All posts tagged 'IMC'

7 Practical Tips for Instrument Training

I am happy to report that in my pursuit of a career as a professional pilot, I successfully passed my Instrument Rating checkride a couple weeks ago. Although this is just a milestone along the long road to my goals, I am proud of how far I’ve come from my first attempt at flying an approach. Several pilots warned me that instrument training is more difficult than any other training, and I have to say that I now understand what they meant.

Instrument training was different from private training in a lot of ways. Everything that I had already spent hours learning and practicing was expected to be second nature to me at this point. This really hit home when I executed a poor traffic pattern and my instructor scolded me, saying, "This is PRIVATE stuff! You should know how to land." I could not longer struggle to control any part of my flight operations and blame it on still being a student. In a sense, you change from being a student of the airplane to a student of everything outside of the airplane. Factor in how you cannot see outside, and the learning curve suddenly gets that much more difficult.

Upon landing and being told I had passed my checkride, my DPE told me that he strongly believed that instrument training was more difficult than ATP training. This surprised me, and I will have to report back in a few years on if I find this true for myself or not. Regardless, my previous instructor’s warning that it will be like a "fire hose to the face" when I began training was definitely true. I struggled for months in the ground course and every flight seemed to make me feel more emotions than Private training did. If it was a good flight, I definitely knew it and felt like a champion. If it was a bad flight, it was more difficult to recover from and I felt more like a failure. I am sure this is because the acceptable margin of error in instrument flight is so small.

During my training I jotted down some notes on things I would like to tell other students currently working on their instrument rating. Hopefully some of these tips will be helpful for navigating the difficulties you will face along the way.

Accurate representation of what it feels like to study for the Instrument Written.

Knock out the Written Exam

There is nothing more frustrating than getting grounded during flight training because you haven’t completed a written test. It is policy at my school that if you have not passed the written test before you start the second "flight lab" (25 hours of training) then you cannot move forward. Even if the threat of being grounded is not looming over your head, the written is a huge hurdle to pass and I recommend taking it as soon as possible to get it out of the way. Some concepts are more difficult than Private, but it’s nothing that a few extra hours of studying cannot remedy.

Reference the Instrument "Know All" Handbook

My instructor sent me a link to this page early in our training and it was a game changer. It lays out the highlights of regulations and procedures in a way that is easily understood, and it is perfect for printing out and highlighting. I even made some sections into flash cards for further memorization. Being a pilot is about knowing how to use every resource available to you, and this is certainly a goldmine of helpful information.

Memorize Approach Plates you use Often

I would say that in almost every other flight lesson we flew over to KLEX and did an approach into whichever runway they were using. I became really familiar with the VOR-A, ILS, LOC, and RNAV approaches for 22 and 04. Knowing that I frequent these approaches so much, it was extremely beneficial to me when I sat down by myself and mentally flew the approach plates several times. It made the approach briefing less confusing, and helped me to understand exactly what I was doing as I went along. Even before a cross country, I recommend looking over the plates a few times to get familiar with them so that you are never a few miles out and looking at the plate for the first time.

Don’t Stress Over the Brief

When I first began my training, it seemed like every time we were getting close to the airport and I needed to brief the approach to my instructor my palms suddenly got sweaty. There was so much to go over. There is so little time. Don’t let yourself stress over the approach plates, and find an acronym or method that works best for YOU. I always use "FACTM" approach. Frequencies, Altitudes, Course, Time, and Missed. I go over this in my head, and find the information that relates to it on my approach plate.

Invest in Good Foggles/Hood

One thing that I almost got in trouble with during my checkride was the type of foggles I used. They are clear, except for the opaque white around the edges. When I was coming in on my final approach, I experienced a familiar phenomenon: a blinding glare from the sun. As we were coming straight towards the sun, it reflected off of the opaque part of my foggles and I could not see any of my instruments. I had this happen before but never to the extent of during my checkride. My extremely kind check airman held a binder up to block the glare as I finished the approach, and recommended that I look into a hood for future flights. Find what works best for you and consider all the possible negatives of all options.

