentially 10 minutes old (the refresh rate). I followed a method of decision-making based on three factors. Is it legal, am I competent, am I comfortable?  

On the legal front, there was no guidance.  There are no rules on what clouds can be flown through. The aviation authority (in Australia it is CASA) advises that one should fly as many miles around a cumulus cloud as it is high in thousands of feet. i.e a 5000ft cumulus cloud should be avoided by 5nm. That is not always possible, and when in terminal airspace around a major city, ATC will often assign a heading that will take you through clouds. Some are quite big, avoid by more than 5nm big. There are Boeings around, and ATC cannot accommodate all deviations. So when can I fly through clouds? The advice given by CASA is not good, because it is overly restrictive.   

IFR training is already so big a subject that one cannot fit in any more information without breaking the course into years of studying. I do not think that more theory needs to be added to pilot training, what I think one wants to focus on is that many decisions will come down to the pilot. The title of captain was not idly awarded, and a pilot should earn it. ADM is directly linked to one’s ability to interpret information. Stress, pressure, and uncertainty lead to a marked reduction in the pilot’s ability to practice good ADM. The unfortunate thing is that the pressure of performance, coupled with scarce/unrealistic advice, often leaves the pilot in a position where the decision is not based on good ADM, but rather on feelings. As a pilot, you need to be aware of this phenomenon and take the time to develop a strategy to combat it. I use the three questions because it mostly provides me with an acceptable outcome.  

The questions might look something like this: Can I take off without an alternate planned in the current weather? Secondly, am I competent in what I am planning on doing, i.e. can I fly an ILS down to minima’s in bad weather even though it has been more than two months since I last flew one? The last thing – am I comfortable? This is so difficult to judge and comes with experience. It is well documented that if you are not comfortable with the flight, you will be experiencing aggravated levels of tension, and it will affect your ability to gather information, process information, and your ability to translate the information into good decision-making.  

Credit: wikimedia

I used the example of cloud penetration on an IFR flight in this article, but the principle is applicable across all aspects of aviation. As you fly, you will encounter situations where you need to decide things with very little to no guidance, and you need a model that will guide you. No model is fail-proof, and as you grow as a pilot, you will develop your own methods of ensuring good ADM. I have never enjoyed a flight when I took off with one of the three questions answered in the negative.  

In the scenarios mentioned above, I knew I was legal. I had been recently tested in IFR and was competent, and so was the aircraft – having multiple back-up systems, anti-Ice and in worst case scenario a parachute. On the comfortable side – I was comfortable taking off and seeing what the conditions were like. Should I at any moment have become uncomfortable, I would have turned around and landed back. That course of action would have been legal, in my competency and would not make me uncomfortable.  

Thus, be sure you will encounter scenarios that you do not have the knowledge as to what to do. Before that happens, make sure you have a method to ensure good ADM is practiced. And always, fly safe.  

About the Author:

Antonie Gouws

SkyLearner TKI
Based: Sydney, Australia

Antonie is an ex South African Air Force Pilot, SACAA CPL & Instructor, CASA CPL, based in Sydney, Australia.