Get into Actual IMC

Near the end of my training, when I was pretty comfortable with approaches, my instructor called me up on a particularly overcast and nasty looking day. He told me that I had better not think I wasn’t flying that day, and to get to the airport as soon as possible. That was the day that we went into real, solid, terrifying instrument meteorological conditions. Up to this moment I was sure that I could handle it, after all I had about 40 hours in simulated instrument conditions. Immediately when we burst into the clouds my entire body tensed up. It was the most disorienting experience I had ever had. I asked him to please take over the radios so that I could get a feel for it. I highly recommend going into IMC multiple times during your training to truly understand the mental aerobics that come with completely trusting what you see on the panel.

Keep a Reminder of Why You’re Doing it

I won’t lie, I thought about quitting a couple times during my training. Everyone said that Instrument training either makes or breaks you as a pilot, so I thought that if I could not get it down then I was not fit to be a professional pilot. I watched as a few of my friends switched majors or quit their training because it was just too difficult. Every time I had to remind myself that this has been my dream since I was a young girl, and I could not quit until I had given it all that I had. It absolutely pays off in the end if you dedicate the time and effort, and keep motivated.

I wish you all the best in your instrument training, and I hope that these tips will at least encourage you to stick with it. Stay safe and keep working hard towards your goals!

Are You Prepared for Instrument Failure in IMC?


Photo: Wikimedia/Meggar

Autumn is in full swing, and the cooler nights tend to make morning fog a common occurrence in many places. While fog might not be a problem for you if you are IFR-rated and current, it’s nevertheless a good time to review your emergency procedures – like instrument failures and partial panel procedures.

A failure of any instrument in the cockpit of your airplane is difficult enough to deal with during a VFR flight, but the proper procedures after an instrument failure in IMC can mean the difference between life and death. While we tend to remain "current" by flying IFR flight plans and instrument approaches on a daily or weekly basis, unless you work for a company that requires it, you probably don’t practice instrument failures or partial panel procedures enough.

Are you ready for an instrument failure in instrument conditions? After training your eyes and brain to "trust your instruments," can you immediately recognize instrument errors and reverse that deep-rooted feeling that your instruments must be correct?

Identifying instrument failures seems like an easy enough task – after all, if an instrument is behaving erratically, there’s a good chance it’s malfunctioning - but it’s difficult for our brains to determine exactly what’s happening at first glance when an instrument fails, and sometimes the failure occurs slowly, such as the slow icing over of a pitot tube. And that’s only the first part of the emergency. The second part is responding correctly. While in the clouds without correct instrument indications, knowing which way is up can be puzzling to even the most experienced pilots. Here’s a quick review about how instruments react to common types of failures in many light aircraft.

***This is not a substitute for instruction. Please consult your aircraft’s POH for emergency procedures specific to your airplane! ***

Pitot-Static System Failure:
A problem with the static system will appear on the airspeed indicator, altimeter or vertical speed indicator (VSI), or a combination of the three.

  • Blocked Pitot Tube: A pitot tube blocked with insects is a common culprit of erroneous airspeed indications. This type of blockage might be noticed during takeoff, when the airspeed doesn’t increase as usual. With a total pitot tube blockage, the airspeed will read ‘0’. But the pitot tube can also be blocked during flight with ice or heavy rain, and as ice accumulates slowly over the pitot tube, the airspeed indicator will show a slow decrease in airspeed, maybe not even noticeable at first.

    Since the pitot tube is used just for the airspeed indicator, a blocked pitot tube will not affect the altimeter or VSI.

  • Blocked Static Port: A blocked static port isn’t too much of a problem if the aircraft is equipped with an alternate static source (many are). But without alternate air, a blocked static source will cause the airspeed indicator to act as a reverse altimeter, showing an increase in airspeed during a descent and a decrease in airspeed during a climb.

    With a blocked static port, the altimeter will freeze, showing the last altitude recorded before the blockage occurred, and the VSI will indicate ‘0’.

  • Pitot and Static Blockage: If both the pitot tube and static system are blocked, the airspeed indicator will act like an altimeter, showing an increase in airspeed when climbing and a decrease in airspeed while descending.

Gyroscopic System Failure:
There’s a reason the vacuum gage is checked during the engine run-up. It’s because two of the three commonly used gyroscopic instruments run on a vacuum-driven pump, and if these instruments fail, flying can be pretty dangerous.

The gyroscopic instruments typically include the turn coordinator, heading indicator and attitude indicator. The heading indicator and attitude indicator are vacuum-drive most of the time, so a vacuum failure or loss of suction will cause the attitude and heading indicators to ne unreliable.

Many commonly used turn coordinators are electrically driven (done for redundancy and as a backup to the vacuum system), and will fail along with an electrical failure.

A pitot-static or gyroscopic failure can be difficult to diagnose and confirm at first. The trick is to think about a failed instrument on a systemic level by determining which, if any, other instruments are also affected. If your airspeed seems off, check your other instruments. If they are also indicating erroneously, than you can bet there’s a pitot and static failure. If only the airspeed is incorrect you can rest assured the pitot tube alone is the culprit. By cross-checking often and making sure all your instruments agree with each other, you’ll be able to determine which are malfunctioning and take appropriate action. What’s the appropriate action? Covering up the inaccurate instruments and converting to a new insrtument scan that will keep you alive and allow you to land safely.

In any case, the quick and proper diagnosis of an instrument or system failure will turn an emergency into an inconvenience (although you should always declare an emergency when the situation warrants). A good pilot is always prepared, and preparation in this case comes with consistent practice, so be sure to brush up on your partial panel procedures often!

178 Seconds to Live: A Personal Account of Spatial Disorientation


As a flight instructor, I've always considered myself to be a safe pilot. Bad weather? Not flying. Under the weather? We'll cancel.

So when I found myself in a real-life VFR-into-IFR scenario, I actually wondered how it could happen to me. I was able to get my bearings that night, but not all pilots are so lucky.

I'd always heard about this "VFR into IMC" phenomenon and how bad it was, but I was always under the impression that I wouldn't need to worry about it. After all, if a pilot gets a proper preflight weather briefing, why in earth would he or she fly into bad weather?

The day I flew VFR into IMC was a definitely a lesson in weather and personal minimums and hazardous attitudes, but for me, it was also a blunt reality check. I had comfortably flown hundreds of hours in the Cessna 172, I had a lot of night time, cross country time, multi-engine time, IFR time, and apparently just enough instructor time for me to get slightly over-confident.

I was about to take two private pilot students up for a night flight when I realized I wasn't night current. I decided to start up the Cessna 172 and do my three full-stop take offs and landings before the students arrived. I checked AWOS first, and noted that the temperature/dew point spread was close - within three degrees- but a look at the clouds and sky told me it was a beautiful night.

During the first turn in the pattern I noted that the clouds were, indeed, lowering, and that maybe I should pay closer attention to the temperature and dew point. But it was the second take off that provided the reality check I apparently needed.

I turned crosswind, staying at about 800 feet AGL instead of the usual 1000 feet. I could see the ground, the buildings and lights, but was skimming the bottom of the clouds, and at one point went into IMC. Although brief, it was enough to disorient me. In what I suppose was an attempt to stay below the clouds, I had inadvertently commenced a turning descent during the crosswind turn.

I didn't notice until maybe a minute or two later, when I began a turn downwind and heard the sound of increased engine RPM. It sounded as though I'd increased power, but a quick check of the throttle indicated I hadn't. I knew something wasn't right. The engine sounded louder, faster. Thankfully, my brain was quick enough to tell my body that I was in a descent, headed quickly toward a "controlled flight into terrain" scenario that I'd read about in accident reports.

I was able to land safely that night but not every pilot is as lucky as I was.

An FAA publication from 1993 describes a study in which 20 student pilots flew simulators into instrument weather and all of them "went into graveyard spirals or roller-coaster like oscillations." The time until loss of control after entering IMC varied between 20-240 seconds, with the average being 178 seconds.

This harrowing video made by the Civil Aviation Safety Authority (CASA) shows a common scenario in which a pilot might only have 178 seconds to live after flying VFR into IMC. It's a somber reminder for all of us flying around out there:


Source: 178 Seconds to Live: Spatial Disorientation can be a Killer, by Verdon Kleimenhagen, Ron Keones and James Szajkovics of FAA, and Ken Patz of MN/DOT Office of Aeroanutics, FAA Aviation News, January/February 1993.

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